Zagreb - I’m out on a Saturday night with two food-loving friends. There’s a slight chill in the air. We walk through the arched doorway of an unassuming building and into the dimly lit interior. A heavily tattooed hostess escorts us to the chef’s table facing an open-plan kitchen.
“We’ll bring out dishes one by one,” she says, “until you say stop.”
First comes a shot of trnina, a wild plum-flavoured rakija (the Croatian version of grappa), then a parade of small plates – pickled vacuum-cooked tongue on a bed of apple and horseradish salad, followed by venison steak with mushrooms, polenta and beechnut crisp.
Looking around, we could be anywhere, except that each dish is a creative take on the traditional fare of Croatia, with a focus on regional ingredients sourced from small producers. We are at 5/4, the hottest new restaurant in Zagreb, presided over by Dino Galvagno, deemed by food cognoscenti and local media as the most adventurous and temperamental chef in the Croatian capital.
Two decades ago, when I left the city of my birth, Zagreb was a very different place. There were no hot tables or big-name chefs. In the early 1990s, the city was the newly minted capital of a just-independent Croatia. The Yugoslav war was still in full swing, and the proverbial ceiling felt so low that I thought if I grew just a few more centimetres, my head would hit it and there would be nowhere else to go. Back then, Zagreb meant long winters laced with fog, peeling façades of varying shades of gray, and a dearth of options and diversity. Living in Croatia, I craved the world.
Some cities feel like impossible loves: They get under your skin, but you know that the relationship can never work out. So in September 1993, fresh out of high school, I packed up and left, sure that something bigger lay ahead. There’d be love affairs with other cities, I thought. Greater cities.
While I was gone, Zagreb lived through war, then welcomed peace. But my relationship with it never turned peaceful. Having left my parents and oldest friends behind, I returned at least once a year. Sometimes I stayed a few weeks. Typically, toward the end of week two, I’d begin to feel a tightness in my chest, the skies would start closing in around me, the façades would appear even grayer, the streets – even on a sun-splashed day with packed sidewalk cafes – dull.
Two decades whizzed by. And a subtle shift began to take place. My visits to Zagreb gradually became longer and more frequent. Because what I’d once considered the most boring capital in the world had slowly blossomed into a pocket-size metropolis with a palpable, pulsating energy.
After an extended bout of worldwide travel, and needing a break from New York, I recently decided to go back to the womb for a spell. I was both terrified and elated.
Last September, exactly 20 years since I’d left, and two months after Zagreb became the European Union's newest capital, found me in a light-bathed one-bedroom sublet on the top floor of a walk-up. From the north-facing windows of my bathroom and the kitchen balcony, I could see the hospital where I was born and, on a gently rising hill, the one where my father had taken his last breath. Each morning I awoke to the poignant reminders of this cycle.
And each morning, I set out to explore the city I now lived in. First, my neighbourhood. Every day, I walked past the block-long building known as the Vatican, so-called because it was built by the archdiocese of Zagreb in the 1920s. I lived in the Vatican – what a claim to make – the first nine months of my life, in a high-ceilinged apartment that my parents and grandparents shared. When the apartment was sold, we moved to a neighbourhood a few streetcar stops farther east.
I quickly realised that I’d unknowingly moved to Zagreb’s most up-and-coming street. Marticeva, a 10-minute amble east of the main square – the 19th century Trg Bana Jelacica with its manicured façades – rose in the 1930s at the height of Zagreb's economic boom. I remember it from my childhood in the ’80s as a drab stretch lined with storefronts selling auto parts, a place that offered no reasons to pause.
But starting a couple of years ago, the abandoned shops began to take on a new life as arty cafes, swank shoe shops and health food stores. Suddenly, the western stretch of Marticeva became the place to be. The old world remained, too. At Kvatric food market, I started figuring out which fishmonger hawks the freshest tuna, which kerchiefed old lady sells the greenest broccoli and which stall carries goat cheese.
I developed routines, an exotic habit for someone who has lived life mainly on the move. In the mornings, I walked to Blok Bar, a cafe-bar a block from Marticeva, on a quiet corner shaded by birch trees. Without my having to ask, the waiter or waitress would bring out a long espresso, which I drank slowly under white umbrellas on a wooden deck with plant-filled pots. Sometimes I ran into friends. Sometimes I sipped my coffee solo. Occasionally I popped by in the evenings for a shot of rakija or a glass of Plavac Mali (a rich Dalmatian red). If it’s breezy, the staff puts out colourful blankets that you can wrap yourself in. Or I grabbed a seat inside the swank glass cube, which seats barely 10.
Sometimes I’d forgo my al fresco fix at Blok and head instead to Divas, a former fashion boutique turned boho coffeehouse. Inside, rustic accents compete with flowery chintz – a pink chandelier, mismatched chairs, 1970s lamps. I have a favourite table, in a corner facing the street. This is where I would sit and write, fuelled by coffee. One day, bringing the long espresso I hadn’t had to ask for, the waiter said teasingly: “You never change, huh?” “One day I’ll surprise you and order something crazy,” I said. “Like a macchiato.”
