Vista Hill: Hedonistic mission through Croatia and Slovenia top restaurants
What is not drunk, will be sold, seems like the motto of an unusual wine tour from the Vista Hill winery from Šid across the most exclusive hotels, restaurants, clubs of Croatia and Slovenia, as well as those that are among the hidden pearls known only to top-level hedonists such as Slobodan Bob Živojinović and Aleksandar Vinčić Vinča, co-owners of the aforementioned winery.
And in most of these locations, people will in the future raise their glasses with labels that have been promoted: Rose Premium Vista Hill from Pinot Noir; White Selection 2017 which is a blend of Riesling, Rhine Riesling and Traminac; an extremely complex Riesling White Reserve 2012; a gastronomic hit Merlot Red Selection 2017 and a blend of Cabernet and Merlot Red Reserve 2010 as the crown every night. At the recommendation, or on the glass.
Although all wines received public praise from a large number of excellent experts and checked hedonists during a three-day expedition on the Zagreb-Opatija-Ljubljana route, and were accepted by owners of several gastronomic sanctuaries, it seems that a small spotlight was directed towards a salmon-colored wine that was until recent called Bobo Rose, but now wears the name Rose Premium. An ideal aperitif, summer spike, and the perfect pairing for, for example, marinated fish mullets, which live on stone and whose minerality in meat perfectly fits this wine. And, we had the opportunity to taste all that in the legendary Opatija restaurant Bevanda. But let’s start in the beginning.
– Love for life, friends, where the family comes in first place, and then there are food, drink – all that is part of everyday life. Whenever birthdays are occurring or celebrations are in question, we always gather together with our friends in large numbers and this has somehow become part of the tradition: I cook and everyone always expects my sarmas or some specialties, and I enjoy it – explains Bob Živojinović his own infinite energy and fondness for hedonism that emanates at any moment regardless of the time of day or night. Then, several years ago, this energy was paired with wine from the then winery Molovin, only so that today, from Montenegro to Slovenia, a story about the Vista Hill winery would circle. And further, as the wines are heading to America and Bob in Hong Kong is targeting China. But the hardest, the entry door to the western countries of the ex-YU space, this tour opened wide with the obvious enthusiasm of the host wherever we found ourselves.
In Zagreb, a cult restaurant Tač embraced the Vista Hill newcomers. Among the young wild asparagus, the Spanish smoked ham and open flames, where the beef was grilled, glasses were raised in common enjoyment with numerous celebrities from the world of acting, gastronomy, and the longtime mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić. There was singing deep into the night, and we were fascinated by the Miletić couple, who comes from Lika. The owners of this small guesthouse, which was created two decades ago on a former tennis court, have just won Bib Gourmand, a special award that recounts small and especially good restaurants by the most famous gastro guide Michelin. That’s not all! Owner Vesna has also, in the opinion of the famous French gastro guide Gault Millau, recently received “three caps”, and was named the best traditional cook in Croatia.
– The first Michelin inspector who came revealed himself during lunch and paid for it. He was very pleased, he ate a wild flathead grey mullet from the depth, which is a rarity, and was surprised to have it on the menu. He said there would be three or four other inspectors who wouldn’t reveal themselves, and it must have been so. And then they called us from Paris … – describes Vesna.
– This prize is an incentive for the entire gastro scene. In our work, the glamor has started to dominate, businesspeople from the profession who are not educated are not ready to suffer and pass the pervading path, and that is why this is a small satisfaction that we received after 40 years of work. Social networks have created a lot of benefits to this business, but we are kind of old-fashioned and we prefer oral recommendations, and we continue to have that energy and passion for business. The team is even more happy that at the end of the bloody work we were verified with the prizes, we have become a factor that cannot be overlooked – says Tihomir, nicknamed Tač by a well-known attorney a long time ago.
And then, Tač says that he is the fourth generation of caterers, as in Opatija, he had a big restaurant with 200 chairs and a top chef, a friend who suddenly decided to move on. Let him go, said then Tač’s girlfriend Vesna, I’ll take over. Tihomir knew that she, as an Istrian, was skillful in the kitchen, which was one of the things that somewhat attracted him to her in the beginning but cooking at home was one thing and cooking for so many mouths something completely different. But since the first day, with her talent, everything went awesome.
– In 1983, I realized that this is a serious woman and the woman of my life – Tihomir says with a smile while sitting in front of a wall made of magnum bottles of the most famous Croatian winemakers, and on one of the big boards, from which today also stands the inscription Vista Hill, almost all the orange of wine are offered from Tač to the west, which speaks volumes about the wine aspirations of the owner and the selected clientele.
