Thursday Column - Croatia Lifestyle 5: Eating Out
Dalmatia and Istria are very similar as far as food and restaurants are concerned. Dalmatia is the area we know best, and where most of our readers are based, but before we go there, a short word about inland Croatia.
Perhaps as a result of the colder climate, or the influence of Hungary, the food in inland Croatia is generally heartier with more sauces. Goulash is popular, paprika is a common addition, and pasta and pastries are more widespread. On the menu you’ll find a lot more stews and spicy dishes than you will along the coastline. In Zagreb, the capital, you’ll find a reasonably cosmopolitan mixture, including the odd Chinese or Indian restaurant, which are unseen elsewhere.
Dalmatia (and generally Istria)
The food in Dalmatian restaurants is good but plain. Most things are grilled or fried and it’s rare to find a menu with many sauces included with the dishes. Steak with mushroom or pepper sauce is probably the most common and we have found a back street restaurant in Split which bucks the trend, but mostly it’s plain steak, pork, chicken, or fish with chips, vegetables or salad. Veal normally comes with a few choices – battered, with cheese and ham, or plain – and you’ll often get a spoonful of the bottled red pepper sauce to have with your steak but don’t expect much else. The one exception to this is Pašticada which is slow cooked beef stew, available in the bigger restaurants and often served at weddings.
There are of course, a number of different types of eateries and we tend to frequent the mid range ones so you may find that in the posher restaurants (“restoran”), normally attached to hotels or in big towns, sauces are more widely available. Certainly, in our konobas and gastionica, it’s plain meat and fish. As well as the traditional offers, Croatia has embraced pizzas and pasta and, I suspect, does them more justice than the Italian neighbours who came up with the idea.
Fish is really the Dalmatian speciality, not so much for the way it’s cooked but for its abundance, variety and, usually, freshness. It’s sold by the kilo, which can give you a shock when you first look at the prices, but half a kilo gives you a very big fish, probably enough for two, which will cost you between £12 and £15 pounds. Average size normally comes in at about £8. On the menu you will usually see Class I and Class II fish and we’ve heard differing explanations for this. In some restaurants we’re told that Class I means that its fresh local fish, caught on the day, and Class II is frozen or bought from a market or supermarket. In others we’ve been told that it’s the type and size of the fish that determines the class. Clearly you’ll be encouraged to buy Class I and I suspect the truth is a mixture of both stories and, cynically, may change according to what is available.
Steak is normally good (Beefsteak is the best) but very different from English steak – much younger meat and served in thick lumps with next to no fat - and pork steaks are normally good value for money.
As for vegetables, “Blitva” is a favourite and normally served with boiled potatoes. It apparently translates as mangold or swiss chard and is similar to, but better than, spinach. The quality of salads varies a lot and dressings are normally very simple. You often have to make your own and usually have to ask if you want to use olive oil rather than a cheaper variety. Dalmatia is not a place for vegetarians. We haven’t spotted a vegetarian restaurant yet and a lot of the vegetable dishes and soups are made with meat stock. A Pizza restaurant is possibly the best bet
If you like starters, the choice is mostly fish – risottos, mussels, scampi (but not battered!) squid, etc – but you may find mushrooms and there’s often a soup of the day which is normally very good. As for deserts, it’s anything as long as you like pancakes or ice cream!
As for liquid refreshment, Croatian drinking water is normally very good almost everywhere so don’t be persuaded to buy bottled water unless you want to. We finally discovered a fool proof way of asking for it, having been through a variety of permutations – “voda iz spina”, literally water from the tap. House wine varies in quality but at around £5 a litre you can’t be too choosy. If you are, then there are some quality local bottled wines around. You’ll probably get a glass of local herb brandy either before or after your meal and there are plenty of other aperitifs and liqueurs to sample.
So what will it cost? A main course, wine and a coffee in a konoba on the mainland is normally about £10, or less, per head in most places. If you have fish you may pay a little more. A large Pizza is around £3.50. On the islands, everything is a bit more expensive but not extortionately so. This is partly because of added transport costs and also because it’s a short season and a case of making hay while the sun shines. Exceptionally, in Hvar town on Hvar Island we found the prices to be about 50% higher than the mainland. No doubt an “it factor” surcharge!
As for etiquette, 10 % is a normal tip and whilst not exactly expected, is treated as a courtesy. Coffee is sometimes a problem as there is a tendency to turn the machines off at around 11 and generally you won’t find many restaurants staying open late at night. Booking works quite well in some restaurants but not in others. Outside the high season there’s normally plenty of space but in July and August, especially where there are large open terraces, prepare yourself for a bit of a free for all in popular spots.
Bon Apetit or Dobar tek as the Croatians say!