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Croatia - crazy clothes, crazy names, crazy paving

Published 8 August 2010
News Review
890th article

From left: Maria, Vigo, Smiljan and Michael at Konavoski Komin in Croatia (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

Goran Strok, Croatian hotel owner supreme, took us at ludicrous speed in his BMW up the winding mountain roads behind Dubrovnik. Goran used to be a racing driver and he can't forget it. Even on the way down, after a big meal, with his wife Renate pleading, "Go slower," Yorrie lurched on.

Away from the bastardised coastline of Croatia and you can find gems. We ended up in a tiny mountain village, Velji, near Cavtat. Neither of which you've heard of. Nor do you know the restaurant Konavoski Komin. That's why I'm on the planet. To tell you about such places. This one is a magical 300-year-old stone farmhouse with terraces overlooking a valley. During the war, the Serbians used it as their army HQ.

The owner is an old man, Vigo Siljug; the chef, Stepan Martinovic. Vigo's daughters, Maria and Smiljan, help out. Love those Croatian names. We started with local herb grappa. Fantastic. Went on to prosecco with cheese. Then the best prosciutto I've ever eaten, served with little onions from Vigo's garden.

He takes three months to prepare the prosciutto. It's hung up in another stone house with a fire to smoke it and a draught to get the smoke out.

Main course was young lamb and veal baked on charcoal for four hours under an iron bell. Historic beyond belief. The potatoes, cooked in the juices of the lamb, were fantastic too. To balance this, the bread was rubbery, the apple strudel, horrific. Tasted as if it had been sitting about. Should have come straight from the oven.

Maria is photographed wearing Dalmatian costume. There's a website where you can buy those. Smiljan, in grey, only works at the restaurant occasionally.

Now to the Taverna Bota Sare in an old building in Mali Ston. We got there after a depressing coastal drive. Ugly, large new hotels going up. Nasty, nasty. The restaurant manager, Jerko Radic, moved our table into the road overlooking hills and the sea. A driver going by couldn't believe five people were eating in the road and crashed into a bollard with a bang.

I haven't eaten an oyster since Barbados four years ago, when one, from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, did my left leg in. If you ate an oyster from the Gulf of Mexico now you'd get 60 miles to the gallon. I tried Croatian oysters, some fried some not. I lived. Then sensational bread, black squid risotto, sea bass.

Dessert, which dated from the 15th century, was made of pasta, nuts, apple, cinnamon, chocolate, almonds, lemon and dates. Very heavy. Everyone was watching so I ate more than I wanted.

My final Croatian expose is Kamenice, in a beautiful old square in Dubrovnik. Locals go there. The serving ladies look like they're running a Communist prison, but they were efficient and charming. Terrible bread. Excellent scampi in tomato sauce. Small fish called jerite, which tasted like whitebait. The only dessert was crème caramel so I had that.

Pretty good. Lovely setting. Not expensive. A million times better than Gil's, Dubrovnik's "in" place, which looks and tastes like a 1970 fiasco gone wrong. Far and away the best is Nautika, which I told you about. I mention it again in case you forgot.

  • The chef Jonathan Wright is a man of taste. When he owned the Gousse d'Ail restaurant in Oxford he ran out of the kitchen screaming and threatened to kill me with a kitchen knife. I met him again last Christmas when he worked at the Setai in Miami, a marvellous hotel with amazing food. Jonathan was a delight. A changed man. He's just signed to be the executive chef at Sandy Lane, Barbados. I wish him well.

  • Had to laugh at a press release from Gordon Ramsay about October's re-opening of the Savoy Grill. It said, "Main courses will include lobster thermidore and beef wellington from the trolley". In an interview Gordon once said the trolley was the enemy of good food: it dried out meat. He'd never have one.

    I wrote that this was a load of cobblers. Some of the best meat I've ever had was served to me from a trolley. I asked Gordon to comment on his change of mind. He declined. Nice to see, as blabbermouth approaches old age and penury, he's come round to my way of thinking.

  • Lunch at home: outstanding grilled plaice, major melon to start and a superb pavlova, meringue, fruit and cream, from my wonderful cook, Lulu. My American guest was Paul Winnowski, the newish UK and other areas boss of Chubb alarms.

    My 40 years with Chubb have been a nightmare. Paul is sorting it out. Boy, does it need it. Only when he arrived and sent some top staff was it divined that my alarm going off endlessly was due to a faulty box. Then the main unit suddenly emitted smoke. It was practically red hot. It had recently been replaced. Electricity was going in but nowhere else. It was cooking. My builder disconnected it.

    Why, I asked Paul, did they let me encase it in a teak box which, had no one spotted the smoke, could have caught fire and maybe burnt the house down? He was as shocked as me. Get rid of 96% of your employees, Paul. Then start again.

    Michael's missives

    At the royal garden party a lovely Korean lady said you were far more handsome in the flesh. Could she possibly have been the same lovely Korean lady whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting in Specsavers?
    Roy Ames, La Roche, France

    Prove that you are much more handsome in the flesh - let's see a photo.
    V Keane, Dublin

    I had a shirt exactly like the one worn by Michael Winner outside Buckingham Palace. Mine didn't fit either.
    Brian Highly, Devon

    At a Buckingham Palace garden party our tea was also historic. Following advice on the invitation to delay having tea until the initial queue had dispersed, when we went they'd run out of sandwiches. If asked again, should we take our own?
    David Rule, Hampshire

    You recently wrote criticising Peter Eisendle, the restaurant manager at Villa Feltrinelli. I agree. We found him arrogant and pompous. One memorable quote from him: "Although we have a Michelin star, we serve Michelin-starred food only in the evening." Really!
    Clare Benson, London

    We holidayed on Lake Garda, so I handed my wife your article concerning your visit. What a mistake! From never reading your articles she's become hooked. She even reads them aloud to me. No more peaceful Sunday mornings.
    William Roberts, Wigan

    Please write to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk