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