A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!
New Rochelle, dating back to 1688, is New York State’s seventeenth largest city. It’s been named one of the best places nationally to raise children, and the 13th best city to live in. Wow! Who would have thought? I can tell you that this certainly isn’t the impression you get when walking along the southern stretch of Main Street, as people give you dark side-glances or yell at you not to “take their f’in picture” when all you’re doing is photographing a restaurant (and you have absolutely no desire to have them in that picture). The restaurant in question is Dubrovnik, “A Taste of Croatia” near to a gas station, a used car dealership, and an auto body shop. An oasis with its very own palm trees, only a block away from the I-95.
Yet there’s a lot more to Dubrovnik than meets the eye. Enter the restaurant, make your way to the back, and you’ll discover a charming patio, with a grill large enough to cook for a small army.
And there’s a vegetable garden, whence the kitchen grows some of their own produce, such as organic tomatoes and greens! Even if you don’t share the owners’ taste in landscaping, you have to admire the dedication. Here’s a restaurant that farms its own vegetables, not on some Brooklyn hipster’s rooftop or pickup truck, but in an unglamorous New York suburb with a particular affinity for everything car-related.
New Rochelle is still no real Dubrovnik, and the patio isn’t a year-round option, so of course the restaurant also has an indoor dining room, with simple nautical decor. As they put it on their web site, they offer “classic Croatian Cuisine in a warm, friendly atmosphere”, where you’ll “find yourself drawn to Seafood like never before”. The patrons are a varied crowd speaking a mix of English, Croatian, and other languages (each their own, not all together), with a good number of families (on account of this town being one of the best places to raise children, no doubt). The waiters all seem to be Croatian.
On some occasions, there’s the added “bonus” of Croatian live music. Oh, the wild Sunday nights of New Rochelle! Prepare yourself for an evening of Spanish, English, and Croatian song, culminating with an ode to “Dal-maaaaa-cijaaaaa” that sounds very much like this.
There aren’t a lot of reviews of Dubrovnik out there. There’s one from Westchester Magazine here, and one from the New York Times here — is there any restaurant that hasn’t been reviewed by the NYT? At least I get the consolation prize: I just might be the first blogger to set foot there and tell the tale!
The menu is a bit confusing. It begins inconspicuously with a few vegetable salads, soups, and appetizers, then continues with main courses divided between a fairly large selection of meat dishes (chicken, pork, lamb, and beef), a couple of pasta dishes, and two fish courses that don’t really scream “Croatia” to me — I don’t think there’s any salmon in the Adriatic or even the Mediterranean. Strange for a restaurant called Dubrovnik… But just when you think you’ve reached the end of the menu, you turn the page and find that it starts all over with more apps and mains. This latter section shouldn’t be missed, as it lists both the chef’s specials and the seasonal seafood, where you’ll find all the products typical of the region: octopus, oysters, sea-bream, monkfish, branzino, grouper, skate… I guess it’s all a very, very long list of specials, presented à la NYC Italian restaurants circa 1999. The lunch menu is different from the dinner menu, and I’m not 100% sure if it’s the same on weekdays and on weekends. I’ve seen a table next to us order ćevapi, which didn’t appear on the menu at the time, triggering in me mixed feelings of envy (ćevapi are good) and complacency (I’m glad to try something else for once).
Don’t know what to pick? The waiter will bring a platter of the many fish du jour, sitting pretty on their bed of ice to help you decide. How could you resist this branzino’s puppy dog eyes?
For once, we’re gonna start by talking about the wine. With more and more countries in Eastern Europe producing wine that’s worth drinking, I’m happy to see their bottles on restaurant menus. Dubrovnik has several Croatian wines by the glass, many more by the bottle, together with the odd Romanian and Slovenian offerings, and all are reasonably priced. Piližota’s Babić is a nice red with a nose of dark berries and earthy notes (Babić is a native Croatian varietal), while the Bura Galeria is just OK. In the white section, the Enjingi Graševina is a natural wine made with Welschriesling, with a nose of autumn fruits and honey, and a crisp finish. There’s even wine made by the owner’s late relative: the Ivan Tomić Pošip 2013 (Pošip is another autochthonous grape varietal), a very light white that’s quite enjoyable.
