Zagreb is the perfect destination for specialty coffee lovers, hipsters, natural wine drinkers and those who discover new destinations for foodie. It is one step away from Italy, along the road that leads to the coasts of Dalmatia and although many end up taking the car and driving straight to the islands and the crystal clear sea, Zagreb is worth a visit. It is a young city, a capital where you can feel the splendor and weight of the twentieth century as much as the desire for rebirth and a love of country that translates (also) into a civic conscience that is all a whiz of bicycles, races in Uber pop promotion of local culinary excellence.
The kitchen has always been a fertile ground on which to build the identity of a nation and after decades in which state productions had erased every form of quality and diversity, from the 1990s the countries of the former Soviet bloc have become a priceless mine of lost traditions. Here for more than a generation wine was white or red, apples of one type and everything was centralized and standardized. From the fall of the wall and independence in 1991 we rolled up our sleeves to reconstruct the past and with it resume the threads of a speech interrupted for fifty years. Today Croatia produces natural wines exported all over the world and for the first time in its history many young chefs who decided to return home instead of emigrating in search of fortune make Croatia great again.
Dolac market, the beating heart of Zagreb
The central market is open every day of the week from morning to early afternoon and is an inevitable destination to smell the charm of the Balkan component of Zagreb. The Dolac square is filled with fruit and vegetable stalls that alternate between giant tomatoes and lemons from the Adriatic coast and turnips and cabbage from the Mittle-European cuisine. You can buy necklaces of dried figs, toasted pumpkin seeds as a snack (and really good oil), tasty strawberries and tons of green peppers and potatoes. It is not difficult to find wild herbs and wild vegetables, hand-picked and sold for a few kunas. Below the square is the covered market with meat stalls, smoked meats and a whole area dedicated to kumice, the ladies selling cheese.
Milk, butter, buttermilk, cow and goat cheeses are the basis of nutrition and are taken very seriously. At the market there are the artisan ones, made in the day or smoked up to become scamorza species. Here you also buy corn bread to spread with abundant doses of kajmak, halfway between mascarpone and cheese (the slightly seasoned one is a delight).
The Amfora bistro: in search of lost time
Overlooking the market square, for lunch the most mythical place to stop is Amfora. Don't look for a local who serves Georgian-style natural wines, but a trattoria under porches with checkered plastic tablecloths. You queue up and order from the short menu: fried fish, grilled fish and some side dishes. In winter it is heated with potato soup and stockfish.
It's a classic, you can find old people in company, tourists with Loney Planet in their hands and families. To drink? As tradition dictates: the gemist. We call it spritz, but the custom of drinking sparkling water and white wine they swear was born here. It is the national drink especially on hot summer days.
Street food: burek, ćevapčići and burger
The recipe for burek is Bosnian, so you can find it around but don't actually consider it a national recipe. It is puff pastry rolled like a girella and filled with cheese with a sour taste or minced pork. The best ovens cook it continuously throughout the day and serve it in sliced plastic plates. Before cutting it, it has a wonderfully geometric shape, then the one that arrives in the plate looks wrecked. But it is perfect as a mid-morning snack or as a snack. Just below the Dolac market terrace (Dolca 9) is what on Google is Borek Catering business: there is a line of old elderly gentlemen, the real guarantee of quality.
Right next to it, from Plac Kitchen and grill they serve ćevapčići. While the world has been colonized by kebabs here the generous portions of these minced beef balls, elongated and spicy, survive. It is eaten in a pita with raw onion accompaniment. Young people, however, prefer hamburgers, which have caught on a bit like all over the world, but here they have really found a particularly fertile soil and they are very popular in a gourmet version. At Mason Burger & Stuff are great, so much so that it won the Best Burger 2018 award.
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The supremacy of the pig
A Croatian saying goes: the best fish is pork (and yes, they eat a lot of it). In the market stalls, the pig is sold raw, but above all smoked, in the form of salami, speck, bacon and whole parts, which are sliced and used to flavor stews or sauerkraut. But meat is nothing special, unless you come in from Meat King, a butcher specialized in Slavonian black pork. The Slavonian black pig breed was invented in the nineteenth century and today it grazes happily in the woods eating grass, roots and acorns. It is the most prized local pork, grown in the wild for at least two years before being slaughtered. Pork wagyu defines it for its fat quality: delicious as well as very healthy. In short, Meat King is perfect for tasting and stocking up salami, speck and bacon (strictly smoked); it also sells powerful grilled pork chops, in case you decide to cook.