Ante Božikov Dupin, owner of the tavern Opat in the bay of the same name in Kornati, is among the guests. From the former four tables that his deceased father set up in 1987, and the small number of fishermen who came here, Ante, today, runs an exclusive restaurant with a few hundred places in front of which dozens of the most luxurious yachts are pushed, and a table without reservation cannot be found to save your life for much of the season lasts from spring to late autumn. With sea specialties, a real hit is also Kornat lamb. Extremely skinny, so it does not go to spit, but anyone who gets to taste it remains breathless.
– The foreigners mostly come in for fish and seafood. We’re known for them because there is an extremely wide variety of fish and shells that cannot be eaten elsewhere, as well as sea urchins and eggs. We are doing a lot of raw fish, carpaccio, sashimi, but my father is a fisherman and our old people ate everything from the sea. Shells, and even a squid tentacle, and only a thin layer of sea cucumber under the skin, gets under the skin, says Ante eternally ready for a joke, and explains that the first tavern was in the only house in the bay that served as a partisan hospital or town-place to buy fish.
Ante, after a successful cooking career in Zagreb, Opatija, in Tic Tacu on Murter, returned in 2001 to Opat and started a story not many can say they have today. While especially praising White Reserve 2012, Ante explains that for the past two decades, the Riesling has been the most popular in its tavern, flying especially as gemišt (a mixture of white wine and mineral water).
– They also offered me a Pošip and this and that, but people love the Riesling. Of course, we have wines from all over the world, we sell the Croatian most, but this 2012 reserve is certainly the best grain I have ever drunk. It has a potential for at least another five years.
When asked if it was going to be in the restaurant, Ante said smiling – Ah, I’ll drink a hundred bottles alone! Finally, whether he expects for one expert to proclaim his one of the best restaurants in the world one day, he states:
– I ate in the world’s best restaurants with three stars and in Noma and each has its own specialties. And everywhere you can see and learn a lot, get to know a huge amount of effort, but who is the best in the world is a subjective thing. It’s the same with wine, someone likes something, but not the other, but the first league is always the first league and there is no mistake!
The trip to Opatija and an unforgettable dinner in a cult restaurant Bevanda, one of the most beautiful on the Adriatic and wider, was covered with various forms of weather that almost always await passengers in this part of the highway. Like some type of exam that must be passed in order to fully enjoy. But there are also casual awards like a visit to the agro restaurant Villa Plasa, opened by Velimir Perčić in a seemingly remote location, the town of Zaluki, on the old road to the town of Rupa and towards the western border. An ethno architecture of stone and wood with a large hearth conceals the anticipated enjoyment but also knowledge. The lamb from under the peka literally melts in the mouth with sips of Merlot and Riesling by Vista Hill and after beans and before home-made apple pies and savory dumplings. The sweet little tomato is literally exciting, so Velimir Perčić reveals to us the secret:
– For years, I have rented out shops until I decided to be on my own. When I started, 15 years ago, there were thirty of them in the agritourism business in Istria, but none here. And it turned out to be a very good choice, the audience was delighted because we are working with seasonal foods. We only buy live cattle, so there is no imported meat, cheeses are local, and our wine is autochthonous. We give on the glass Zlatna Žlahtina PZ Vrbnik , Malvasia and cuvee from the Kabola winery, Shiraz from Grđinić. And that is all. We do not brew beer or serve Coca-Cola; we already have natural apple juice. And lamb is from the island Pag where the lambs are separated early in order to have the sheep milk for the famous cheese. These last lambs are especially oily, already stripped, weigh at most six kilograms, do not go on a spit and are therefore so delicious. After them come the Istrian, and Cres ones – explains this kind man who has been with a group of friends for many years going to Africa and other poor parts of the world where he spends months in humanitarian and donor construction of schools, hospitals and everything that is necessary.
Whoever comes to this place must be aware that weekends are reserved in advance, the restaurant full and they will not leave on a full stomach without reservation, or even get a chance to try the seasonal treats made from wild asparagus, pumpkin and other food products which are produced by the restaurant itself, as well as the famous Istrian cow cheese, sheep cheese from Krka or a unique Grobnik cheese that is made in salt in reels weighing 15 kilograms and is phenomenal as young.
Opatija, for which Bob Živojinović says that along with Monte Carlo and Monaco, the most famous tourist pearls and destinations for the entire jet set, was one of the leading mondaine areas, and which, unfortunately, did not follow through this trend, greeted us with wind and rain. But in the restaurant Bevanda, the first five-star hotel in the northern Adriatic, there is perfect peace and harmony. A seemingly prosaic name Bevanda, which will turn out to be the owner’s surname, who is from Mostar, and who completely renovated the cult catering building from the 1920s four decades ago, conceals an eno-gastro treasury of top-quality specialties and a secret of a wine cellar to which you can only be introduced by Klaudio Jurčić, four times the best the sommelier of Croatia and the guardian of this wine merchandise. With 800 labels, some of which are very difficult to come by, there are special private safes used by celebrities and great wine lovers to keep special bottles in ideal conditions. Of course, the names of the owners are a strictly guarded secret. Among the celebrities who visit this special space for tastings are John Malkovich, Haris Džinović, many other celebrities, and Lepa Brena is also a frequent guest. The floor, covered with black granite, keeps moisture in balance, the temperature is constant, especially behind the thick large safe doors where the restaurant pearls are kept.