If cocktails are more your thing, there’s a whole page of signature libations. From my limited tasting, they’re pretty good, with the occasional touch of kitsch such as ice cubes with blueberries frozen inside. Also, kudos for the tongue-in-cheek inclusion of Tito’s Vodka in the hard liquors. There’s also a Croatian vodka, Akvinta, which is used in most of the cocktails.
Let’s start talking about the food. First comes a plate of homemade bread with a chickpea spread and olive oil. The bread, which contains some cornmeal and an unidentified herb, is rather dense. I’m gonna assume that it’s some kind of traditional recipe, and in any case it’s great that they make their own bread. The spread reminds me a bit of hummus, but with mayo (or is it oil and lemon juice?), horseradish, and red pepper. It’s very good, in spite of (or because of?) the fact that I taste mostly the chunky chickpeas and the mayo, not the other ingredients. The olive oil is flavored with herbs.
The grilled sardines arrive fresh from the grill, seasoned with salt and topped with a little bit of garlic and herbs. Add a bit of olive oil and lemon juice, and the result is perfect. The thin line of red beet purée that decorates the plate goes rather well with the fish, but it’s too small to be really usable. The slaw on the side, just cabbage and carrot with probably a dash of vinegar and oil, is much preferable to its common American counterpart drowned in nasty salad dressing or mayo. Its mild taste actually balances the flavorful sardines quite well.
The Adriatic cuttlefish risotto is exactly what it claims to be. All I taste is cuttlefish ink (there’s more than enough so you can actually taste it, not just “Ooh!” at the black-colored rice), and the chunks of cuttlefish, quite tender despite the cephalopod’s inherently rubbery nature. The rice is well cooked, with the just the right texture. A good risotto, really focused on cuttlefish.
The fisherman’s soup consists of a fish broth with chunks of carrot, one shrimp, and small chunks of fish. Although the menu mentions rice as well, I don’t remember seeing any. The light, well-seasoned broth, sprinkled with parsley, boasts a very pleasant seafood taste. The shrimp is a bit overcooked but the fish isn’t. I tend to like my fish soups with more things going on, but this is nice too.
The “None’s style” octopus salad is a mix of steamed octopus, red onion, and boiled potatoes, tossed with olive oil, parsley, garlic (very mild), and a bit of lemon. It rests on a bed of arugula and tomatoes. The octopus is very well prepared and extremely tender. Very good, though quite large for an appetizer.
More octopus with the “Taste of the Adriatic” stew. Again, the stewed octopus is very tender, very good. The thin broth it’s served in tastes of tomato, garlic, a hint of spice, olive oil, and seafood (of course). It’s so flavorful that the flavors are almost too concentrated. The half-discs of sliced and toasted polenta are surprisingly airy, and almost remind me of couscous as they break down in my mouth. They can be used just like bread to mop up the broth, and in that regard only, their form and function are reminiscent of Czech bread dumplings. It’s a really excellent dish, though from something called “Taste of the Adriatic” I’d have expected mixed seafood rather than just octopus. Like many of the other dishes, this is a generous portion.
The green pasta with shrimp and black truffle is a Dalmatian specialty of sorts. What we get here is two colossal shrimp on top of a rather gigantic plate of fettuccine, topped with truffle and parsley. It’s unclear where the light green color of the fettuccine comes from, but the pasta does seem homemade. The black truffle is in fact summer truffle, which means that it doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor, but hey: this is what you get in the summer, and the fungus is shaved profusely over the dish. What is most annoying is the pronounced black truffle smell that comes not from the truffle itself, but from truffle oil in the pasta. There is way too much of it, and as a rule it’s definitely something I could do without. There’s a light cream sauce with mushrooms (that are not truffles), and I appreciate that the fettuccine are tossed — not drowned — in it. The grilled shrimp are OK; they’re a little overcooked, and not really seasoned. At least they taste grilled. Overall the dish is good, but not faultless.
