I’m out on a Saturday night with two food-loving friends. It’s fall, and 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-flavored 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 inches, my head would hit it and there would be nowhere else to go. Back then, Zagreb meant long winters laced with fog, peeling facades 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 facades 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.
September 2013, 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 walkup. 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 neighborhood. 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 neighborhood a few streetcar stops farther east.
I quickly realized 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 facades — 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 colorful 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 favorite table, in a corner facing the street. This is where I would sit and write, fueled 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 neighborhood 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 neighborhood: Booksa, a book club-cafe that draws an intellectual crowd and remains generously open till 8 p.m. 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 muffinlike delicacy with Breton short crust, hazelnut crumble and apples that are baked for 24 hours.
Next door is 5/4. Making their way onto 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 flavors, despite the repetition in some of the dishes, but found it curious that the chef, wearing hipster pink tracksuit bottoms, greeted every single table that night except ours. When the bill came, $470 for the three of us, what might have passed as a chef’s caprice felt more like a service faux pas. But this is Croatia, where service is but an afterthought, and chefs will be chefs.
There was even more change in my neighborhood. 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 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.