Dubrovnik has seen her visitor numbers swell in recent years, not least because of so-called “set-jetters”: tourists intent on visiting the locations of films and TV shows. The city’s famous walls featured in Game of Thrones, and the ramparts now throng with fans who, one suspects, are better acquainted with Westeros than with Croatia.
I would suggest two ways for the visiting gourmet to avoid the crowds. Firstly, take a day trip to Ston, an hour’s drive northwest of Dubrovnik: as well as having less-populated (but still magnificent) walls and fortresses, Ston, and its smaller neighbour Mali Ston, are famous for shellfish, especially oysters. I happily slurped a dozen at Vila Koruna. Unlike much of the bivalve-producing world Mali Ston still has a plentiful supply of Ostrea edulis – the flat native oyster – and they were excellent: mineral-rich and singing of the sea.
Locals attribute the quality of their oysters to the clean waters that sparkle on the other side of Vila Koruna’s huge windows – waters that are also home to the rare Arca noae, the Noah’s Ark shell: a pungently ozone-rich, mussel-like creature. There are huge clams, too, both farmed and wild (a rewarding chew). Wash down your molluscs with a glass or two of Posip, the dry, fragrant Croatian white wine.
The other method of sidestepping the hordes is to stay in Dubrovnik and book a table at 360˚, one of just three Michelin-starred restaurants in Croatia. 360˚ commands its own stretch of battlements with (as the name suggests) splendid views in all directions, and offers an imaginative, refined version of Croatian cuisine in a glorious alfresco setting.
Chef Marijo Curic has a fine grasp of both flavour and texture. A brace of langoustines, for instance, are wrapped in kataïfi pastry (resembling shredded wheat, it is most often found dripping with nuts and honey in Greek desserts) and paired with Jerusalem artichokes done three ways: pickled in thin slices; as a brunoise of tiny cubes; and as a smooth, fluffy purée. A foamy reduction of langoustine shells adds sonorous depth to the dish.
Meaty tentacles of al dente octopus swim in a rich fish broth with fennel and – rather audaciously – a few ravioli filled with lime, giving a pleasingly citric tang. Sweet, fat clams and a rich cauliflower cream garnish two fine tranches of turbot, almost wobbly with gelatin and full of flavour. Slow-cooked pork neck is topped with the crunch of some properly piggy shards of chicharrón.
360º would be a terrific restaurant even without its peerless views of the Old Town, the harbour and the Adriatic. Finishing my dinner with coffee and a local version of grappa, I feel as fortified as Dubrovnik herself.