Where Poseidon Sets a Bountiful Table

September 15th, 2004 (R. W. APPLE Jr.)

WHEN I was asked this summer to lecture on a cruise along the Dalmatian coast, I accepted in a matter of minutes, having heard tales for years about its craggy beauty and captivating old cities, but I never dreamed that I would eat and drink well.

WHEN I was asked this summer to lecture on a cruise along the Dalmatian coast, I accepted in a matter of minutes, having heard tales for years about its craggy beauty and captivating old cities, but I never dreamed that I would eat and drink well. 

I guess I should have known better. Two of the most estimable fish restaurants in the United States, Uglesich's in New Orleans and Tadich's in San Francisco, now run by the Buich family, have Dalmatia in their DNA. I recall now that Dr. Ernesto Illy, the coffee king, once told me over dinner in Trieste, his base of operations, that the fish and shellfish on the Croatian side of the Adriatic Sea, where the bottom is mainly rocky, were better than those on the Italian side, where it tends to be muddier. 

Many Italians would no doubt disagree. Yet restaurateurs in Venice and in Puglia confess that some of the best fish that Italian boats bring into local ports are caught off Croatia, especially scampi (or langoustines) and branzino (or sea bass), but also sea scallops and monkfish. "The quality of their fish is really astonishing," said Cesare Benelli, the exacting owner of Al Covo, one of Venice's finest seafood trattorias. 

My wife, Betsey, and I couldn't agree more after sampling Dalmatian fish and shellfish, less thoroughly than we would have liked but adequately enough to judge how pristine, clear of taste and skillfully cooked it can be. As in Venice, which ruled much of the region for centuries, plenty of pasty risotto and overcooked squid is on offer in Croatia. In Dubrovnik an entire street, Prijeko, is lined with restaurants whose staff members stand outside, noisily touting their indifferent food. Again as in Venice, the best dishes are the simplest; ventures into creativity and complexity often end in fiascoes. 

But restaurants like Proto — a few steps off Dubrovnik's pedestrian-only main drag, whose limestone paving blocks have been polished to a high gloss by hundreds of thousands of feet — buy the best and know just what to do with it. We were stunned by the sweet, magically tender shrimp, cooked on a wooden skewer, and the ruddy scampi, which were so plump they could almost have passed for baby lobsters. 

They were rockets of flavor intensity that scored direct hits with us both. The young waiter told us why: "They were alive when they came in this morning — two or three minutes on the grill, depending on size, and this is it." 

Our lunch at Proto was one of those meals where everything worked perfectly. Our table, covered with a sea-blue cloth, was shielded from the fierce midday sun by an awning and cooled by a fresh breeze. I am not much of a fish salad fan, but my starter was exemplary — a mixture of delicately flavored baby octopus, succulent little mussels, chopped red onion, ripe tomatoes, fleshy black olives and round, wonderfully juicy Mediterranean capers. Betsey's shrimp came with a mound of saffron rice, every grain distinct and slightly crunchy, and a salad of tart rocket dressed with oil from Korcula. 

The espresso, with a perfect head of crema, would have pleased Dr. Illy, and it went very nicely, I thought, with a slug of slivovitz, the local plum eau-de-vie. Well, not exactly local; I thought I detected a note of regret in the waiter's voice as he took the order, and then I realized that slivovitz is Serbian, not Croatian. The last time I had been in these parts, the rival countries were both part of Yugoslavia. 

After decades of rule by Marshal Tito and his Communist brethren and years of internecine warfare, all Croatia is springing back to life. In Dalmatia, encompassing the strip of land along the Adriatic coast and the 1,000-odd offshore islands, fruit, vegetables and fish are piled high in outdoor markets. The tall, handsome Dalmatians are stylishly turned out. And the tourists, absent for so long, are beginning to return. 

Croatia may still be terra incognita to most Americans, but not to Europeans, who have watched a strapping Croatian tennis player, Goran Ivanisevic, win the Wimbledon singles title in 2001, and the Croatian soccer team battle mighty France to a draw in the European championships this year. 

Lured by the unpolluted, too-blue-to-be-true waters, the coruscating light and the scent of lemon trees and cypresses, celebrities, including Sean Connery, Andre Agassi and Gwyneth Paltrow, have discovered the island of Hvar, which is carpeted with wild lavender; the island of Korcula, a miniature Venice where Marco Polo may or may not have been born, and of course this ancient, golden city, of which George Bernard Shaw once said, "Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik." 

A big group from the cruise ship assembled for dinner one night at Proto's sister restaurant, Atlas Club Nautika. They put us at a long table on a terrace overlooking the sea, with a moonlit view of the Bokar fortress, one of the 15th-century bastions in the old city's massive, remarkably intact encircling walls. The langoustines were luscious again, if slightly smaller, and the proprietor brought out a silver tray with an array of glistening fish, dominated by a huge bream. 

But the oysters and mussels from farms near the village of Mali Ston at the base of the long, majestic Peljesac peninsula, northwest of Dubrovnik, seldom disappoint. Nor does Croatian street food, some of it familiar in neighboring countries in southeast Europe, like burek, a flaky pastry filled with cheese, delicious when fresh and hot, a gooey mess when not. Little grills set up in alleys and on street corners dispense raznjici, which are small kebabs, and thumb-size skinless sausages called cevapcici, made from pork, lamb or veal, or a blend, and bright with paprika, onions and garlic. 

Italy has left its mark as well, with a spicy fish stew called brodet, not unlike the famous brodetto of Ancona, the risottos of Venice, the pizzas of Naples and especially prsut (the word is pronounced pur-SHOOT, which gives you some idea what it is: a local variety of prosciutto). Prsut is a smoked ham that is home-cured in the bora, a dry winter wind that blows from the mountains through passes down to the sea. 

And as Rebecca West remarks in her monumental travel book, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," first published in 1941, people in this part of the Balkan peninsula "cook lamb and suckling-pig as well as anywhere in the world," especially in the hills behind the coast, where sage, thyme and basil grow in lush, perfumed profusion. 

What to drink with all this? Croatian wine, once celebrated, is staging a comeback, too, with a Dalmatian-American named Mike Grgich leading the charge. He immigrated to the United States in 1958, he likes to say, "to escape the Communists and find freedom." Settling in the Napa Valley, he made the 1973 Chateau Montelena that famously outshone white Burgundies at a Paris tasting, then founded Grgich Hills Cellar in Rutherford, where he continues to produce top-rated reds and whites. 

In 1996 he revisited his homeland, re-adopted his Dalmatian name, Miljenko Grgic, and founded a winery called Vina Grgic, near Trstenik on the rocky Peljesac peninsula. It is the first air-conditioned winery in Croatia and the first to use French barrels. Semiretired, he spends two months a year in Croatia, producing two wines we drank with great pleasure: Posip, a crisp, chalky, flowery white made from the same grape as Hungary's furmint, and Plavac Mali, a dense, chewy red, full of pepper and blackberry notes, which is a cousin of California's zinfandel. 

Although the Vina Grgic wines are costly, Croatia is proud of them. We found them featured on the lists at both of the top Dubrovnik restaurants, and you can drink Grgic Posip with the local oysters at Villa Koruna in Mali Ston. Most days Grgic wines appear at other ambitious restaurants, like Adio Mare, on Korcula, known for its grilled freshly caught octopus; Macondo, in an alley near the central square in Hvar, with a dandy seafood pâté; and Baban, in Split, a modern city that grew up in and around the palace that the Roman Emperor Diocletian built in the third century A.D. 

It may be true, as Ms. West wrote, that "this coast feeds people with other things than food," like glorious art and history. But the food's not so bad either.