Valsabbion is so avant-garde that it defies categorization. It is innovative yet traditional; stylish yet not overly so; a mecca of haute cuisine but not intimidating. This is a temple to Istrian ingredients and dishes that are a perfect match for its talented chef. Together they make magic.
Mala Hiza (Mackovec)
Mala Hiza is one of the finest restaurants in the country. The building was constructed in 1887 and once stood outside Zagreb -- it later was taken apart, plopped in the middle of a gorgeous garden, and reassembled 4km (2 1/2 miles) outside Cakovic. The menu is full of creative interpretations of regional Croatian cuisine, and the chef will prepare any old-time recipe if you call ahead with your request.
Klub Gastronomada (Zagreb)
Dining at this upstairs room off Jelacica Square awakened taste buds we didn't know we had. The restaurant's bent clearly is locavore, but its soul is experimental theater. From clear tomato soup to nettle sauce to Istrian beef to a dessert made with black olive jam, we were surprised (and wowed) with every bite (and every sip of IQ wine).
Zinfandel's (Regent Esplanade, Zagreb)
We dined at Zinfandel's on several occasions over the years and found it to be a solid, traditional choice. This time (2009), we were blown away by its new attitude, menu, and the deftness of its chef. The old school elegance of the room and impeccable service still are there, but the food is lighter, more contemporary, and the preparations and presentations are as creative as any we encountered. This is a special occasion place and a don't-miss-it for anyone who cares about gourmet dining.
Behold truffle king Giancarlo Zigante's gourmet palace. Almost everything on the extensive menu here utilizes the truffle, the precious fungus with which Zigante made his fortune. The restaurant is not a gimmick: Everything on the menu is expertly prepared and even flirts with creativity.
Boskinac (Novalja, Pag Island)
Boskinac has a knack for turning fresh produce and local ingredients like Pag lamb and Pag cheese into dishes that surprise the palate. Whether it's a Saturday lunch on the sunny terrace or a gala dinner in the elegant dining room, Boskinac's creations are sublime. We don't know how the chef did it, but the four cuts of lamb in a single sauce each had a personality all its own. Go out of your way for Boskinac and take home a bottle of its boutique wine.
Bitoraj is a 75-year-old restaurant in a new setting, which only enhances the dining experience. Game dishes available nowhere else are on the menu in company with traditional delicacies. From bear steak and deer ham to Bitoraj's signature dish of young wild boars baked under a lid on an open fire (peka), Bitoraj utilizes the best ingredients the surrounding woods can offer.
Riblji Restaurant Fosa (Zadar)
Fosa has one of the best locations in Croatia. It is at the water outside the Zadar wall, and it has a view and sea breeze that make the food taste that much better. The restaurant is a favorite hangout for locals.
Palaca Paladini (Hvar Town)
This restaurant appeals to all five senses: It is set in a beautiful garden with blooming lavender and orange trees frequented by songbirds. It has a great list of wines, and it offers superb Dalmatian cuisine that tastes as good as it smells and looks.
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