“Leave the coast, and wonderful things start to happen”. A common statement that we heard from many locals, and got to experience all over the Croatia. Not terribly surprising once you realize that much of Croatia’s tourism is tied to its coasts and islands. We are way passed “broken record” territory here in EWZ with this kind of preaching that is so true all over the world. One of the first things I tell new visitors in NYC: Want to eat well? Head to residential neighborhoods. Preferably not the wealthy ones.
Such is the case with Stancija Kovačići, a 10 minute drive from the resort town of Opatija. The curvy drive up the hilly neighborhood, through narrow streets feels slightly longer. Especially when Google Maps makes you turn into someone’s bedroom. But you feel it in your bones as soon as you park the car. You reached that perfect resting spot that makes any long drive (Plitvice to Rovinj in our case) fairly easy. Its interesting how our travel philosophies change as we get older. When I was younger the whole concept of a leisurely 2-3 hour lunch on vacation sounded torturous. These days I seek them every chance I get.
If rural Slow Fooders like this should be cherished, waiters like Hinko need to be UNESCOED. This kind of easy going professionalism and adaptability in a modern setting (that terrace!) is a rarity. It quickly turned into an “eating at your uncle’s house” scenario. Except that your uncle wears a big apron and you are in a house with a Michelin caliber kitchen. While here in NYC Michelin stars are distributed like candy (my mom has one), Croatia comically has just one, in Rovinj. I didn’t mind this so much for selfish reasons, but you get the sense that more are deserving.
Both Hinko and chef/owner Vinko Frlan (not be confused with the law firm “Hinko, Vinko, and Stevens”) hail from the famed Kukuriku located nearby in Kastav. As in Italy, a name like Kukuriku is perfectly acceptable in this part of the world. In Stancija, as in much of the Slow Food type we visited in Croatia, menus are there just for emergencies. You start with a small conversation with your waiter, decide on the items, number of courses, approximate price, and its party time. I loved that about Croatia
We started with one of those carpaccio orgies. Thin strips of Seabass with just the right amount of their fine EVOO and Garlic Scapes (stalks or shoots that grow here for 15 days of the year). Beef carpaccio came loaded with the same scapes and chanterelle like yellow mushrooms they call here Lisicarka. The Grissini in both dishes was a nice touch and a reminder that we are getting close to mother Italia.
Then came the superbly chewy, squid ink coated Istrian Pasta pljukanci, with shrimp and the last asparagus of the season. Croatians love their bitter wild asparagus and I see why. A hearty, tender lamb ragu doing its best short rib imitation was served with herby polenta. Croatia broke my all time record of talking, thinking, sometimes even inappropriately about Asparagus. My previous record was 3 seconds. Hinko even surprised us with an outstanding Asparagus and nettle soup with prosciutto crisps.
A nicely marbled lamb chop before a very proper dessert course ended this doozy of a meal. We’ve had a number of great meals during this two week sprint, but this one topped them all.