If it is true that revolutions have a habit of eating their own children then Zagreb’s much-vaunted bistro revolution has done quite a bit of gobbling over the past twelve months. Three of 2017’s most critically acclaimed new openings - Xató, Ab Ovo and Duck Fast Bistro – closed their doors in 2018 (largely, it must be said, due to the shifting sands of economic uncertainty rather than any shortcomings in the kitchen), while Bistroteka on Teslina, one of the pioneers of bistro culture four years ago, also waved a napkin in farewell.
However, 2018 has been a good year for new openings too, cranking up the competition and making it inevitable that there will be even more casualties come the end of 2019. Such has been the broadening out of Zagreb’s gastronomic landscape in 2018 that it even might be regarded a vintage year. Newbies like Beštija, Fidel Gastro, Brokenships Bistro, Garden Bar & Kitchen, Haustor Haus, Savica Casual Urban Eatery and O’brok have all met with significant critical approval. Established bistro-style eateries like Mundoaka and Pod Zidom have reinvented themselves by tweaking menus or deploying fresh young chefs. Former stuffy coffeehouse Kavkaz reopened as a snazzy café-bar-bistro, an all-in-one social hub that looks set to become a model for new ventures elsewhere.
When it comes to high-end dining, the situation is much less volatile: the restaurants that finished 2017 at the top of the best-of polls are still trundling out trolley-loads of exquisite fare today. Noel, Dubravkin put, Carpaccio, Takenoko, Zinfandel’s, Bistro Apetit and Vinodol (the old-school national restaurant that never seems to go out of fashion) remain the names to conjure with for those with the wherewithal for a push-the-boat-out feast.
What distinguishes the current batch of bistro places is the desire to turn out creative fine-dining cuisine at less-than-fine-dining prices, while providing just enough variety on the menu to bring in punters of modest appetites and modest means as well as the more expansive eaters.
Menus are shorter than they used to be and tend to change with the seasons – gone are the days when a new restaurant was expected to print up menus covering everything in the Croatian culinary canon and then carry on rolling those same dishes out of the kitchen until the end of time. One thing underlined by almost all the new places is their reliance on local ingredients sourced from markets or from an OPG (an acronym that stands for “family agricultural business” and usually implies boutique production rather than factory farming). Bistro-level cuisine allows chefs to improvise on a daily basis – indeed part of the pleasure of eating in O’brok or Haustor Haus lies in allowing your choices to be guided by what the kitchen recommends. O’brok is dedicated to exploring the possibilities of the traditional Croatian cookbook and presenting it in new ways; Beštija has a deep appreciation of Adriatic seafood; while Fidel Gastro, a much bigger, concept-led operation, is more committed to creative juxtapositions, wok-frying one minute and cooking something sous-vide the next. Far from burying traditional Croatian food, bistro culture has rescued it from standardization and given it a new lease of life.
What all of 2018’s top new eateries recognize is the importance of tweaking the menu at lunchtime: not just because eating habits have changed, and more and more Zagreb folk want good food served quickly in the middle of the day; but also because inexpensive quality lunches bring in new customers who feel excluded by the lavish, multi-course approach of old-school Croatian dining. Both Garden Bar & Kitchen and Savica Casual Urban Eatery offer two-course lunchtime menus on weekdays that feature refined dishes at democratic prices – a gastronomic bargain if you can get down there before the 3pm cut-off point. O’brok, Beštija and Haustor Haus offer dishes of the day chalked up on a blackboard, often determined by what has tickled the chef’s fancy at the market that morning.
This renewed understanding of the importance of lunch – especially to busy people on the move - has also resulted in a new appreciation of soup, a dish which can be served quickly from pot to table and which may even serve as a one-course quick lunch in its own right. Kavkaz, Garden Bar & Kitchen and Brokenships Bistro all serve hearty soups that more than justify a visit on their own; the tomato soup at Savica Casual Urban Eatery has become a signature dish that drives word-of-mouth publicity and brings in new custom.
Exciting things are happening at the other end of the menu too, with an increasing number of establishments hiring a specialist pastry chef rather than simply offering pancakes and ice cream. Fidel Gastro, in particular, concentrates on the kind of imaginative desserts that keep diners glued to their seats for one final course.
Now that we’ve digested the bistro revolution, it’s time to try bistro revolution 2.0.