Following our afternoon in Trieste, we headed down to Croatia, where we stayed in Draga, a suburb of Rijeka. Our plan was to tour the Istrian peninsula on Monday and to go to Lake Bled in Slovenia on Tuesday. Arriving in the early evening after a long day of driving, we settled into our apartment at “Studio Apartments Fancy”, which was not exactly fancy, but very comfortable and charming in a quirky sort of way. The owner, Keli, was very welcoming and helpful with advice on restaurants, directions, etc. We had made a wrong turn on the way and he was nice enough to drive to where we were and lead us to his place. The apartment, set on a hilltop, has a patio with tables and umbrellas and a view down to the sea. It is very spacious, with a kitchen and a large bathroom.
We didn’t want to travel far for dinner, so Keli recommended Konoba Brig, just down the road. It was a very simple place with a pleasant outdoor terrace. The food was tasty enough but not out of the ordinary. Prices were very low. We started with a charcuterie and cheese plate, generous but not of top quality, for main courses Stanley had pork chops with potatoes, and I had pork medallions with a cream sauce with sage and prosciutto, which came with grilled mushrooms and vegetables. That was very tasty. We also had a liter of the house red wine. The bill came to about $40.
A note about currency in Croatia:
The Kuna is worth about 16 cents. To make prices easier to understand, I am stating them in dollars here.
This was our day to tour the Istrian peninsula. There is much to see here, so we could not possibly cover everything in one day, so we concentrated on Rovinj, with plans to stop in Groznjan and Buzet on the way back to Draga.
Rovinj is a picture-perfect seaside town, with a medieval core. After driving around trying to find the reasonably priced and well-regarded restaurant I had picked out, but could not locate due to one-way roads, we parked in the main lot and strolled into the old town.
The first restaurant we encountered was Puntulina, which I had been aware of but eliminated due to its being quite expensive.
Seafood is costly in Croatia, apparently because no one is fishing here despite being on the sea, unlike Italy where fishing is still an important industry. In restaurants, meat dishes are typically half that of fish. Wine, even though it is produced here and is cheap in stores, has a ridiculously high markup in restaurants, with no explanation other than they do it because they can.
We took a look at the menu and indeed, main courses were around $30, appetizers around $16, so we decided to walk on, but seeing that it was already filling up and not knowing if we would find anything good for less, we turned around and got a table while there was still one available. It was absolutely beautiful sitting on the multilevel terrace with a stunning view of sea and mountains.
The food was just as stunning. We shared a starter of local squid “Rovinj style”, tender and delicious, then an order of ravioli with black truffles. My main course was grilled sea bass filets with a green herb sauce, on top of soft polenta mixed with cherry tomatoes, while Stanley had a different fish filet with nuts. We also shared some excellent grilled vegetables. For the wine, we picked a local rose, about $35. With water and coffee, the total was about $150.
After lunch we strolled around the harbor and old town, then drove North toward Groznjan, but unfortunately it was not on our map and there were no signs for it, despite the fact that I knew approximately where it was and we must have passed within a few kilometers of it as we continued on to Buzet.
We were surprised to find that Buzet, a well-preserved medieval hill town with a recently restored church, had no people in evidence and no stores, restaurants or other businesses. Curious.
Back in Draga, we got ready for dinner, for which we went to Bevanda, a famous restaurant in Opatija, another seaside town in Istria.
This was our big splurge meal, as our Croatian friend had told us we should absolutely not miss it despite the cost. Stanley was tempted by the roast lamb, which was half the price of fish, but I insisted we have fish as that is what the restaurant specializes in.
We started with pasta, for him the seafood agnolotti with black truffle, for me the squid ink gnocchi with shellfish in a tomato saffron cream sauce. Both were superb. We then had a whole grilled fish, arbun, for which there is no equivalent English name. It was excellent (certainly should be for $115 for 2 people!). We had a side of Swiss chard with potatoes, a local specialty. Dessert was forgettable, a millefoglie of biscuits layered with whipped cream and (supposedly wild) berries. We had a really good, full-bodied Malvasia ($35), so with water the total was around $220. We would probably spend around that for a similar meal in New York, but as we find restaurants in Europe generally cheaper, it seemed a bit excessive. Service was less attentive than it should have been in a top level restaurant. It was not busy at all, yet our server kept disappearing or attending to other things and not noticing that our wine glasses were empty (she had placed the ice bucket away from the table) or that it was 20 minutes after we ordered dessert before we finally caught her attention or we might have sat there all night waiting for it. Regardless, I would recommend this place for a special dinner.
We did a day trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia, which was about a 2 ½ hour drive from Draga. The lake is beautiful and the drive up is scenic. Slovenia is very green and mountainous.
We had planned on lunch at Restaurant 1906, a fine dining but not expensive place on a hill overlooking the lake. I had emailed in the morning requesting a reservation, not even sure we would need one in the off-season on a weekday, but it turned out they were fully booked. We could see from the long tables that they were expecting a tour group. The hostess recommended a couple of other places, one of which (probably the better one) has no parking so would require a 15 minute walk from the nearest parking place, so went to the other one, Ostarija Peglez’n, a cute but simple place facing the lake.
The waiter was genial and the food was decent enough, if nothing to write home about. We both began with fish soup, which was pretty good. Stanley had pork Wiener schnitzel with French fries (not home made) and I had trout (not local as I might have hoped) with the typical chard and potato mixture. A liter of house red wine (bottles were expensive). With 2 coffees, we spent about 65 euros, which is what we typically spent in Italy for much higher quality. Why is Slovenia so expensive?
For dinner on our final night in Draga, we drove the short distance into Rijeka, arriving early enough to stroll around and check out several restaurants I had in mind. Rijeka, as I had been warned by our Croatian friend, is a rather grim port city. They’ve created a pedestrian zone on the Korzo, the main street, but even the café tables and umbrellas set up along the center of it don’t add much charm. The combination of poorly maintained 19th century buildings, and hideous modern ones from the Communist era, along with very downscale stores, does not make this a very inviting place. The first restaurant we looked at, Konoba Feral, was recommended by Keli, and may have been very good, but their credit card system was not working and we didn’t want to bother with cash. We continued to Volta, which had gotten great user reviews as recently as a month ago, but it was closed (by its appearance permanently but I can’t be sure). The last one was Konoba Nebuloza, again a recommendation from our Croatian friend and of her friends who live in Rijeka. It was a gem.
We were tempted by a number of dishes, and the choice became more difficult as we saw wonderful looking plates of food going to the tables around us. The tuna steak looked great, but I decided to stick with my original choice of duck breast, and Stanley chose duck confit, but first, we shared cuttlefish on grilled polenta, and then Istrian pasta, homemade pasta tubes with sausage and bacon in a tomato sauce. A liter of house red was good, and reasonably priced, as everything here was. The confit was succulent and served on a bed of potato puree with a polenta cake and small sides of beets, leeks and preserved lemon. My duck breast, cooked to a perfect medium rare, was on a balsamic vinegar reduction, and accompanied by mashed sweet potatoes and an arugula and mango salad. For dessert, a chocolate ganache made for a perfect ending. The creative cooking, attentive service and nice atmosphere make this place special. The bill came to just under $90.
All in all, we had a very nice time in Croatia, and would consider returning and seeing more of the country. The next morning we were off to Venice. See my next post for that part of the trip.