According to Daniel Boulud, the French-born, New York-based but peripatetic chef, the preparation of first courses is a far more attractive proposition than main courses for both customer and chef as well as for the enjoyment of the wine.
His theory is based on the following observations. First courses are served when the customer is hungriest and the senses are at their most appreciative. They can be enjoyed at a variety of temperatures – unlike main courses that are invariably served hot and inevitably to show off the main red wine. And first courses inevitably provide the sommelier, and the host, with a wider range of grape varieties to play with.
These thoughts ran through my mind at the end of my second meal in Croatia and only underlined the extent to which food and wine have improved here.
It was certainly the first courses that caught my eye on the menu of Mazzgoon in Split although this was not the only unusual feature about this restaurant.
Like so many in the city it is located in the area known as Diocletian's Palace, Split's historic centre close to the harbour. The restaurant operates from a dark corner of the city walls that date back to the sixth century AD and must ensure that cooking there presents a unique set of challenges such as storage, or the absence of it, as well as a tight space for both diners and the friendly waiting staff. When the weather permits, the restaurant spills out on to the terrace shown above.
Despite these spatial limitations, the chefs, who, as ever these days, appear to be no older than 25, seemed extremely earnest and highly motivated. They operate from behind a counter – the phrase an open kitchen would imply that they had a choice in the matter – with a thick piece of wood acting as the service counter. On here, seen behind José Vouillamoz, co-author of Wine Grapes who was dining with us, there was a vast array of potted herbs, as seems common throughout the country.
The two first courses that caught my eye were described as 'red mullets new clothes' and a 'very important salad'. The first of these was two fillets of this delicious fish served raw, but cut into three and then twirled and served on their end before being finished with a fresh dressing and topped with sprigs of chervil. It was excellent, although relatively insignificant in size in comparison with my guest's salad that came in a bowl crammed with the freshest vegetables and salad leaves. Both were a fine accompaniment to a dry white Stina Pošip 2015 from the nearby island of Brač. [They had run out of the Plavac Mali made on the island of Hvar by British Master of Wine, ex Marks & Spencer buyer, Jo Ahearne – JR]
Our main courses, scampi served on a garlic and potato puree with local caviar and beef cooked sous vide were good, as is this restaurant's practice of offering only three desserts - one chocolate, one lemon based and one cake topped with hazelnuts - but it was the innovation of the first courses, as well as the style of the welcome and the service, that were even more notable. An explanation of the restaurant's unusual name, a slight elongation of the Croatian word for mule, is given on the paper bag that is used to deliver the bill (1340 Kn, £152 for three, including wines).
There are certain physical similarities between Mazzgoon and Pelegrini, 75 kilometres away to the north and apparently within reach of the cruise ships that dock in Split, in the historic city of Šibenik. But here at least there is light from the large window, on the left on the ground floor of the building shown below, that provides a view of the Adriatic, and the stone that was originally used to build a fortress that has for the past 10 years been home to chef Rudolf Štefan is lighter than that from which Mazzgoon has been hewn.
Perhaps it is because Štefan is entirely self taught (he began his career in hospitality aged 22 as a summer barman on one of Croatia's many islands) that he has had the confidence to take on and transform one of the country's classic dishes. A dish that for me at least, has only unpleasant memories.
I am referring to his interpretation of a 'russian salad', a cold combination of dried-up remnants of salad leaves, potatoes and tomatoes. At least that is how I remember it when I last saw it at the canteen of Manchester Grammar School in the 1960s.
What the young chefs under Štefan produced was almost its antithesis although using the same, if much fresher, ingredients. In a dark green bowl (all of the restaurant's crockery is the result of a long collaboration with a potter near Zagreb) came a puree of French beans with a few still whole but chopped, a rich mayonnaise cream and salad leaves, topped with fragments of local ham and small cubes of Parmesan cheese and cherry tomatoes quartered. It was an excellent foil for the 2015 white made locally by Bibich from Debit grapes that had excellent bite and length.
The skills of this kitchen are by no means restricted to the many early courses we were served, although a local oyster served before the salad was one of the freshest I have ever tasted. Also impressive was a piece of veal cooked sous vide and served 'under the bell', a modern twist on the old custom of cooking meat under a terracotta lid at very hot temperatures on wooden embers. A creamy ice cream made from the first of this season's asparagus was particularly memorable.
As Croatia's economy is increasingly dependent on tourism, its chefs are rising to the challenge.
Mazzgoon Bajamontijeva 1, Split; tel +385 98 98 777 80
Pelegrini Jurja Dalmatanica 1, Šibenik; tel +385 22213 701