Review: Konoba Matoni, Split Croatia

After our painstaking attempt to find a restaurant open for lunch in the city centre on our first day in Split, we decided not to leave things to chance on our second day. We spent the rest of the afternoon on our first day wandering the outskirts of town, along beaches and the stunning Adriatic Sea coastline, keeping an eye out for any restaurants that might be open for a meal on our second day. Luckily, we stumbled across Konoba Matoni near the Bacvice beach, and after perusing their menu decided to return for lunch on the next day.

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We arrived quite early at 12pm, when the restaurant was still empty. We were the first customers, and in fact, we were so early that the chef was still telling the waitress what to write up on the blackboard as the daily specials. It really wasn’t until about 1.30pm that the restaurant started to fill up with locals. Keep that in mind if you plan on visiting – if you want a busy bustling atmosphere, it’s best to dine a little bit later during the lunch period.

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The restaurant is quite cosy and homely. The subterranean space is lit up with warm lights throughout, and the first thing you see as you enter is their extensive wine collection. We didn’t sample any wine during our lunch, but it looked as though they had plenty to choose from – both local and foreign.

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We started off with some thick slices of freshly baked bread with a very hard crust but soft chewy insides. No butter or olive oil is offered with the bread, so it’s designed to be eaten by itself (it has enough flavour for it!), or to be dunked into soups and sauces.

Vegetable soup, 16 Croatian Kuna
Vegetable soup, 16 Croatian Kuna

One of the main appeals of Matoni was the inclusiveness of their menu – in many restaurants in Croatia, it’s hard to find a dish that doesn’t have either meat or seafood in it. It’s definitely a difficult place to visit for vegetarians or vegans! Matoni is different in that many of their dishes are vegetarian, and can be made vegan as well.

I chose this Vegetable and Barley Soup, one of the daily soups, as my starter. It’s an excellent example of how a simple hearty and flavourful soup can be made interesting by adding some last-minute texture – in this case, freshly popped popcorn on top for some extra crunch.

Croatian Cheeses (Broc Cheese, hard cheese made from cow's milk, smoked cheese in a marinade of olives, truffle sauce and capers), 76 Croatian Kuna
Croatian Cheeses (Broc Cheese, hard cheese made from cow’s milk, smoked cheese in a marinade of olives, truffle sauce and capers), 76 Croatian Kuna

When I think of cheese, I think of French cheeses mainly…but did you know that Croatian Cheeses are an up-and-coming industry as well? In particular, a local brand of sheep’s milk cheese actually won the 2014 World Cheese Championships – who would have known? We sampled three cheeses on the restaurant’s cheese platter – all hard cheeses (one aged more than the other), and all topped with a small ingredient designed to enhance the natural flavours of the cheese – capers, sesame seeds and pinenuts.

As delicious as the cheeses were, I think my pick on the platter was actually the fresh salad and the olives – the salad seemed like a simple coleslaw but turned out to have an extra fresh sweet green flavour from shredded snow peas, and the olives had been marinated to a melt-in-your-mouth perfection.

Cous Cous Clan (cous cous and beetroot salad, hemp seeds, cashews, mashed pumpkin, roasted mushrooms), 46 Croatian Kuna
Cous Cous Clan (cous cous and beetroot salad, hemp seeds, cashews, mashed pumpkin, roasted mushrooms), 46 Croatian Kuna

For my main, I chose another vegetarian/vegan option – the Cous Cous Clan, a beautifully presented dish that was almost too gorgeous to eat. Just look at those colours! The beetroot cous cous was really unique, with the beetroot providing a sweetness to the cooked cous cous that was only enhanced with the mashed pumpkin topping. The seeds on top (pepitas, sesame, sunflower and pinenuts) helped to add some much needed texture, while the plump juicy mushrooms added an earthiness to the dish to help cut through the sweeter cous cous and pumpkin. Now this is a dish worth recreating at home!

Smoked Duck Breast with Homemade Pasta in Truffle Sauce, 100 Croatian Kuna
Smoked Duck Breast with Homemade Pasta in Truffle Sauce, 100 Croatian Kuna

K ordered the Smoked Duck Breast with Homemade Pasta in Truffle Sauce, which really just had too much going on. The duck by itself had a strong gamey flavour, enhanced by the smoking process. The sauce on the duck was rich and salty, perfect for lighter meats. The pasta in truffle sauce was a delight, with thick noodles like Chinese noodles and the most aromatic truffle sauce ever.

