Entering the Fužine’s hotel Bitoraj gives you almost an impression of what’s on the menu. First greeting may well be with a stuffed bear and other forest wild animals that are traditionally part of the Gorski kotar cuisine. But very soon you will find out that you are in excellent hands of Mr Andrej Kauzlarić, a descendent of the long family tradition in running this hotel and restaurant, that was opened in 1933 as the tourist house Neda.
This historical site is totally refurbished in 2007 and in its new glory welcomes tourists from all over the globe. It has 18 double rooms, special Aphrodite’s room, and all the necessities needed in a four-star hotel. But the hotel is far more famous for its offer of the autochthonic meals of Gorski kotar, often followed by live music (Andrej plays as well). Its cuisine? Well, in one word: amazing!
Nothing of meals we’ve tried – and we did try a lot – came from a shop. Every single thing in this restaurant is carefully chosen, mostly bought from the local producers in this Croatian mountain region or the interior. This includes drinks as well, and the first surprising taste was of brinjevac, a brandy made from juniper, also known in Croatia as šmrika, klek, or borovica. Used as a folk medicine, this herby brandy contains 60% alcohol! A solid aperitif evokes ideas of friendly gathering in some mountain hut in the vicinity; one bottle would do the trick! Almost all other hard drinks come from the Fužine’s neighbour Vid Arbanas, whose brandies and liqueurs rest upon the generational knowledge of making drinks from the nature.
In order to show us what kind of small bites are possible in Bitoraj, Mr Kauzlarić welcomed us with Highlander’s plate, consisting of deer prosciutto, boar salami, homemade pancetta, deep-fried frog legs, oyster mushrooms filled with prosciutto and cheese, and four kinds of škripavac cheese. Flavours abound on this forest menu, showing the basis of fine dining in the Gorski kotar region. Prosciutto and salami are dark, rich in taste and a bit spicy, as one would expect from the game. If eaten alone, be sure to drink a lot of water – or beer.
Yes, beer. No, it is not a crazy idea and gastronomic horror of combining prosciutto with beer, as the heavy food was traditionally eaten with beer. The owners are very careful of having draft beer in house, and recall of brewery working across the street. Memories of the old times didn’t break our solid will to continue our lunch with Agrolaguna and Palinkaš wines. And if you think beer is not a good option – you are always left with brinjevac!
Most foreigners would be surprised with frog legs. Both in Lokve and in Fužine, this was a traditional dish for locals, as the edible frogs abound in the area full of water. Once someone told me that all amphibians and crocodiles taste like chicken. Frogs are not an exception, but still it can have a distinctive watery flavour in the background. And you can always be a hero when you come home as you’ve eaten a frog without kissing it!
Personal choice for the best thing on the plate is cheese. Škripavac is well known cheese of Croatian mountain regions of Gorski kotar and Lika, and its name stems from the sound it makes when biting it. The cheese served in Bitoraj comes from Josipdol’s excellent cheese dairy farm Miščević and it comes in four varieties: plain, with homemade herbs, with peppers, and deep-fried. It is absolutely amazing how solid it remains when deep-fried, which is due to its instant shocking on -50 degrees. When prepared, the cheese is put frozen on the hot oil. Tremendously good and very milky.
Fužine is a place where continental and maritime climate collide. The result is much rain, winds from all sides of the world, but also a tasteful combination of influences on the table. We were presented with Highland risotto and Mushroom pasta. The highland risotto is made with deer prosciutto and apple, a great combination and meaty-sour blend, a solid choice for warm appetizer if you like strong tastes. The mushroom pasta is simple token of woodlands in combination with classic Istrian fuži pasta.
Another appetizer was frog legs’ brodetto, with polenta and pumpkin seed oil. Mild brodetto gives plenty of taste to frogs; indeed, more restaurants serving frog legs should keep in mind there is a lot more to the deep-fried frog legs. And while the frogs are really good, the pumpkin seed oil gives a finishing touch. In combination with polenta it is a rare example of using this oil in near-coastal area of Croatia. Pumpkins are more continental brand, starting from Vrbovsko, also in Gorski kotar, but without much influence in the traditional foods. Thus, bravo for the idea!
A refreshing retreat was two kinds of soup: an ordinary mushroom soup (always replenishing and hearty) and horseradish soup. Horseradish is popular sidedish, either fresh or as a sauce. But to make a soup from it? The taste is far from your imagination. It is a bit spicy but very refreshing and calls for more.
If you think we’ve done most of the work in Bitoraj, you are heading to a surprise, just as we did. Grand main meal consisted of three signature dishes of this restaurant, and no wonder Bitoraj is on the list of 100 best Croatian restaurants for the 20th time! It might be difficult to choose where to start from these main dishes, but maybe the Highlander’s lunch is typical of the area.
It is the most traditional and most sold dish in Bitoraj, consisting of pork ribs, homemade sausage, baked pancetta, sauerkraut, and potatoes. A fatty bomb for more colder days was a normal diet for many decades now, showing a tremendous need for energy in an area known for harsh winters and rather short summers. There’s no particular suggestion for this meal, only be hungry enough to eat lavishly. And do you remember that beer we’ve mentioned in the beginning?
Then came baby boar, baked under the iron lid with potatoes. Soft and salty, it melts in mouth. Baked piglet is a standard offer of the house and excellent choice for anyone into the glorious cousin of our domesticated pig. They weigh some 10 kilos and can be found in continental Croatia, feeding in a special hunting areas where they feed with quality foods from the nature. The fact that piglets are not at all scared of human is their death-warrant: they are simply taken by hands and later prepared for the juicy and tasty meal. Don’t be shocked, that’s circle of nature!
And what would a highlander’s menu be without a bear? All praise should go to chef for making such soft bear steaks, with cranberries and deep-fried dumplings. Even for Croats, bear is not an everyday dish nor can be eaten in every region of Croatia. Mr Kauzlarić testifies his hard work in preparing bear meat, with constant controls of quality, but is too humble to admit it takes a real knowledge to master the hard and dark bear meat. Those who succeed can proudly be called a temple of the game dishes. And Bitoraj is exactly that!
Yes, we did have a dessert. It wasn’t a surprise any more that we had three kinds of berry strudels and gigantic kremšnita cakes. Blueberry strudel is so typical for Gorski kotar that Mr Kauzlarić tends to protect it as an industrial heritage. Local producers of forest berries, such as family homestead Borovnica, contribute to the widely shared recipe for this most beloved highlanders’ dessert.
Unavoidable point for every true gourmet lover, with dedicated staff and very kind owners, in a picturesque environment and pleasant climate, Bitoraj is pure happiness, fine dining, and homemade cuisine turned into a masterpiece. We toast a glass of brinjevac to that!