Daniel Dobra’s earliest impressions of Croatia came through stories told at home. Both his parents were born there, but migrated to Australia as children after World War II. The country remained both a cultural and culinary influence on the family – which informed Dobra’s own career as a chef.
“It was like this mystical land,” he says of how Croatia seemed to him as a child. When he visited as an adult, though, he was just as spellbound by the modern-day reality. And as a chef, he couldn’t believe how ideal the conditions were for growing fresh, organic produce. “The food there is totally off its head,” he says, recounting a quick visit that snowballed into a three-month jaunt once he started visiting cousins in small villages across the country.
Dobra continues to imbue his cooking with Croatian influences, making traditional dishes that he ate as a child – and that aren’t even served in most Eastern European or Balkan restaurants in Australia. He highlights the Mediterranean country’s delicious layering of Italian, Greek and Turkish influences: “It’s a fusion of flavours that’s super unique.”
During his travels in Croatia, Dobra got to experience places that aren’t well-known to outsiders – certainly not listed on Google – such as the open-air restaurant that a taxi driver insisted on taking him to on his very first day in Croatia. “The outside world doesn’t get to see that,” he says. So when the seasoned chef – who co-ran Bedford Street in Collingwood (now Terror Twilight) before spending two-and-a-half years at South Melbourne’s St Ali – suggests the best destinations for eating in Croatia, it pays to listen.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Croatia’s first national park remains an essential destination in the central highlands, with its emerald-hued titular lakes, waterfalls and vibrant forests. “The place is absolutely beautiful,” says Dobra. A scenic walking track circles the park, but the real highlight comes halfway along the track, when visitors board a ferry to an island nestled in the largest lake. There you’ll an unassuming picnic ground where a couple dozen Croatian men cook brilliantly seasoned rotisserie chicken over charcoal, served with ajvar (a traditional relish made from roasted red peppers) and either mayo or sour cream. “It’s honestly the best charcoal chicken and chips you will ever have,” Dobra promises.
While there’s a wide range of hearty Croatian fare on the menu at this restaurant in the historic coastal town of Šibenik – where you can sit outside, right across the water – Dobra says the uncommonly fresh seafood is its crown jewel. “[It] literally gets loaded off the boat onto the pier right in front of you,” he says, describing it as the European equivalent of San Francisco’s iconic Swan Oyster Depot. “You sit in a little al fresco area and enjoy the most simple but perfect, fresh seafood you could imagine.” If you’re after something more substantial, he also recommends the bread and pasta.
This much-loved eatery in Split is also close to the water, with a focus on seafood. Between the outdoor seating, robust portions and no-nonsense affordability, it’s a risk-free way to dive into the best that old-school Croatian cuisine has to offer. Plus, the kitchen staff is populated with Croatian mums and grandmothers for added authenticity. The location, food and expertise make this spot equally popular with visitors and locals alike. “Go here for traditional food like pašticada (braised beef with gnocchi), sarma (cabbage rolls) and punjena paprika (stuffed capsicum),” says Dobra.
City Market, Sarajevo
Dobra strongly advises popping over the border to Bosnia to taste some ćevapi, a traditional Balkan skinless sausage cooked over charcoal. While there’s some contention over where the dish originates – and many countries and communities have their own versions – and the Bosnian version is made with lamb to accomodate the country’s Muslim population. When Dobra visited Croatia, he took the train to Sarajevo and caught a taxi to this spacious market, which he likens to Melbourne’s famous Queen Victoria Market. “There are old men making ćevapi as far as the eye can see,” he says, which means you’ll have plenty of opportunity to sample the smallest of variations and decide for yourself which is best.
At this home-style, family-owned restaurant in Majkovi, a village north of Dubrovnik, it feels like you’re dining in someone’s family home. “This is literally the best traditional food I found in Croatia,” Dobra says. More specifically, it’s where you want to go for peka, the region’s traditional outdoor-barbeque style of cooking. Whether you opt for the octopus, chicken or lamb, Dobra assures us it’s “all amazing.” Between the cosy atmosphere and down-to-earth cuisine, this place is a distillation of everything that makes Croatia so special. “You can’t get it anywhere else in the world,” says Dobra.
This article is produced in partnership with Qatar Airways. Take advantage of Qatar Airways’s Early Bird sale and experience Europe like never before in 2020. Qatar Airways flies to over 160 destinations – including over 55 European cities – twice-daily from Sydney, and daily from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and Canberra. Book today at qatarairways.com/au or your preferred travel agent.