I’m going to be honest and say that writing this week’s column has been hard. Fresh off the back of ten days hiding from all responsibilities in Croatia, it’s hard to think of any food I’ve eaten beyond endless plates of grilled whole fish, its flesh blackened and salty, the whole thing ferally consumed with your hands, pulling bones free and gnawing at every last morsel.
Croatian food is an interesting one – it doesn’t get the international renown of its neighbours, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy of attention. Almost every restaurant produces its own olive oil (and sometimes even its own wine), the seafood is fresh, the meat impressive and the intricacies of regional dishes mean no one meal is ever the same, although I could happily (and very nearly did) eat plate after plate of fish accompanied by blitva – potatoes and chard (or spinach, or zucchini, really whatever green vegetable is in season), slowly cooked down with liberal amounts of olive oil and salt.
This lack of international attention means Croatian food has developed in its own way and at its own pace. Navigating off the well-beaten tracks to quieter areas means dining is usually limited to konobas – the Croatian version of a taverna – often attached to someone’s house, and almost definitely family-owned and operated. From island to island and throughout the country these dining microclimates prevail, varying depending on personal tastes – for example, Dionis on the Pakleni islands brings out a towering plate of zucchini fritters with every dish, and serves up enormous slices of aubergine pie – not dissimilar to an Italian parmigiana. In Hvar, especially in smaller towns, you’ll find capacious pots of Gregada, a seafood stew packed with white fish fillets, thinly sliced potatoes and white wine. In Istria – the region that borders Italy – you’re likely to find heavier dishes that take a larger influence from their neighbour with a focus on meat and pasta, usually packed with the area’s infamous truffles.
Anyway, if I can peel my mind away from Zavala’s quiet beaches and endless bottles of Pošip, there were some pretty incredible meals in the lead up to my fleeing London. One notably impressive outing was to Tacos Padre, checking out their new summer terrace. Visiting without a jacket on one of the many days when London decided to be more wintery than springlike was perhaps not the smartest idea, but the food and many margaritas did a good job of distracting me from the cold.
Dinky little shots of clamato were like if a gazpacho and a chowder had a teeny tiny baby – they were a ripper of a way to kick off the meal. The guacamole was one of the best I’ve had in ages, garnished with a drizzle of chilli oil. Iberico pork al pastor was a highlight – juicy strips of flame-grilled pork enlivened by the sweet acidity of blackened pineapple and a subtle habanero kick, and the gilt head bream with shisho ceviche is going to become the thing I crave on those impenetrably hot summer days in London when warm food is completely out of the question. Also no matter how hardy of a Londoner you are, I really don’t think the novelty of eating in Borough Market can ever quite be beaten.
There was a very well-lubricated dinner at Rita’s in Soho, where the mini martinis should not be underestimated – size, as it turns out, doesn’t always matter. It’s almost criminal not to pair your tipple with one of the restaurant’s infamous gildas to properly kick start your appetite. The genius pairing of meaty anchovies, punchy jalapeño and blue cheese stuffed olive is an umami bomb in the best of ways. The buffalo chicken wings, meanwhile, hit the perfect tangy/spicy note, and were an absolute nightmare for one of my dining partners in their white dress. Prepare to get messy with these, and bring your own side of vanish spray if you’re wearing anything other than black – it’s worth the laundry time, though. I think my favourite dish was a toss up between the salt fish taquitos – all things crunchy, spicy and delicious – and the chicken parmigiana – I could quite literally drink the accompanying tomato sauce.
View on Instagram
My arrival back to England was thoroughly cushioned by two things. Firstly the weather, with the sun making a rare appearance, and secondly a special dinner at KOL in partnership with Slobodné wines. Santiago Lastra and his team served up an impressive, one-off menu paired with the Slovakian winemaker’s cuvées in celebration of the duo’s partnership. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Lastra’s cooking, he serves up Michelin-starred Mexican food through a British produce and ingredient-forward lens.
This means there is no avocado to be seen, rather, pistachio mole in place of the much-loved dip, and working with British cheese producers to make iterations of famed Mexican cheeses. This could be seen in the second course – tlayuda, smothered in queso fresco and topped with garlic flowers and wagyu beef. A taco of lobster and beans with a vibrant coral salsa was perhaps one of the best I’ve ever had – a title quickly gazumped by the final dish of slow cooked beef tongue paired with lightly charred asparagus and broad beans, an asparagus macha and scotch bonnet sauce. Christ alive, it was a true testament to the power of perfectly balanced textures.
This was all quickly outshone by dessert. It may be a wanky observation, but it’s actually not all that often that I’m truly blown away by a dish in this job. I eat a lot of amazing food, but for something to come along that just feels so incredibly inventive is not as common. It’s safe to say Lastra’s almost unbelievable bone marrow and potato skin ice cream, served sandwiched into the bone and topped with sourdough crisp and mezcal strawberries was something I’ve never seen before, let alone imagined I ever would. The ice cream itself had a kind of malty tone to it, the richness wonderfully cut through by the vaguely boozy tartness of the strawberries. Phew. Lastra mentioned he wasn’t sure if this dessert will ever make it onto the proper menu, but I truly hope it does. It’s a dish worth returning for all on its own.