As well as being extraordinarily picturesque, Rovinj has long excelled when it comes to fish restaurants. You’ll find the pricier ones on the harbourfront offer waveside seats, but if the food on the plate takes priority over a sea view, there are plenty of classy maritime and Italian options in the narrow streets of the Old Town. Popular Blu adds a contemporary touch, in a stellar setting. The Wine Vault restaurant at the Hotel Monte Mulini and the L Restaurant at the next-door Hotel Lone are among Istria’s best options for modern Adriatic cuisine, and Male Madlene is an interesting option for bite-size haute-cuisine.
Starter, swim, main, swim, dessert, swim. Yes, the waterside Blu restaurant has a great location, best enjoyed over a leisurely lunch. Relax among locals, tourists in the know and day-trippers from Zagreb. Peruse the menu over a glass of Malvazija and home-made thin pizza-style bread with rosemary, sea salt and award-winning olive oil produced nearby. Food is sensibly fish- and seafood-based and ranges from Novigrad oysters in tempura or scampi and black truffle risotto, to gilthead bream baked in a crust of salt. Simple roast fish with potatoes is also available, the ideal dish to be shared among a table of four. The dark-chocolate soufflé is scrumptuous. Prices are less than you’d imagine considering the quality and view across the sea to Rovinj’s Old Town. Inside, evening dining is a little more formal, around set an old Roman garden.
Located on the bottom, sea-facing level of the Monte Mulini hotel, the Wine Vault has quickly built a reputation for being one of the best places in Istria to sample modern Mediterranean cuisine. Under chef Tomislav Gretić (well known to viewers of Croatian TV cookery programmes), the accent is on the maritime side of French cuisine, with shellfish, lobster, sea bass, turbot and cod starring on an inventive menu that is never afraid to juxtapose the unexpected – swordfish marinated in orange juice and served with stilton, sautéed scampi with brown sugar and coffee essence – the list is long, and deciding what to order here can be a genuinely tantalizing affair. Wines are just as important as the food, with a list of over 500 local and global varieties overseen by sommelier Emil Perdec.
Rovinj’s headline-grabbing hotel also has a destination restaurant, offering a typically modern-day Istrian mixture of fresh local ingredients and wide-raging culinary influences. The accent is on fish and seafood but representative dishes from inland Croatia are also on the menu, and Swiss-trained head chef Priska Thuring is not afraid to thrown in the odd Asian-Adriatic fusion dish. Pretty much everything that comes out of the kitchen is awfully good and beautifully presented. Tables are set out on terrace among shrubs and potted trees, looking down towards Lone Bay.
Istrian-style dishes flavour the menu of this quaint spot near the harbour with a high-ceilinged interior crammed with antiques and seagoing kitsch. There is seating for 50 on a pavement terrace. Specialities include shellfish lasagne, crab with truffles, cod in white wine and baked lamb with potatoes. Prices are quite steep but you’re getting quality fare.
Standing like an apparition just below the Cathedral of St Euphemia, Monte offers fine dining with an informal, funky feel. This is fusion with Istria at its heart. The ingredients from Rovinj market are given new life thanks to owners Tjitske and Danijel Djekić, who recommend the five- or seven-course tasting menus, each with an array of delicate creations and wines (they have more than 100) to suit each dish. Otherwise, stand-out main courses include the baked fish for two or the grillade of today’s fresh catch.
Another good local place that gets overlooked for the mediocre ones on the harbour, Mali Raj is below the Cathedral but strangely off the tourist conveyer belt. Owned by the Lesdedaj family, the bistro has all the basics: seafood spaghetti; tagliatelle with truffles; and black risotto. Diners sit on a pleasant terrace covered in grapevines just off a stone passage.
Just beyond the Balbi Arch is a small square where a large awning covers a terrace, diners tucking into sophisticated seafood. Along with Istrian standards such as fettuccine with truffles, lobster with tagliatelle and succulent fresh grilled fish, there are creative offerings such as squid stuffed with scampi and sole in Chardonnay. The alternatives for carnivores include steak, and a grilled-meat platter for two that includes cutlets, minced-meat patties and home-made sausage.
An old-fashioned cantina on the waterfront, Kantinon has much the same interior as it did when fishermen drank here and lamented long days of work. There’s a giant wine barrel in the centre and ox yokes on the walls. A large colour photo of Rovinj hangs behind the bar, where you can fill bottles of wine, Merlot and Malvasia, for 70kn a litre. The staff have an old-school, get-it-yourself charm. Give in to it and order from the barrel-shaped menus: grilled shrimp and sea bass are among the choices.
Disregard the photos of the food and the sign saying ‘Fish-Meat’. The place is touristy, no doubt, but the choices are good and the prices are reasonable. And you simply can’t beat the view. On a steep little two-tiered overhang with bamboo and canvas sunshades, you’ll eat mussels, shrimp, salads and pastas while staring down at the water and away from the more touristy spots along the harbour.
Top-quality seafood is served amid a cosy clutter of antiques and paintings, around an Istrian-style fireplace used for cooking. This family-run restaurant on a quiet corner is not the cheapest, but it’s perfect for that special holiday meal. Fresh shellfish, sole and lobster are dressed in superior sauces. Specialities include meat dishes baked in a clay oven. In summer, a terrace is set out for alfresco if, alas, not sea-view dining.