On Sunday afternoons, my neighbourhood goes quiet; both Blok and Divas are closed. One Sunday, a friend from San Francisco swung by Zagreb. We were to meet for coffee, but where? Then I remembered another fixture, a pioneer of change in the neighbourhood: Booksa, a book club-cafe that draws an intellectual crowd and remains generously open till 8pm on Sundays. At this cultural hub, which hosted my one and only poetry reading in Croatia back in 2004, we had a long catch-up session.
I was able to satisfy other needs within a 10-minute radius from my apartment building. When I needed a hit of something sweet, I headed to Mak Na Konac, a recently opened cake shop named for its poppy-seed cake, a moist marzipan-covered sponge filled with raspberry jam and glazed with chocolate ganache. I popped by there to grab dessert for friends’ dinner parties – like Bretonka apple pie, a muffin-like delicacy with Breton short crust, hazelnut crumble and apples that are baked for 24 hours.
Next door is 5/4. Making their way on to our plates the night we ate there were such overlooked edibles as wild herbs and weeds (think rowan, salt marsh and sea lettuce) and the parts of an animal you’d ordinarily throw away. Peta cetvrtina – what the Italians call quinto quarto, or “fifth quarter” – consists of the normally discarded parts of an animal, like offal, the feet and the snout. Once the food of the poor, today it’s a feast reserved for well-heeled Zagreb residents and foreign foodies looking for a fine dining experience in the Croatian capital.
Our chef’s-table experience lasted four hours; we managed 14 courses, dessert included. I loved the flavours, despite the repetition in some of the dishes.
There was even more change in my neighbourhood. A basement bar named Mojo had opened on the western end of Marticeva. On a moonlit Tuesday night, I found myself inside this smoky spot with artwork-plastered brick walls, listening to live music by a barefoot Hungarian singer named Boca, a Colombian from Cartagena by the name of Jairo on the bass and Mirsad, a Kosovo gypsy, on the drums. The syncopated rhythms, shots of travarica (herb grappa) and a sea of faces I didn’t know made me feel as if I were in an unknown city.
I set out farther afield as well. On rainy afternoons, you’d sometimes find me at Cafe U Dvoristu, tucked away in a serene courtyard in another part of the town centre, the Habsburg-flavoured Donji Grad (Lower Town). I headed there whenever I missed the States; the laid-back cafe feels like a slice of Brooklyn, with its coffee roasted in France and the walnut lattes served on suitcases dressed as tables.
On weekends, I’d pop by Mali Plac Na Tavanu, a food market held in the attic of Jelena Iva Nikolic, a food stylist and blogger I met at a yoga class. Every Saturday there, small producers peddle their edible wares and natural cosmetics, which anybody’s invited to sample and take home. You’ll find just about anything, from quail eggs, cold-pressed hemp oil and vegan pies to goji berries, elderflower juice and donkey milk. Get friendly with the dynamic team behind the gathering, and you’ll be privy to their word-of-mouth brunches and other events.
On an unseasonably warm mid-October afternoon, about 10 of us showed up for what was no ordinary brunch. An all-you-can-eat spread included raw cauliflower salad with garlic, goat yogurt, pickled French beans and alfalfa sprouts; grilled anchovies with baked jalapenos, figs and salty cheese; and chicken and turkey liver with quince and onions. We ate on the attic’s terrace, with a view out to the gardens and the spires of the cathedral, lording it over the city from the hilltop quarter where Zagreb originally began.
One Wednesday, a friend invited me to a jazz concert. Hours later, I was listening to tight free-styling by pianist Vijay Iyer, considered one of the world’s best, and his trio. The jazz birds of Zagreb all came out that night to Lisinski Concert Hall, which was hosting the annual Jazz.hr Festival. At one point, I closed my eyes and felt transported to some other place.
Zagreb still feels like Vienna’s little brother, the underachiever sibling who tries hard to prove himself worthy of central Europe, despite the rough edges that hark back to communist times and the city’s strait-laced provincialism. But something is different now.
I used to say that Zagreb couldn’t surprise me. But then the city changed. Or perhaps it was I who changed. After a lifetime abroad, I was now looking at the city through a new lens. Suddenly surprises lurk everywhere.
One afternoon I spotted some lines by Anais Nin glued to a gray wall: “And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I guess I had to leave to blossom – and to see Zagreb blossom. Now, I was quietly falling in love with the city I’d tried so hard to forget.
WHERE TO STAY
Adorable B&B with four themed rooms, a 10-minute walk from the main square. Rooms from $70. (R770)
Grande dame of Zagreb hotels, once on the Orient Express route. Rooms from $165.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Five-course menus start at $52.
Courtyard spot serving burritos, tacos and wraps. Entrees from $3.50.
Coffees from $1.40.
Drinks from $1.80.
Jurja Zerjavica 7/2
Coffees from $1.80.
WHAT TO DO
Food market held every Saturday from 11am to 7pm.
Trg Stjepana Radica 4