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2 Cult Istrian restaurants that make you insanely hungry!

Food feeds the media. We follow and like people’s breakfasts, lunches, dinners, culinary attempts and/or skills. In fact, we all post food on social media - me included. In this vast social media culinary zoo you can find pretty much any info you might need, restaurant reviews included. However, believe it or not, there are still restaurants that almost don’t exist in cyberspace; restaurants that don’t pop up everytime you open your FB or Insta; restaurants that don’t care about the number of virtual likes. This is the story of two such restaurants.

Location: Istria, Croatia

Istria is one of the best-branded tourist regions in Croatia, with gastronomy being the most recognizable part of its identity. The awareness of Istrian wine and cuisine is at such level in Croatia and the region that anyone with the slightest interest in food and wine is able to name a few Istrian delicacies, from the top of their head: Malvazija and Teran (wines), truffles, prosciutto, sausages, boškarin (cattle), fuži (pasta), seafood,… Moreover, I’m quite sure most of our readers from Croatia have tried them in some Istrian oštarija (tavern) or restaurant. However, there are some special places.

Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

Restaurant No.1: Toklarija, Sovinjsko polje

Toklarija is located in Sovinjsko polje, a beautiful village in the heart of Istria, not far from Motovun on one side and Buzet on the other. The restaurant is located in the lower part of a family house which used to be an olive oil mill, as it can be seen by the enormous stone mill at the entrance. They also have a terrace in their backyard, placed underneath the trees that make a beautiful natural shade.

Toklarija Backyard - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Toklarija Backyard - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

As you step into this small piece of heaven, it is clear that it is not an ordinary Istrian restaurant. At the entrance, you are welcomed by Nevio, who together with his wife Marinela stands behind this wonderful story. He is definitely seen as a local eccentric and free spirit, and back in the day his first question would be before you even properly step into Toklarija: Do you have enough time (for his culinary creations)? Yes – was the only right answer, otherwise, you would be immediately sent through the door without further discussion. Nowadays he has softened a bit, but I still recommend you make a reservation in advance.

Mushroom Pasta - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Mushroom Pasta - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

Once you’re in, the magic starts! Whether it is summer and you are seated at one of the few tables in their garden, while rays of sunlight caress you through the trees, or it is winter time and you are seated in a small room next to the fireplace and a window - the atmosphere is like in Fellini's movie. It is utterly unreal! In the past, Toklarija had no regular menu and no wine list, but instead, you were served their daily choice of food and wine.

Nevio and Marinela prepare genuine Istrian continental cuisine (lots of vegetables and meat produce - no fish), using only food items they supply from local producers within a few kilometers reach. Honouring the zero kilometers philosophy is their lifelong principle (years before it became a culinary trend).

As for the wine, they have already chosen which Istrian wines pair best with their cuisine so you do not have to worry about that either - the list is very concise. My suggestion is to go for the entire tasting menu as it will best depict the essence of Istrian inland terroir. The first course begins with a plate that locates you geographically in the environment you are in. Local fresh cheese skuta (Istrian ricotta) or some mature cheese is combined with warm figs sautéed on butter, pickled zucchini and dandelion buds (similar to capers, but more delicate) in summer; or in winter paired with a selection of Istrian cured meat - ombolo or špaleta (cured pig’s fore shank) with home pickled forest mushrooms and salad from their garden.

First course in summer at Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
First course in summer at Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
First course in winter at Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
First course in winter at Toklarija - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

The second course is usually a soup (consommé with asparagus or mushrooms) or a typical Istrian maneštra (creamy broth with various beans) – both of which are food for the soul. Then there is pasta. But what a pasta! Always freshly prepared, hand-made, perfectly cooked, and trust me, one of the best you will eat in your life. These can be noodles with white/black truffles (depending on the season) or forest mushrooms, tortelloni filled with prosciutto, or sometimes even gnocchi with Istrian sausages (ask if they prepared black trumpet gnocchi).

Tortelloni with prosciutto - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Tortelloni with prosciutto - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

By this point, you have completely lost any contact with the real world. The big finale comes in a form of a slowly baked young pork or goat kid (and by slowly I mean 6-12 hours, depending on the weight) - meat that simply melts in your mouth. And just when you think there’s no way you could eat a dessert, here comes a chocolate cake with olive oil and violets or freshly grated truffles, a selection of homemade jams, apricot dumplings, warm skuta glazed with honey, chocolate soufflé with zabaione (sabayon),... No one ever said no to that.