– There are not many old labels except a few of the reserves from the 1990s, but there are some of the most expensive wines in the world – explains Klaudio, who was among the 20 best sommeliers in Europe but no longer competes. That’s why every year he flawlessly conducts wine evenings named Passion for wine, which are visited by the most eminent Croatian and world wine makers. The last series ends with a Vista Hill tasting which begins with a “northern” white blend named White Selection
– The grapes that come from the 50-year-old vineyards have a good minerality and the secret of all wines is a top-notch vineyard – announces Aleksandar Vinčić, the main “culprit” for all these good wines. The first course is a white wine accompanied by a marinated fish mullet, which, later on, is goes perfectly with a Rose as well.
– It’s hard to make a blend this perfectly balanced, so that the wine has a nice aroma, that on the palate the wine is rounded, soft, fresh, drinkable, delicious – Klaudio adds. The real hit is a combination where the elegant and careful Roman grits-and-parmesan-based gnocchi with the boletus from Gorski kotar and shrimp from the island Cres, is combined with a White Reserve 2012, a complex wine with tertiary aromas and still a lot of freshness.
And while Bob Živojinović points out Rose Premium and the fact that among the first in Serbia and the region they had the courage to go towards the modern salmon-colored Rose, Vinča emphasizes that this Riesling has shown that even after five years it can be fantastic, which opened the eyes of other winemakers from Fruška Gora, who are now one by one beginning to leave a few thousand bottles of this variety from every harvest. Of course, with the note that not all vineyards are the same, and that theirs in Šid is a half-century-old which significantly affects the wine.
On the way to Ljubljana, we turn almost to the border of Opatija and Rijeka where there is an extraordinary super-luxury hotel Navis built in an isolated bay and embedded in the rock. The owner, Krunoslav Kapetanović, is busy with the sea, so the hotel reminds of a kind of cargo ship in many segments. The minimalistic architecture of clear straight edges, the almost monastic tightness of the space in which you have everything and more, and the view of the sea (there is no other view), take you through waves and dreams. Each floor in a different color, walls and floors have a unique tapestry decorated with nautical motifs, room labels, large figures that have brought some prestigious international aesthetic award, swimming pools that flow from different levels. And, in the restaurant, giant fridges for white, red, sparkling wine. Hundreds of labels, each visibly exposed, create a paradise for all winemakers. Only magnums are hidden somewhere in the belly of the hotel-ship, and, there, there will soon be Vista Hill Rose double magnum as well to surprise guests. And let’s not forget: the best young chef of Croatia for the year 2019 and in the opinion of the guide Gault Millau works here in Navis. His name is Tino Sinožić.
Finally, the InterContinental in Ljubljana, the last stop. A five-star hotel with a claim that it’s worth six and is the best in the region. It’s not far from the truth, especially when you climb to the restaurant to the last, twelfth floor, two floors above the pool and the spa center. The maximum luxury literally opens your pores and you get to breathe easier awaiting the fireworks of taste in the well-known restaurant from where the capital of Slovenia is seen as in the palm of your hand. Thirty well-known guests arrive at the dinner and are as served an entrée of the Srem region, which the hosts from Vista Hill winery brought with them. As a special treat kaymak, ajvar, čvarci 8 a variant of pork rinds), famous meat platters from Fruška Gora. People here are accustomed to top-notch dinning, and, yet, this is something new and it best goes with wines from the same region, where red Vista Hill labels are especially expressed, just like much later on the circular terrace, with an abundance of hits played on guitar and sung by every person without distinction and with some of the best quality cigars. Almost until dawn.
Even though the InterContinental hotel, whose trademark is the Carniolan bee, was opened just two years ago and literally smells like honey and honeycombs, general director Miloš Cerović claims there is still room for improvement.
– And that’s good, because when we think that there is no way for improvement, then we may get a little sleepy, and that is not good, either for the guests or for us. Or for the future of hotel industry, especially in Slovenia, where this industry has just begun to flourish, and we expect a lot of progress. In a way, we are pioneers in the luxury segment of hotel industry, we can see the whole city here from the restaurant, which is the most luxurious and most beautiful in the city and it can be said that this is a hedonistic center of tourism in Ljubljana and wider. We try, both in the kitchen, in the service and in other segments, to bring something new in the spa, reception, rooms, which is not seen in the region. Something for the guests to remember us by and come back here again. Already in the second year we are fulfilling great growth, both financially and in the comments of guests, so we have an opportunity to think about another hotel that we will open in the next two years. The location is ready, but details are out of reach of the public.
