Posted on Monday, 10th August 2009
I have to admit that I felt rather sad when I left Sicily. I had a marvellous time there, and despite all my moaning about the heat, I found the sunshine extremely soothing for the soul. So my parting meal at Palermo airport, if you could even call it that, was a big fat cannolo, even though after about my eighth one I vehemently swore I would not eat another. To me the humble cannolo, which can be found throughout Sicily, was a symbol of what made my time there so great. And this one at the airport tasted the best of the lot. Why is food, when touched with a twinge of nostalgia, always extra good? Barely two hours after leaving Sicily I was yearning for the taste of that cannolo again.
But new experiences were to be had, some unwanted. On my arrival in Split, Croatia, my luggage went AWOL. Croatian Airlines blamed the Italian luggage handlers and were rather unhelpful during the whole episode. There were no reassurances from them that my bag would be recovered. In fact they suggested that it might never resurface at all. But it did, although it would take two pretty stressful days. What I discovered during that time was how little you actually need.
After Split I headed to Dubrovnik. The bus route hugs the coast all the way, and the scenery was truly amazing – cliff edge precipices married with pristine waters and lush green islands. But greeting Dubrovnik for the first time at night was something else. Wave after wave of stone make up the Old Town walls, and when lit up in lights, it is truly a spectacle to behold. I will never forget the adulation I felt the moment I first laid eyes on those walls.
And the Old Town itself? It is hard to believe that two out of every three buildings suffered damage during the war of 1991 to 1995. The restoration effort must have been phenomenal for, today it looks relatively unscathed. With its special blend of Baroque, Venetian and Renaissance architecture, and the smooth limestone flooring laid throughout the Old Town (the smoothest walking surface imaginable), the city does indeed shine. Lord Byron didn’t call Dubrovnik ‘the pearl of the Adriatic’ for nothing.
For this reason Dubrovnik is inundated with tourists. There are swarms of them especially at this time of year (including me), which at times can seem intolerable depending on where you were walking. But the traffic it attracts also means that in terms of food, Dubrovnik has the best that Croatia has to offer. My food experiences in Croatia thus far have not been particularly rewarding. The menus in Croatia contain lots of pastas and risottos, which would have been a travesty for me to eat, given that I had just come from Sicily. There are also lots of grilled meats and fish, and the latter is what Croatia is known for given its location on the Adriatic. I tried both, and the fish, usually grilled, is very fresh and tasty, but also very heavily seasoned. Croatians seem to like their food very salty. Looking at some of the other food served to those dining at various al fresco establishments didn’t incite a sense of excitement either, which was a shame because part of the enjoyment I get from food is the anticipation of a good meal.
Then there is Gil’s Cuisine & Pop Lounge, allegedly one of the best restaurant in Croatia, which offers Modern French-Fusion Cuisine. I went there with my friend J who flew in from London to spend a few days in Dubrovnik with me. The restaurants is perched on a spot in the harbour with lovely views. It is slick, white and very chic. It is where the beautiful people go and the place to be seen. All this comes at a price though – a very heavy price. Starters range from 168 Krona (Kn) to 280Kn (about £20 to £34), and mains from 210Kn to 390Kn (about £35 to £47).
J decided to go a la carte and I chose the degustation menu. I’ll cover what J had first. For starters, scallops roasted in their shells with foie gras, black truffle, port sauce and a thyme and garlic infusion (280Kn (about £34)). This dish was really lovely. The scallops were big and fat, and slightly undercooked, which kept them moist. The port sauce, a little sweet, was done nicely and did not overpower the scallops. There were tiny bits of foie gras and garlic slivers in the sauce which added a nice contrast to the scallops. This was a promising start.
Next, J had a duck fillet with foie gras sauce served with a potato and cheese gratin (280Kn (about £34)). The duck was really disappointing. Cooked medium, it was a little tasteless and a bit chewy. The sauce was also bland and required further reduction to intensify its flavour. The gratin was quite tasty and the potatoes had been cooked well without leaving them too soft. But £34 was a lot to pay for an average duck dish.
To my tasting menu (720Kn (about £87)). Confusingly, my first course came out before the amuse bouche that had been listed on the menu, which as it turned out was only a plate of raw vegetables with a couple of dips (curry mayonnaise and anchovy and garlic). My first course was a scampi raviolo with a scampi and lemongrass infusion, and a fresh romana salad with a creamy satay. The scampi filling was lovely, the pasta was not soggy, and the sauce worked well with the raviolo although the lemongrass was hardly discernible. The romana salad wasn’t really a salad, but a piece of leaf fried in batter placed over a bed of satay, but it was pleasant nonetheless.
My next course was the scallop dish that J had, but with one scallop rather than three.
Pan seared foie gras with pineapple carpaccio, sangria coulis, and almond and horseradish puree was next. The sweetness of the pineapple worked well with the foie gras, and both the coulis and the puree were subtle enough not to overwhelm it. The flavours worked well together. The foie gras had a slightly grainy texture rather than a silky smooth one, with a few small bits of sinew running through it, and was slightly over seasoned. It was not the best quality foie gras, but the dish was pleasant nonetheless.
Seared tuna steak came with a saffron sushi roll, a paella style garnish and piquillos coulis. The tuna had an interesting texture. It was very meaty, almost ham-like, and coated with sesame seeds. It was extremely salty (the way that Croatians seem to like) and as a result was almost unpalatable. The paella style garnish was nice, but it contained chorizo sausages which are also salty, so eating both together as the waiter suggested proved overwhelming on the palate. The sushi roll was unpleasant. Some bits of the rice were dry and crunchy, similar to crusty rice that you might scrape from the bottom of a rice cooker. The flavours of this dish jarred.
The meat dish had been described on the menu as a rack of lamb cooked for 24 hours with garlic croquette, smoked feta and hummus and herb yoghurt. The lamb was not a rack per se, but a small rectangular piece of lamb. While I had been expecting something really moist and tender due to its slow cooking time, this was in fact extremely dry. The other accompaniments were ok, but served more to enhance the visual effect than the flavour of the lamb.
Dessert was a chocolate fondant with lemon sorbet. This was lovely, although the chocolate cake itself would have worked better with a crispier exterior.
The breads were not very tasty. Most were very chewy and some were hard.
The service was pleasant and friendly (one of our waiters was particularly sweet), although the waiting staff weren’t always able to answer my questions regarding the food. In this regard, I think they could have been better prepped before the service. At times they were a little forgetful too – some items we requested did not turn up. And serving the amuse bouche after the scampi, and only when prompted, must have been an oversight. The menu was also confusing. On occasions, certain ingredients would appear on the plate that had not been mentioned on the menu at the exclusion of ones that had been listed.
There were some interesting ideas in the composition of the dishes, which, if the technique had been better, would have made for something delicious. The starter courses were reasonably tasty and the scallops were excellent, although neither of us enjoyed the mains (duck, tuna or the lamb). Gil’s may be one of the best restaurants in Dubrovnik, or Croatia for that matter, and I can recognise that it probably is, but it was still off the mark in many regards. There were too mistakes for a restaurant that charges the kind of prices that they do, especially when you consider that the average main course in most restaurants in Dubrovnik costs between £9 and £15.
Given their pricing, Gil’s is not a place that I would recommend as a culinary pitstop. Rather, it’s a place to go to if you want to people watch, to be seen, for the pretty decent cocktails (70Kn to 85Kn (about £8.50 to £10)) or if you’re in the mood to splash some serious cash.
Gil’s Cuisines & Pop Lounge at:
Svetog Dominica BB
20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia
Tel: +385 20 322 222