Have a beer (craft)
The phenomenon of craft beer has also exploded in Italy and therefore we can understand it. In recent years, dozens of micro-breweries have emerged that make high quality unpasteurized products in Zagreb and the surrounding area. For a couple of years they have been gathering along the Brewery Lane of the R’N’B Weekend festival in Zagreb in May and are a real find. Among the most interesting are the products of the Varionica, Pulfer, Primarius breweries. If you are looking for a place to go out at night, here are some tips. Beautiful post-industrial location and excellent beer at The Garden Brewery; at Positive Brewery in addition to production there is also a stage where they organize live shows; the Medvedgrad brewery has two rooms in the city and has the history of the "Croatian Baladin" and it is often found in other places in the bottle. If you are looking for something more classic, at the Mlinarica Pub the location is super traditional, with local cuisine and large jugs.
Coffee, but special
In Italy the coffee scene is still in its infancy, while in many countries in the rest of Europe it is in full swing. This means that, as with craft beers, there is a revival movement of artisan roasting, of selected coffee at the origin, of baristas who are trained to become the best. The result is that in Zagreb we drink a better coffee than in Italy, made with La Marzocco espresso machines and special blends. A case is that of Cogito Coffee, departing from Zagreb and in a few years landed as far as Dubai and Philadelphia. From In the yard U Dvorištu (their head quarter) plunges into a courtyard that has the charm of East Berlin twenty years ago. Coffee is great but bring your croissant, because they don't make it here: where? At the brand new The Bread Club.
The new wave of natural wines
Croats in terms of natural wines are star players, and have so much to teach us. Having returned to labeling and producing quality wine since 1991, they did so with a different mentality and literally opposed to that of the maxi productions of the Soviet period. In the surroundings of Zagreb, the Plešivica wine region is flourishing again after years of neglect and family cellars produce wines that are worth a visit.
Korak is a family of precursors, the first in the area to stick their own label in 1991. Today they produce Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and in 2008 they were awarded as the best producers of the State. To offer a complete experience to their guests, they are inaugurating a gourmet restaurant. To cook a family member, the young chef Bernard Korak, former sous chef of Hiša Franko, alongside Ana Ros and now finally back home. A few hundred meters away, the bubbles specialists, the Tomac family. They began to make classic method sparkling wine when they thought it was an absurdity, and to prove that nothing is impossible they were also the first in 2006 to do classic method in amphora.
In Croatia we eat well and drink even better. It's great and Ubers cost a few kuna. It's the perfect place for a vacation, except for the senseless musical popularity of the Serbian turbo folk. Inaudible.
The arrival of Michelin
The Croatian cuisine is waking up, it is quite evident walking around the city and even the Michelin guide has noticed. We are already at the third edition of the guide (digital only), but for the first year in 2019 the announcement of the new stars was accompanied by a gala evening. There are 63 recommended restaurants and 5 Michelin stars to date, and it is only the beginning. The Noel restaurant in Zagreb that offers modern European cuisine has won the award. After years in Germany, chef Goran Kočiš returned home and applied techniques, flavors and philosophy to national raw materials. The kitchen is strictly international, but it is the return of the chef that marks a consolidated trend. If before the chefs ran away from here in search of fortune, they now return home, and do so to open their own restaurant.
The story unites Hrvoje Kroflin of the Mano2 restaurant which, after having been with Amass in Copenhagen and Aga in Belluno, today cooks in this trendy place on the outskirts of the city. Refined raw material, recovery of old traditions, fermentations, marinades, dishes that seek the combination of flavors.
International experiences also for the young people at the Bistro of the Broken Relationships Museum, a unique and very interesting collection of broken reports, which today is also accompanied by the proposal of a gourmet bistro with excellent cuisine and more than honest prices. The perfect address to understand what is happening in contemporary Croatian cuisine, without having to submit to the logic of the tasting menu and excessive receipts.
The chef Tvrtko Šakota is no longer a kid, but his restaurant named NAV serves up to twenty seats with a 7 or 10-course tasting menu. Needless to ask what comes out of the kitchen, it depends on what was delivered by the nearby biodynamic suppliers. The restaurant is right in the center, but nothing arrogant or luxurious, but a lovely little house in an inner courtyard that is very "old Zagreb".
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