Pula, Croatia / June 8, 2011 / dinner
Winederlust Rating (details below): 8.1 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Yes
Before our trip to Croatia, Jay and I had read in several places that Valsabbion - in the country's Italian-influenced northwestern region of Istria - was one of the best restaurants in the country. So of course we called for a reservation. Unlike some other European restaurants where you need to make reservations a month or two in advance, we were able to get in for lunch with less than a week's notice, no problem.
In fact, when we got to the restaurant (about a 15-minute drive from Pula, Istria's largest city), we were dining nearly alone - only one other table was occupied for lunch. Though the quietness was a bit odd (it wasn't quite high season yet, but still), we were impressed by the restaurant's very modern décor with lots of black and purple and a good view of the water below.
After asking if we liked sparkling wine, our server poured glasses of the Misal Brut Milennium Prirodno Pjenusaro from Porej, a town nearby. This wine was 80 percent Malvasia, which we soon learned is the most common white grape in Istria, and 12.5 percent alcohol – full-bodied with pear, mushroom, fungus, and minerality on the palate and a long finish with a touch of bitterness. While drinkable, it was a wine we wouldn’t order again; it lacked some finesse and structure.
Misal Brut Milennium.
Though we never saw a menu, our server asked if there were any foods we didn’t eat and whether we wanted Croatian wines paired with the ones we did – of course, we heartily agreed, and ended up getting a great introduction to some of the country’s wines.
First we tried a 2009 Kabola Malvasia from Buja, a hilltown in NW Istria. This wine had medium body and acidity with a taste of green apples, pear, roses, and no oak. It was pleasant, reminiscent of a more floral sauvignon blanc.
The Malvasia was paired with olive oil served three ways – in a pate, as plain olive oil, and an olive oil cream, too rich to eat much of, all served with homemade crostini. While interesting, it was a bit too much olive oil for my taste, though the pate was definitely the most enjoyable.
Olive oil three ways.
Our next dish was called “crab shake,” which had a very unusual presentation. Our server brought a plate with several options – fresh crab, caviar, parsley, and salt – and then added a small amount of each to a glass, poured in some crab juice and olive oil, and shook the whole thing together. Unfortunately, the tender flavor of the crab was masked somewhat by the pungent olive oil, and the entire dish was a bit too salty for my taste.
"Crab Shake" in action.
Our next wine was an unoaked 2009 Degrassi Sauvignon Blanc (also near Buje), a pretty full-bodied wine with apple and butter on the palate, somewhat reminiscent of a California Chardonnay.
Degrassi Sauvignon Blanc.
The accompanying dish was raw scampi mixed with nitrogen and salt – it let out a visible “steam” – which our server instructed us to dip in hot buttered rum before eating. This dish wasn’t entirely successful; the scampi were still cold inside when we bit into them. Perhaps if we’d been told to keep them in the rum longer they would have been more palatable.
Raw scampi with nitrogen and salt.
Next we were served the Scallops St. Jacques – chopped scallops with a layer of pureed cabbage and cauliflower on the bottom. The flavors of this dish came together well; we could distinguish each individual flavor, and the parts also coalesced as a whole.
Scallops St. Jacques.
Our next wine was a 2007 Roxanich Antica, a Malvasia with a nearly orange color from a very long maceration period (time spent on the skins) before spending two years in oak. We found this wine overly manipulated, with no sense of terroir. (Though, when we visited the Roxanich winery the next day, we were pleasantly surprised by many of their other wines.)
This Malvasia was paired with a version of brodetto, a thick fish soup with polenta pearls, which we thought was okay but nothing special, and the wine pairing didn’t quite work – the rich caramel of the Malvasia overwhelmed the simple soup.
Brodetto (fish soup).
Our next wine was the 2010 Trapan Rose, a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cab, and Terran (a local Istrian red grape that we sampled much more of when visiting wineries the next day). This Rose had a beautiful magenta color, reminiscent of a Tavel, but a bit sweeter (probably a bit too sweet for our taste).
We enjoyed the next dish of sardines, with caviar on one side and parsley on the other – though squeezing local herbs on top from what appeared to be a toothpaste tube was an odd touch and didn’t seem to add a lot of flavor.
Grilled sardines with local herbs.
The next wine was another from Degrassi, this time a Chardonnay, too oaked for our taste. It was paired with a fish sandwich of tuna and monkfish with cabbage mousse. While we enjoyed the flavors, we found it a bit overcooked (unfortunately, an issue we noticed with much of the fish we ordered throughout our trip).
Then we had the ravioli with slightly bitter goat cheese, chives, tiny asparagus, and an egg on top that cracked open to reveal the brightest orange yolk we’d seen in a long time. This was our favorite dish of the meal – the flavors and textures just worked.
Ravioli with goat cheese, chives, asparagus, and egg.
Next we were served our only non-Croatian wine - a Scurek Stara Brajda from Slovenia (just north of Istria), a blend of 30 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cab Franc, 20 percent Cab Sauv, and 30 percent Refosco (a tannic native Northern Italian grape), aged for two years in a mix of old and new oak. It tasted of cherry Halls and lots of red fruit. It wasn’t great.
I couldn’t eat much more at this point and needed to go for a walk, escaping at just the right moment to avoid the veal dish, which Jay found overly heavy anyway.
Veal with poached egg.
We ended with a Tomic dessert wine from the island of Hvar (we visited the winery later in the trip). Made from dried native grapes, it was nutty, port-like, and tasty, and paired with a red wine ice cream with fig foam and hazelnut - an interesting way to finish our first tastes of wine (and gourmet food) in Croatia.
Tomic Hectorovich Prosek.
Overall, we thought Valsabbion was trying too hard. Though the service and setting were wonderful, and all of the ingredients were fresh and local, in many cases, the dishes could have been simplified to allow the natural, fresh flavors to shine through. The “do it yourself” element of constructing some of your own dishes, while interesting, also didn’t quite work, especially when we weren’t instructed how much to mix in or how long to dip something before eating. It was a novelty that the restaurant doesn’t really need.
Alena, our very nice and knowledgeable server.
- by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief
Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):
Food: 7.0 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine: 8.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service: 9.0 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 8.5 (location, view, decor & vibe)
Price Range: $$$$ (Incredibly Expensive)
Valsabbion / Pjescana Uvala, IX/26, HR-52100 Pula, Croatia [map]
Direct Line: +385 (0) 52 218 033
Open daily 10am to midnight. Make reservations online or by phone at least a week in advance (more during the summer months).