Živoli means “cheers” in Croatian, and it’s a fitting title after the day I had today. It was bookended with libations, starting with champagne in the morning and a visit to a winery in the afternoon. And let’s not forget about the grappa breaks we took in the middle of cooking. It’s a wonder I made it out of the kitchen and into bed alive.
I set-up this adventure with the help of Alan Manic from Secret Dalmatia. He specializes in gastronomy and tours in the Dalmatia region of Croatia. However, upon asking him for help in locating something in Zagreb, he took on the challenge and provided me with a fantastic chance to cook in an amazing restaurant.
Today was busy. BU-SY. It was an absolute taste test about what it would be like to own a restaurant or work as a chef. I arrived at Restoran Klub Gastronomada at 8:00 a.m. to find Chef Sime and Chef Grger waiting for me upstairs. As we drank said glasses of champagne, they told me a bit more about their restaurant and consulting company. The restaurant only uses organic ingredients, and everything is shopped for daily (we would do this later on at the nearby market). They make their food to order (including the risottos), and only serve Croatian wines in-house. The restaurant space is quite small, but they also have three banquet rooms where they can seat more people and hold special events. And on the wall of the dining room was a place for artists to display their work, which they change periodically. It was warm, imaginative and inviting, and I was happy I’d be having my lunch in such a classy place.
So, what did we have for lunch? Well, we started by making the dough for our bread so it could proof while we visited the market. It was really simple, and Chef Sime was happy I’d taken a pasta making class because the kneading techniques were exactly the same and I didn’t even need to be supervised. Homemade bread dough was completed in 10 minutes or less. Bread aside, we headed to the market where we picked-up seven types of fish for our soup (I dubbed the soup “The Seven Seas”), produce, paprika cheese, veal, and a few other things. Chef Sime seemed to know everyone there, presumably because they visit the market everyday, and as he was explaining things to me, the purveyors would hand over a sample for each of us to try. I had some amazing corn bread, a delicious piece of sausage, and a piece crispy bacon fat that’s used for flavor in recipes.
We carted our loot back to the kitchen, checked our dough and got our bread into the oven, and then went straight to work on the fish soup. He showed me how to properly clean the fish, and I took over de-scaling them and ripping out their innards with my bare hands. It was fun! As I worked on that, he created the base for the soup with a mirepoix of sorts, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, orange peel, bay leaves, and a bit of Croatian olive oil. From there, we added in the fish (heads and all), a bit of white wine, and covered it with vegetable stock to simmer away in the background.
In the foreground, we grated the paprika cheese and coated it with flour, beat up some eggs, and trimmed the veal into chops. These would later be breaded and cooked. We trimmed up the amazing Croatian greens we purchased, and put those into a giant pan with a bit of garlic and olive oil, and then sprinkled them with nutmeg. They cooked down like spinach, and made a bed for our veal chops and a neighbor for our boiled red potatoes.
We started lunch by sampling four Croatian olive oils with our homemade bread. We were both really proud of what came out of the oven, and everyone agreed that it was fantastic with the olive oils! Alan and his friend Igor joined us for lunch in the main dining room, and our menu was magnificent. It was so simple and relaxed with reflections of the Mediterranean, and there’s no arguing that what we made was healthy. We had a different wine with each course that was expertly paired, including a port-like wine and an aperatif at the end.
For dessert, we enjoyed a pie made from olives. I’m sure this sounds bizarre, but if you have the chance, take a page from the writers at The Boston Globe and visit Klub Gastronomada for the opportunity to taste it. Sweet and savory collided in this dessert in a way that I plan to replicate when I get home. I’m hoping if I beg and plead, they will give me the recipe. It was THAT good.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we finished up lunch and drinks, and Chef Sime, Alan and I headed to Korak Winery in Samobor, about 20 minutes outside the city center. High up on a breezy hill, we sat with the winemaker in the most charming little tasting room. The fireplace blazed on in the corner as we made our way through about five bottles of wine, and sampled his wife’s homemade cornbread and cheese. We chatted about food, blogging, cookbooks, and we each gave our opinions about what we tasted in each wine. I think my palette is improving because I was tasting all sorts of notes that were evidently spot-on (or maybe they were just saying that).
I learned an incredible amount about Croatian food and wine over the course of the day thanks to Alan, Chef Sime, and Chef Grger. Croatia is a place I will no doubt be back to, possibly even on this trip. I wasn’t able to make it to Dalmatia or Istria in the south, and according to all of them, they are must-see parts of this relatively small country. Hospitality seems to be a way of life here, and the people…well…the people are the most welcoming of hosts.
Restoran Klub Gastronomoda
Next Stop: Budapest