What is particularly fascinating is the hustle and bustle of the open kitchen is that everything goes smoothly in front of the guests of the restaurant, but not even the slightest smell reaches the tables. How? Perfect ventilation, rather than the biggest problem of modern kitchen, as seen by Chef Komnen Bakić.
– The focus is on the quality of food, but, today, it is most difficult to find the best groceries. Mostly, they do not have smell, or taste. There was a real war on the market in getting good goods. Before, the kitchen smelled of onions when you threw half the head into food and, now, you throw a ton ancd you still can’t smell it. Simply, you win if you succeed in finding a man who has some small natural production and can provide quantities. It is not a problem to make a quality meal afterwards.
Bakćc is young, with a career of a footballer and even boxer, decided to be a boss in five-star hotels. He was born in Kolašin, grew up near the sea in Herceg Novi and Kotor. After high school, he studied gastronomy in Belgrade, and, after college, he lived and worked for a year in the London Ritz. After returning, he was chef for three years in Budva’s Avali. Then, he opened Crowne Plaza and lived for four years in Belgrade, and, the last two years, he is here in Ljubljana. We are especially impressed by the special salad from the rare bluefin tuna on a mix of greenery with rice paper and dressing based on apple and green caper. Another course in which white and pink wines find the perfect partner.
– I wanted to put it all on dandelion leafs, which are regularly used in Slovenia, but, in Serbia, almost not at all. But, it was raining and could not be brought from the village. We try to have the best foods, if it’s meat – that it’s angus or autochthonous beef; we can buy wild Adriatic fish directly from fishermen, which is not regulated in Serbia either. So, we get everything from an environment of some 200 kilometers, and, since we are an international restaurant, we should not be 100% national, but there is a lot of work there, too, – said Komnen, who admits to love kulen very much, but does not eat it much.
He reveals that he does not like the competition, does not do TV shows, because if he did, he would not be a chef anymore. There is simply no time because half of his work is doing the administration, but this does not stop him from helping his colleagues, his current sous-chef Martin Blake and former Janez, members of the Slovenian cooking team to prepare for the cooking olympics.
This evening, a long-time mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Janković, did not appear at the table, but his sons socialized with the Vista Hill wines, while the mayor invited us to meet the next day. Bob and Vinča went to this gathering, and we choose to head to the heart of Ljubljana, to the stone bridges where the vibrant street fair is, and there is a nearby restaurant, the institution of hedonism AS, whose owner we met during dinner at the InterContinental . Popular Pope, or Svetozar Raspopović, created a combination of tradition and modern hospitality in a passage between buildings. In the old part of the building that has been around for three centuries and beneath the arched vaults of brick, and small discrete compartments, a gourmet gastronomic experience takes place in which numerous world officials from Clinton onwards enjoyed in Pope’s society and hospitality.
And while there the pata negra on the base attracts with its fragrant aromas, so far in the new, bright, glass-enclosed locale built in 2011 at a site of a summer garden, the huge wine-fridge-cages clearly indicate the richness of the wine list. With a wide range of exceptional treats, we open a story about the restaurant AS, the cultic spot of gastronomy in Ljubljana:
– We were famous for fish specialties, but, in the last fifteen years, Pope made great progress in preparing meat, so, now, we are well known in both directions – says waiter Borislav Stanojlović, while standing behind a big dark bar where some places are marked with already-worn metal plates with names of permanent guests who often wait late hours here. But the real wine surprise is still awaiting. Among the three hundred different labels, as the wine of the house, you can try the one Raspopović himself produces. And, oh, what a wine it is!
In fact, it is not about the wine of the house, but about the wine that the boss makes for himself and his friends. It is a natural wine made of Malvasia according to the Georgian recipe from amphorae, where after eight months of maceration, the wine goes into a barrel and then into a bottle. We tried the 2011 harvest and the two years younger one for which Pope has certificates and permits. The vineyard is on the karst in Dutovlje, a region known for its prosciutto and mineral wines as these certainly are. The Malvasia Pop 2013 is an interesting and nice fruit wine, while the older ones are a more intense orange color and still very fresh. It is complex, full-bodied and elegant, and this wine has been produced by Pope for 15 years. He started this journey, some say, in the company of Joško Gravner, when they went to Georgia together and bought amphorae. That’s the legend, and everything else can be personally checked, in a glass, in the restaurant AS.
And while we leave the good highways of the region behind us, as well as the top-level eno-gastronomic gatherings, the significance of this hedonistic mission of Boba Zivojinović and Aleksandar Vinčić Vinča becomes clear to us. There are not many Serbian wines in these parts, and the labels successfully connect important people, winemakers, and they will continue to link them in the future.
So, whatever Šid wines are not drunk will be sold.