All together though? The mishmash of flavours didn’t work, especially as the sauce on the duck started to mix on the plate with the truffle sauce. This dish would have been better served in a different way where the sauces couldn’t run together.

Raw brownie (plum and cinnamon sauce, pumpkin with vanilla sugar, raspberry sauce), 32 Croatian Kuna
Raw brownie (plum and cinnamon sauce, pumpkin with vanilla sugar, raspberry sauce), 32 Croatian Kuna

We finished off our meal with the Raw Brownie, a nutty cocoa and date concoction that had been lightened by the liberal dressing of berry sauce on top. I’m not going to claim that it was better than an actual brownie, because it wasn’t…but as a slightly healthier choice, I’d be more than happy to have a raw vegan brownie every so often as a change! It still had the nuttiness and richness that I like in my brownies, it just lacked that denser and more moist texture that comes with being able to use eggs in the mixture.

I have no hesitation in claiming that the vegetarian and vegan dishes at Konoba Matoni are the ones to choose, even if that’s not your usual choice on a menu. The flavours and textures work together extremely well in their vegetarian dishes, whereas the one meat dish we tried was much less coherent as a whole. With its location close to the local beach, you can definitely eat your fill at lunch before walking it off in the afternoon along the beautiful shoreline of the Adriatic Sea, where temperatures stay an even 16 degrees Celsius even in the depths of winter.

Konoba Matoni is located at 6 Prilaz Brace Kaliterna in Split, Croatia.

Review: Mazzgoon, Split Croatia

I wonder what it would be like to live in a tourist town, and to know that half of the local businesses will close down during the off season. It must make five months of the year incredibly dull, but that’s what the people in Split, Croatia, have to deal with.

When K and I were there in early February, we tried to visit a few different restaurants that we had looked up on TripAdvisor. They were all closed to some degree or another – some closed until April, others undergoing renovations and only serving drinks on their patio, and others have closed their kitchens altogether and are only offering coffee and cake. It turns the whole dining district into a real ghost town, and makes it very difficult for the tourists who visit in the off-season.

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One day, we spent an hour wandering the streets looking in vain for a restaurant that was still open for trade. Finally we stumbled across Mazzgoon down a little side-street in the old town. They’d closed their backyard dining area, but still had a handful of tables inside for locals looking for a meal.

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The restaurant is undoubtedly cool. It’s all hipster blackboard drawings, bare lightbulbs, waiters in bow ties and creatively designed menus. Thankfully it doesn’t have the high price tag to go with the cool environment. Prices are still very reasonable and on the whole, cheaper than many similar dining destinations in Split.

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We started with a bottle of sparkling water to share. K needed to be particularly conscious about keeping up his hydration levels given that he’d developed gout. Jamnica is a local water company, and I found their sparkling water had a bit too much of a salty mineral taste on the palate – quite different from a Perrier sparkling or a San Pellegrino sparkling.

Aromatic beetroot and pumpkin salad with roasted baguette and blue cheese dressing, 40 Croatian Kuna
Aromatic beetroot and pumpkin salad with roasted baguette and blue cheese dressing, 40 Croatian Kuna

A salad to share, advertised on the menu as a Beetroot and Pumpkin Salad, it turned out to be only a Beetroot Salad when delivered to the table as there was certainly no evidence of pumpkin anywhere in the dish. Still, it was an excellent mix, with the strong creamy blue cheese dressing setting off the sweetness of the beetroot. The crunchy almonds topped off the whole salad, and I swear the baguette had been dressed with garlic oil before roasting, giving it that extra kick. A small salad, but a good size to share between two people as a side.

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Bread is delivered to each table in a very cute wooden box. Interestingly, the bread was cut up into smaller chunks, rather than kept in larger slices. This actually works in its favour, as it was a much better size and shape for soaking up the excess sauce from the dishes you order – blue cheese dressing from the salad for example, or the eggplant puree in the seafood dish below.

From sea to the plate: Adriatic Tuna, Tiger Prawn and Octopus on Eggplant Cream, 125 Croatian Kuna
From sea to the plate: Adriatic Tuna, Tiger Prawn and Octopus on Eggplant Cream, 125 Croatian Kuna

Avoiding red meat because of his gout, K ordered the From Sea to Plate meal, a medley of local seafood from the Adriatic Sea. This was a beautifully constructed dish of a single plump grilled prawn, a smoky tender octopus tentacle, and two different pieces of grilled tuna – one quite lean, the other a fattier piece from the belly. As such, there was quite a good contrast of textures in the dish, and the smoked eggplant puree just helped to enhance the smoky flavours of the grill in the seafood.

