The sun is shining, scent of spring is all around us, and the Asparagus days are in full sway in a picturesque town of Lovran on the western coast of Kvarner Bay. It is the biggest spring festival in Lovran, present already 17 years. The Asparagus Days begin with a big egg omelette with asparagus (fritaja sa šparogama), and continues in several Lovran’s restaurants. One of these is Knezgrad, situated right in the centre of the town, in a beautiful park next to the town’s only cinema hall.
At the same time, Knezgrad is among the best restaurants on Opatija Riviera, because this is the place of traditional regional cuisine prepared with finest ingredients. More than 40 years of family tradition translates into fresh seafood, asparagus, cherry, and chestnut days, and more nuanced Istrian cuisine. And while the interior resembles old tavern, many come here to enjoy sunny terrace. Its name (translated the town of counts) is in fact a nearby mountain peak on the Učka mountain. Although relatively low with its 612 metres above sea level, Knezgrad is a favourite destination for hikers, as it has beautiful view of Lovran and Kvarner Bay.
Slopes of the Učka Mountain are rich with asparagus and this is precisely why we came to Knezgrad. After sip of excellent biska brandy (made of mistletoe and Muscat wine), we indulged into classic asparagus appetizer consisting of cheese spread with asparagus and ham, asparagus omelette, and asparagus salad with boiled eggs. You cannot go more classic than these. The mild and fresh cottage cheese blends perfectly with the bitter asparagus taste, while the salad with boiled eggs shows indeed the freshness of spring.
Every part of asparagus is used, told us Mr Hlanuda Jr, son of the owner Luciano Hlanuda. The asparagus root is excellent for various broths, the stem is perfect for soups, while the top is necessary for sauces or added fresh to blend with different ingredients. The basic rule is to make asparagus less bitter, which is done by boiling it: as much as you boil it, asparagus tends to lose its bitterness. In that way, chefs can easily adjust the asparagus taste to the meal. And probably the least bitter is the asparagus soup, which we had together with toast bread and sour cream. Refreshing cream soup is rich with mild asparagus, while finely mixed stems give the soup a characteristic green colour.
Main course consisted of grilled medallions with asparagus sauce and gnocchi, beefsteak tagliatelle with Grand Padano cheese, and ravioli filled with cheese and asparagus. Many who visit Knezgrad praise the grilled medallions, with fine scent of smoke and grill; they are truly soft and juicy, which makes Knezgrad a meat master in a predominantly fish restaurant! As usual on the Opatija Riviera, gnocchi are homemade, soft and with distinctive aroma of spinach in green gnocchi. Both blend with small tomatoes and mild asparagus sauce that gives just enough bitter addition.
Also, mild beefsteak puts more accent on asparagus sauce and excellent Grand Padano cheese. The beefsteak itself is juicy and rightly redish from inside, and while the meat-lovers will enjoy its pure and not-spiced taste, we would focus this dish to elegant and ingenious asparagus dip that comes along. If you’d rather go for stronger asparagus taste, then ravioli are better, cooked with cottage cheese and filled in soft dough.
Possibly the biggest surprise comes in dessert, as rarely would one expect asparagus and cheese cake or asparagus sorbet. How is it done? We asked the lady of the house, but got only a satisfied smile from her. The cake is just great for anyone who doesn’t worship very sweet things, and sorbet is more sour-sweet end to this asparagus adventure in Knezgrad.
Because of the delicate taste of asparagus, mild white wine is recommended, and you shouldn’t venture too far here. Open Istrian Malvasia, coming from Višnjan in Central Istria, is easy to drink, with fruity and flowery bouquet and very adjustable to the asparagus menu.
Knezgrad can really satisfy any expectation from classic and homemade littoral cuisine of Northern Adriatic. The place is famous for fish, risotto, scampi and clams stew (buzara), homemade squids filled with Istrian prosciutto, cheese and scampi, fish brodetto, pasta with seafood. In various seasons you can also taste great sausages, veal shanks, rich minestrone. The restaurant follows annual Lovran gastronomy events focused on asparagus, cherries, and chestnuts. Highly recommendable place which is very open and simple, but with great taste and excellent value for money!