To continue with dishes named after Croatian places, here’s the pork chop “Samobor style” (Samobor is a town near Zagreb). We’re talking about a pan-seared pork chop served with a garlic sauce, boiled potatoes, and a side of greens that you should eat to please your mom. The very thick chop tastes great and is perfectly cooked; ever so slightly pink inside, just as I like it. I can’t really taste the garlic in the sauce, but A) I’m not complaining, and B) when looking at the photoshopped pictures instead of at a plate in a dark dining room, I think I see some white specks. For the rest, I’d say it’s a kind of pan sauce made with the meat jus, salt, and a bit of butter. The potatoes are well cooked, and absorb the sauce nicely. The greens, which may or may not be broccoli rabe, must have been boiled without salt and just taste watery. This is pretty much how not to cook vegetables. They don’t even look pretty! But fear not, for to make the plate look nice, the decorative beet purée is back! There’s still too little of it to be useful, but this time it also doesn’t go with the rest of dish. And this isn’t the only ill-inspired garnish on the plate: we also get our very own whole chive sprig. I can believe this dish is a Croatian specialty, but pork and potatoes isn’t exactly original. At least, save for the greens and decoration, it’s well executed.
Next comes the gnocchi with veal ragu, though the dish’s name in Croatian is Teletina Na Lovaćki, “hunters’ veal”. The homemade, knife-cut gnocchi are light and pillowy. The small chunks of veal in the ragu are very tender, but I find the sauce quite acidic, maybe too tomatoey. Compared to my (non-Croatian) expectations from a veal ragu, it’s a light, simple sauce that lacks depth. Even when I try to think of it as “hunter’s veal” instead, I reach the same conclusion.
There are several dessert options, mostly Croatian and all homemade. Pair them with Croatian dessert wines, fruit brandies, homemade grappa, or the inevitable herb liqueur “originally introduced as a stomach medicine”.
The kremšnita, or Samoborska kremšnita to be precise (the things you learn on Wikipedia!), consists of a thick layer of vanilla custard and a thin layer of whipped cream, sandwiched between sheets of phyllo dough and topped with confectioner’s sugar. The light custard doesn’t taste much like vanilla, and there’s enough gelatin in it that it shakes like a boob every time the plate moves. For me, a rather bland and disappointing introduction to kremšnita.
The palačinke (crêpe) with Nutella® and vanilla ice cream is also disappointing. The crêpe is cold — and no, I don’t agree that it had to be, because of the ice cream. The ice cream doesn’t taste much like vanilla. Nutella® is Nutella®. The whole thing is drizzled with a chocolate syrup that tastes so-so. This dessert is not bad, just average. But my daughter says “it tastes very good because there’s enough Nutella®”, so that’s something.
Even the cheesecake looks homemade. There are so many restaurants that bring in outside cheesecakes that I’m actually somewhat surprised. We’ve got three layers: a thick and very dense crust, a cheese layer that’s slightly lemony, and a kind of cream on top. Kremšnita-meets-cheesecake, sort of. The result is just fine, not too sweet. Like the other desserts, this one comes with a half strawberry and a little salad of pineapple and cantaloupe, all bland.
Dubrovnik is a Croatian restaurant that tries hard to reproduce a little corner of the Adriatic, and most of the time the effort pays off. Sure, the decor can be a bit kitsch, and the band singing “Dal-maaaaa-cijaaaaa” is corny. But the food is really good, even if the desserts need improvement and some of the plates should catch up with modern plating. In particular, the menu promises great seafood, and delivers. Service is friendly and efficient, which is more than can be said about many places reviewed on this blog.
New Rochelle isn’t all that far from NYC. It is easily reached by train or by car. Depending where you live, it might even be closer than, say, Brighton Beach. I do want to go back and try some of the special order dishes, such as the meat roasted “under the bell” or the spit-roast baby lamb / kid goat / suckling pig. I’ll need some help, though — I don’t think my little family can scarf an entire brick-oven’s-worth of meat!
Picks: None’s style octopus salad, Adriatic cuttlefish risotto, “Taste of the Adriatic” octopus stew, grilled sardines
And one more time…