Review: Asia T House, Zagreb Croatia

It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve and you find yourself in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, with an inexplicable desire for Chinese food to mark the start of the new year. So you google “Chinese food Zagreb” and the first result is a Japanese and Thai fusion restaurant.

You keep searching and further results lead you to an article that states there are only 492 Chinese people living in the whole of Croatia. It doesn’t seem promising, and you begin to lose heart. Finally you strike gold and find Asia T House, a cafe cum restaurant cum grocery store. Sure, the menu seems to incorporate elements of Japanese, Thai and Malaysian cuisine, but it seems to be as close as you’re going to come to Chinese food.

That’s the process I had to go through to find a halfway decent Chinese restaurant in Zagreb, and it would be even harder in smaller and less cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe. Luckily, Asia T House managed to provide us with the low-key Chinese New Year celebration that K and I were looking for and as a bonus, we even picked up some small treats at the grocery store to enjoy over the following days – canned lychees, sesame mochi, and more.

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Asia T House actually offered a special Chinese New Years Eve dinner banquet set for about 250 Croatian Kuna per person – however the event had been fully booked out by the time we heard about it, so we settled for going for lunch instead. Again, we arrived quite early for lunch and were the first in the restaurant. Other guests didn’t arrive until about 1pm – so dine a bit later in the day if you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb!

Jasmine tea, 15 Croatian Kuna
Jasmine tea, 15 Croatian Kuna

I chose to order a Jasmine Tea, a bit of an indulgence as I’d been getting my tea fix by having green tea from teabags (heaven forbid!) while on our travels. There’s nothing quite like the crispness and slight floral scent of steeped fresh jasmine tea leaves to help invigorate my soul – it’s a balm, a tonic, a remedy.

Jiao Zi and Siu Mai, 25 and 39 Croatian Kuna
Jiao Zi and Siu Mai, 25 and 39 Croatian Kuna

K and I ordered some dumplings to start – one serve each (four in a serve) of the Jiao Zi and the Siu Mai. You can choose to have the jiao zi either fried or steamed, but we opted for steamed so as to have it served at the same time as the siu mai. You can probably tell from the picture that these weren’t the best steamed dumplings in the world. The dumpling skin was a bit thick and gluggy and they just weren’t as elegantly wrapped as they could be. The filling was delicious though, so I hope that we still get the wealth in 2016 that dumplings promise!

Tofu with vegetables and peanuts and curry, 59 Croatian Kuna
Tofu with vegetables and peanuts and curry, 59 Croatian Kuna

I went for the Tofu with Vegetables, Peanuts and Curry. I know you’re really not supposed to eat tofu on Chinese New Year because the colour white is associated with death, but this was fried tofu and therefore golden representing wealth. We spent a lot of money on this trip through Europe, so we could do with all the help we can get in building up our wealth again!

It was a surprisingly delicious dish, something that I would order quite happily and enjoy in a traditional Cantonese restaurant back home in Australia. The tofu was firm and fresh, there was an excellent mix of winter vegetables, and the curry sauce was rich and aromatic. The dish was made all the more delicious by having steamed rice on the side. We’d been using rice in a bag for ease while travelling, but it just isn’t the same as the fluffy white grains you get when you use a rice cooker.

Home-made noodle s with crispy chicken drumsticks, 59 Croatian Kuna
Home-made noodle s with crispy chicken drumsticks, 59 Croatian Kuna

K ordered Homemade Noodles with Crispy Chicken – noodles for longevity. This dish was all about the wok hei – that indescribable smoky charred flavour that you get with fried rice and noodle dishes when the wok has been properly heated up to a high temperature and the ingredients get full exposure to the gas flame. The noodles had it in full, making it one of the most satisfying noodle dishes we’d had for a very long time. The only disappointing thing is that we didn’t get the crispy chicken drumsticks as described on the menu – instead it was a crispy chicken fillet. Still, there are worse things!

Fried fresh pineapple with palm sugar and ice-cream, 38 Croatian Kuna
Fried fresh pineapple with palm sugar and ice-cream, 38 Croatian Kuna

We finished off our meal with a dessert to share – Fried fresh pineapple with palm sugar and ice-cream. So simple, but so delicious. Ihonestly not something I’ve ever thought to make myself. Pineapple fritters with ice-cream certainly, but simply coating pineapple with palm sugar before frying so that it’s deliciously caramelised? It’s pure genius, and something I’m going to have to try to make when I get home.

Asia T House isn’t a truly authentic Chinese restaurant experience – it’s run by local Croatians for a start, even if there are mainland Chinese working in the kitchens. There’s also way too much Japanese and Thai influences in the menu for it to be passably genuine Chinese food. However, as far as surprisingly delicious Chinese-style meals in Eastern Europe goes…this is probably one of the top contenders. I’d recommend Asia T House if you ever find yourself in Zagreb over Chinese New Year, and don’t forget to drop into their grocery store to buy some snacks that remind you of home, like sesame mochi!

Asia T House is located at 9 Vlaska Ulica in Zagreb, Croatia.

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.