Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Destination Croatia: The Best Lunch in Opatija

If you ever find yourself in the coastal resort town of Opatija on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, you owe it to yourself to visit Tavern Istranka. Admittedly, I only had one meal while passing through Opatija on my way to Slovenia, but I was so confident in the quality of my lunch at Istranka that I challenge anyone to show me some place better. Of course, that means you might have to fly me back out to the Gulf of Kvarner to prove your point.
With only an hour and a half in Opatija and knowing the laid-back serving speed in Croatian restaurants, we didn't have much time to find a place to eat. Luckily, we managed to find Istranka, guided by a snippet from my Lonely Planet guide. The restaurant's homey decor matched its relaxed and hospitable waitstaff. It even rubbed off on the patrons. A local man at a nearby table actually asked if we minded if he smoked, even though we were seated in the outdoor patio.

Located along the Adriatic, the Istria region in Croatia is similar in climate to Northern Italy. As such, it is renowned for its wines, olive oils, seafood, and truffles. We had already sampled several truffle dishes in the region, but my brother and I had to follow our nose to that pungent, earthy scent each time. 

House made fuzi pasta with shaved truffles

From my seat out on the patio, I had a clear line of sight directly through the door to the kitchen. I saw the plate of Istrian fuzi pasta, something of a cross between penne and farfalle in shape, with a light cream sauce. The cook stood over the plate with a truffle in one hand and a grater in the other. He generously layered shavings until he put down the grater, satisfied that he had given up enough of the local bounty. He looked up, our eyes met, and he apologetically resumed grating for several more seconds. I'm not sure what expression I had on my face, but the meaning was universal. While each component--the pasta, the sauce, the truffles--were dominant in their own right, the strength in this dish came in the simplicity of the components. If you ever need a reminder that great ingredients make a great dish, here it is.

Octopus goulash, polenta

Croatian cuisine also has a tradition of game. My eyes were drawn to the venison goulash immediately. Such a flavorful cut of meat in a slow simmered stew, I knew it would be a hit. Unfortunately, there was no venison that day, and the waiter's offering of beef failed to tantalize. Instead, we ordered the octopus goulash based on his second recommendation. Odd, you say? Slow cooked octopus would come out tough and the flavor would be cooked out of it? Those same thoughts ran through our head, but we rolled the dice and had no regrets. Whatever the cook did to the seafood, it came tender and the flavors permeated the stew.

Monkfish in white wine sauce

If you've eaten with me enough, you'll know that I'm a fan of monkfish. To call it the "poor man's lobster" demeans the unique taste and texture of this ugly, ugly fish. This tasty dish had the interesting effect of feeling light, yet also very filling at the same time.

Tripe in tomato sauce

I'm not as huge a fan of tripe as my brother. I prefer my tripe and my intestines in spicy hot pot-type dishes. While this didn't come spicy, the effect was the same. The tripe took on the flavors of the slightly sweet tomato and the other seasonings in the sauce. This was a delightful surprise for me. I didn't think I would be a fan, but I found myself going back to fish for more pieces throughout the meal. We were both disappointed when we came up with an empty fork.

Istranka is not on Marsala Tita, the main street on which most of the hotels are located. Instead, it's just off a small alley. Keep your eyes peeled for a posted sign on Marsala Tita directing you up a slight incline. Given Opatija's typical visitors, there seemed to be plenty of mediocre restaurants catering to those with more money than taste. I highly recommend you take a few extra minutes to find Istranka and sit yourself down to a no-frills meal.

Tavern Istranka
TripAdvisor link since the Istranka website seems to be down
Opatija HR-51410 Croatia
+385 051 271 835


Monday, November 12, 2012

Chow Mein Means Stir-Fried Noodles

This is not chow mein

These days it seems like I only blog when I have something to rant about. If I keep it up, this might just merge with my other blog. But nothing raises my ire about Chinese restaurants as much as serving "chow mein" without noodles.

More... Recovering from a wicked bout of the flu, I was anxiously awaiting my first meal in three days. At some point after the nausea was gone, I was just trying to see how long I could go without eating. Once I finally regained my appetite, I ordered Chinese.

Growing up on the West Coast, ordering "chow mein" meant only the slightest bit of ambiguity. You're either getting the thick, soft noodle, or the crispy, thin noodle. The thin, crispy noodle is also known as Hong Kong style chow mein. Out here on the East Coast, through whatever asinine etymological perversion, apparently chow mein can mean no noodles at all. Instead, what I got was a glob of brown sauce and mixed-in bits and pieces, known in Chinese as 雜碎. Yes, this was chop-suey.

This is not the first time I've seen this monstrosity in Chinese kitchens. And to add insult to injury, I even found this order slip in the take-out bag.

The restaurant had even written on there "large pork fried noodles." Well technically they wrote "large meat fried face" but the Chinese word for face (面) is a homonym for the word noodle (麵) and was probably substituted for kitchen short-hand. Either that, or they realized the sick joke they were playing on the unsuspecting customers.

Having lived in New York for several years now, I've known that East Coast chow mein is actually called "lo mein." I just thought that this restaurant, which billed itself as authentic, wouldn't stand for this sort of linguistic atrocity.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Macarons vs. Macaroons

Macaroon (above left) ≠ macaron (above right)

Normally I am not one to harp on my dining companions pronunciations of foreign foods. I say "bru'sket-ta" when eating at an osteria, but "brushetta" when eating at Applebees. For the most part, pronunciation is just a pretentious aspect of gastronomic culture that aggravates me the same way food fetishism does. However, I do make an exception when it comes to the popular pastries macarons because the mispronunciation or misidentification of these almond flour cookies as macaroons results in a completely different product.

More... I won't go into the rise of the popularity of macarons in this country. Suffice it to say, if someone's talking animatedly about a cookie, she's probably talking about a macaron. I don't think anyone gets excited about macaroons. Macarons are made with almond flour and powdered sugar and usually have a sandwiched filling of ganache or buttercream. Macaroons are more like small cakes or meringue cookies, typically coconut flavored in America.

Macarons are sexy and expensive, partly because of hype, partly because of the difficulty in preparation. Macaroons are what your grandmother buys in bulk at Costco (not to be confused with madeleines, which are sponge cakes). We've just been exposed to macaroons for so long, we're more familiar with them and I would guess that is why many people mistake the two. However, the proper pronunciation of macaron is something like "maka-ron" with a fancy French guttural r. Overexaggerate the pronunciation if you must, but don't feel like you're putting on airs because you don't want to sound too pompous. Otherwise, you might end up with the wrong pastry, a disaster of far greater proportions than the harm to your ego. Besides, you're idolizing a cookie; might as well jump in feet first and go full Francophile.

Photo credits: Jessica and Keven Law via Flickr ^