Beef cheeks and wild mushrooms in our own puff pastry, 80 Croatian Kuna
Beef cheeks and wild mushrooms in our own puff pastry, 80 Croatian Kuna

In a reversal of our usual food choices, I ordered the Beef Cheeks and Wild Mushrooms in Puff Pastry, an unusual choice for me as I don’t often order red meat. This was a great choice though, with tender beef in a rich wine gravy encased in two small hand pies made of the most buttery and crumbly homemade puff pastry. It was quite a rich meal, so the inclusion of the small rocket and tomato salad on the side (only lightly dressed with balsamic vinegar) was a great counterbalance.

Mazgoon was a surprisingly excellent restaurant chosen out of desperation. Produce used is of the highest quality, and food is treated with love, care and respect, with the chef working hard to bring out its best qualities.

Note however, that it’s not a menu that is particularly kind to those with more challenging palates – seafood plays a large part on the menu, and a full vegetarian meal would be hard to find unless you order numerous side dishes and fill up on those. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to visit Mazzgoon again if I were to visit Split.

Mazzgoon is located at 1 Bajamontijeva in Split, Croatia.

Review: Captain America’s Hamburger Heaven, Forest Hill

Five years ago, I traversed the length of the West Coast of America with my friend Beth. Over the course of a month, we went from as far down south as Tijuana to as far north as Vancouver. Some parts of the trip still stick in my mind. Our day at Disneyland for example, or the beautiful drive through Washington State from Seattle to Forks (we went for a Twilight tour!).

I’d managed to forget whole other elements of the trip though, and Beth had to remind me recently that I had in fact had a go on the mechanical bull in a Wild West bar we visited. I don’t have an excuse for forgetting about those experiences…except perhaps the $15 bottles of vodka at CVS?

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In honour of our USA trip, we visited Captain America’s Hamburger Heaven at Forest Hill Chase on Beth’s recent 30th birthday which also happened to be the 4th of July. How apt! The cliched kitschy retro diner was only half-full given it was a Monday night, but there were a few other large groups with kids in the diner celebrating what looked like family birthdays.

USA Floats, $6.50 each
USA Floats, $6.50 each

We started our meal with a spider each, called USA Floats as you have your spider with American soft drinks. My pineapple Fanta tasted nothing like pineapple, but the extremely artificial fruity fizzy drink did go particularly well with the creamy vanilla ice-cream. Beth’s Sioux City Cream Soda became even more creamy with the ice-cream added!

Captain America's Celebrated Heavenly Burger, $19.90
Captain America’s Celebrated Heavenly Burger, $19.90

Beth had the classic Captain America’s Celebrated Heavenly Burger, stacked with the beef patty, fried egg, bacon, onion, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, cheese and a pickle, served with crispy crunchy chips on the side. The chips weren’t remarkable (I think the oil was a bit old), but the burger was exceptional with a deliciously grilled patty.

I did try to talk her into trying their burger challenge (a 1kg double burgr with 3o0gm of chips), but she wasn’t keen – and lucky that, as the standard burger was already so stacked that I can’t imagine what a double burger would even look like!

Pizza Burger, $15.50
Pizza Burger, $15.50

I chose a Pizza Burger with a beef patty topped with pizza sauce and cheese with lettuce, tomato, ham, olives, onion, mushrooms, capsicum and pineapple…wow! I couldn’t eat this with my hands, and had to attack it in pieces with a fork and knife.

I picked out the olives as they didn’t add much to the burger, and thought the pizza toppings were a bit soft overall. It would have worked better if there was a bit more texture – e.g. if the capsicum was smokier and grilled rather than softened and caramelised. Overall though, definitely a burger to tempt the tastebuds and clog your arteries.

Captain America’s Hamburger Heaven doesn’t do anything by halves. Burgers are ridiculously large and overindulgent, and you’ll barely need to touch the chips. I don’t even know who would need to order a starter or a dessert to go with their meal – we couldn’t even share a dessert between the two of us no matter how much we wanted a slice of good ole American apple pie. Definitely the place to go if you’re looking for kitschy diner overindulgence in Melbourne!

Captain America’s Hamburger Heaven is located in Forest Hill Chase, at 138/270 Canterbury Road, Forest Hill.