Slowly baked goat kid - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Slowly baked goat kid - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Chocolate cake with truffles - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Chocolate cake with truffles - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

Toklarija is certainly one of the most beautiful Istrian gastronomic experiences. No matter where you’re located, it is worth the drive. Give yourself enough time and enjoy every bite. Let this feast last for hours. And slowly with their bread, believe me - I know what I’m talking about.

Restaurant No. 2: Damir & Ornella, Novigrad

From inland of Istria via the valley of river Mirna, we go straight to the coast, in the very center of Novigrad, to present you with one of the most specific gastronomic adventures Istria has to offer. Family owned restaurant Damir & Ornella is the place for seafood lovers. Simple and unpretentious in its interior, D&O puts focus on freshly caught seafood – fish, langoustines, shellfish, calamari, crabs, and lobsters.

Fresh materia prima is the prerequisite for a successful seafood restaurant, goes without saying, but here even more so because most of it is served raw (or just slightly cooked/grilled). The restaurant has up to ten tables (depending on the seating), ensuring the personal approach to each and every guest.

Damir filleting the fish - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Damir filleting the fish - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Damir & Ornella Restaurant - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Damir & Ornella Restaurant - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

Oddly enough, they don’t have a terrace. This is one of the reasons why you need to book your table in advance. The second reason is limited availability of fresh fish.

From the entrance to the restaurant, it is already clear you are entering a small temple of gastronomy. The atmosphere is surprisingly quiet although the restaurant is almost always full. Guests are totally focused on what is happening at their table and the table setting that surrounds them.

Damir & Ornella serve wine from the highly appreciated Zalto glasses, which are specific because of their weight (or lack of it, to be precise). Once you spin the glass, you can literally feel the wine swirling around it. Food is served in famous Hering (Berlin manufacturer) plates. If you’re a gastronomic connoisseur, you know what I’m talking about. A lot of attention is put into every detail – from food ingredients and wine to table setting and presentation.

Restaurant Damir & Ornella Istria - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Restaurant Damir & Ornella Istria - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

Damir & Ornella are definitely among the pioneers serving raw fish in Istria. Their menu is small and with few variations depending on the season, but there is always a constant quality at the highest level. As they present you with the day’s menu, you just have to decide on the number of courses (FYI - go for the whole menu and you can thank me later). 

The start of every meal is the same and it is glorious. Superbly fresh whole fish is skinned, deboned and filleted with surgical precision in front of each table. Damir & Ornella’s family members are something like Mediterranean sashimi masters. This is really impressive. While you’re waiting for the fish to be served, you are presented with the sweetest raw langoustines you can imagine, directly from Kvarner bay. 

Once the fish is dressed with a drizzle of lemon and extra virgin olive oil, it is served with creamy polenta with shaved fresh truffles from Motovun forest or locally foraged wild asparagus, depending on the season.

Fresh fish is skinned, deboned and filleted  in front of each table - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Fresh fish is skinned, deboned and filleted in front of each table - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Raw fish is dressed with a drizzle of lemon and extra virgin olive oil and served with creamy polenta - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Raw fish is dressed with a drizzle of lemon and extra virgin olive oil and served with creamy polenta - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

For the next course, raw calamari is sliced in front of you a la julienne and served with a generous dollop of caviar. Then a tepid spider crab salad followed by the lobster a la Catalana. Delicious! After that, you can go for grilled Saint Jacques (scallops) and canestrelli ( a smaller version of scallops).

By now you’re probably ordering your second (or third) bottle of wine and you’re mesmerized by the gastronomic performance happening around you. If you’re wondering what happened to the rest of the fish you enjoyed raw – it comes as your final savory course with white and green gnocchi. This is, along with raw fish, D&O’s signature dish.

Raw calamari with caviar - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić
Raw calamari with caviar - Photo: Lucija Bilandžić

You know, there are certain people who drive from Zagreb to Novigrad just to eat 2 portions of this gnocchi. And yes, they are so good. For dessert, they offer the best white chocolate cake with olive oil and pears ever, believe me. I went to the “end of internet and back” just to find a recipe similar to this one, but I found nothing I could compare to this unforgettable cake. Of course, this is not the only dessert; they offer excellent mille foglie and chocolate cake as well.

FYI – Recently, they can be found on Instagram, but their account is managed by a third party and their posts don’t give either the food or the experience its justice.

These two restaurants enjoy a cult status among serious gastronomes. Even though their cuisines are very different, both restaurants are actually very alike because they refer to true and honest Istrian terroir driven gastronomy. These are not restaurants where you go to every week (although we know such people), but people who eat there become their loyal guests.

by: Lucija Bilandžić of Pleasure Seekers

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