Where to Go if You’re
In the Mood for Croatian
The setting is a Murray Hill townhouse. At the entrance is a long mahogany bar where a handful of men in open-necked shirts are quietly watching a baseball game on TV with the sound turned off. The strains of a piano playing “As Times Goes By” drift down a short flight of stairs that leads up to the dining room: a long room that feels like a first-class dining car on the Orient Express (except it’s twice as wide). It’s done up with dark wood, brocade banquettes, heavy beveled mirrors, candle-lit sconces, smoked-glass ceiling lamps and small framed Impressionist prints. The tables, set with white cloths, are decorated with brandy glasses stuffed to the brim with overblown red roses.
Welcome to Trio, which claims to be the only restaurant in Manhattan that serves Croatian cuisine. As the pianist struck up “Fascination,” we sat down in a booth under Monet’s Water Lilies , near a middle-aged couple having an animated conversation in Croatian and drinking grappa.
Trio is owned by a Croatian, John Ivanac, who is also the proprietor of Villa Berulia-a popular Italian restaurant just a block away that’s been going strong for 21 years. His latest venture is a family affair: His wife Silva is the pastry chef, and his son, John Jr., is the general manager. Chef James Rich, who was formerly chef de cuisine at BrasserieBit and executive sous chef at Palio, runs the kitchen-he’s not a member of the family, but his grandmother was from Croatia.
Croatia is a strip of land that runs along the Adriatic Coast. Its cuisine is influenced by a few nearby countries: Italy, Austria and Greece. From Italy come seafood stews and pasta; from Greece, cheeses and grilled fish; from Austria, pastries such as palacinka and strudel. Mr. Ivanac grew up poor in a small coastal village. He left his family at the age of 16 to work as a waiter on a luxury cruise liner and jumped ship in New York. In Croatia, his family had produced wine and olive oil-not exactly a lucrative business in those days-but now the farm supplies the restaurant with cured meats, cheeses, olive oils and homemade grappas. There are also some impressive Croatian wines on the list, priced between $25 and $48, that are well worth trying.
To get in the mood, we started off with a bottle of red Croatian wine, Dingac, from the Peljesac region, and dalma, a platter of charcuterie and cheeses from the coast.
“Let me explain you some dishes,” said our charming young waiter, who told us he was half-Croatian and half-Italian. He was smartly dressed in a black shirt and dark striped tie. As he leaned over the table to identify the meats and cheeses he’d just set down, his tie landed squarely in a dish of olive oil. It was like a skit from Fawlty Towers . We all laughed as he dabbed his tie with a napkin and started again. “That must be prosciutto,” I said, pointing at some dark pink slices on the plate. “Great!”
He looked surprised. “You like that! Are you Croatian?”
It was prosciutto, but made from lamb, not pig, and it came from Mr. Ivanac’s estate. It had a rich, meaty flavor, like duck prosciutto. The platter also held smoked beef; a sausage similar to mortadella (also brought in from his farm); a mild, creamy feta, manchego and sheep’s-milk cheeses; and black and green olives marinated in garlic and herbs. It was the kind of simple dish you imagine ordering in a local cantina at sunset with a glass of the house wine.
But the food at Trio is more ambitious, and the chef casts his net far and wide. Crab Louis is not exactly a traditional Croatian dish (I believe it dates back to the 1920’s, to some fancy hotel like Delmonico’s). Mr. Rich folds the crab meat into a pink mayonnaise and serves it with slices of avocado in an updated presentation, on a radicchio leaf. The grilled calamari took us back to the Adriatic coast: It’s a little tough, but nicely charred and served with a wonderful, light balsamic sauce. The seafood salad is also fresh and clean-tasting, mixed with potatoes and onions in a red-wine vinaigrette.
Mr. Rich has altered some Croatian dishes for American tastes, such as the strukli, turnovers that are normally made with pastry. He uses a pasta dough instead, to make large ravioli that he fills with a seductive mixture of goat’s-milk ricotta, salt cod, raisins and pine nuts, and serves with a roasted-garlic beurre fondue. The ravioli were a bit leathery around the edges, but the filling was wonderful.
Just about every seafood dish seems to be on target here. Poached monkfish with grilled prawns, braised leeks and pommes maximes is a terrific combination, even though it comes with what is described on the menu as “a 25-year-old balsamic drizzle.” Roasted whole Atlantic sea bream stuffed with herbs comes Croatian-style on a bed of melting braised cabbage. My favorite was the buzara, a subtle seafood stew in a tomato white-wine broth laced with chunks of fish, scallops, shrimp, potatoes and clams.
On another night at Trio, we had a different waiter who was not quite as charming as the one who’d dipped his tie in oil. We ordered a mixed grill for two that consisted of kielbasa, a Croatian sausage called cevapcici (a blend of pork, lamb and beef), lamb chops and steak. The dish was garnished with artichoke chips and a bright-pink coleslaw made with red and white cabbage marinated in a red-onion vinaigrette, and it came with three different sauces. I asked what they were.
“Typical Croatian sauce,” replied the waiter.
“What’s that?” I persisted.
He shrugged. “Mustard,” he said, indicating with his finger. “Red pepper. Brown sauce.”
(The red sauce, in fact, is called ajvar and is made with eggplant, red peppers and roasted vegetables; the brown sauce is bordelaise, and the yellow sauce is a mustard-
Desserts include a feathery strudel (the fillings change daily) and rozata, a flan made with a purée of strawberries. The palacinka (crêpes) come filled with a berry mousse and were served cold; they were pleasant, but I prefer them hot.
After dinner, Trio offers a digestif on the house (one of the restaurant’s many nice touches). Of the dozen or so house-made grappas to choose from, we tasted the “fig,” the “home blend” and what our waiter described as “wild grasses.” They were all very good, but the fig was our favorite.
Trio is a charmer of a restaurant. It’s different, comfortable and old-fashioned in a thoroughly endearing way. When’s the last time you said, “Let’s go out for Croatian”? Now’s your chance.