It is a rare treat to pick behind the kitchen’s door in a splendid restaurant. We tend to enjoy fine dining in a peaceful setting of a rural gastronomy point, enjoying the tastes and aromas of culinary heritage, and thanking the chef that has just arrived from kitchen with a quite clean apron. Seldom do we think of the kitchen place and food preparing, those nitty-gritty stuff that makes a cook’s everyday business. But when one enters this realm, one cannot separate creative chaos of a kitchen with cosiness of the dining place.
So did we enter the Stancija Kovačići’s kitchen through the School of Cooking with a topic of Asparagus. We have visited Stancija before, and wrote extensively on superb winter cuisine for which this region of Kvarner is famous. The elegant culinary philosophy of chef Vinko Frlan transforms into imaginative dishes reflecting the traditional meals of the coastal region and its hinterland.
The basis for all cooking in Stancija Kovačići is at the same time simple and very rooted in tradition. All meals are cooked on olive oil, of course that one suitable for easier cooking. For hearty meals, Mr Frlan uses the homemade pork lard. Both were easily accessible in the past in the Northern Adriatic and one cannot imagine meals without it. Extra virgin high quality olive oil, of course, is used only for salads and dipping, a favourite appetizer of Croats. Various herbs and Mediterranean spices are very local too.
Three-course dinner cooking gathered some 12 disciples who focused on Mr Frlan’s expertise and tried to learn from it. Some, including our team, focused more on wine resting on the table nearby, but nevertheless we did experience and learned a lot.
Appetizer was the mullet carpaccio, where we learned how thinly make fish fillets. Mullet is a rather small fish and indeed it needs a careful hand and a very sharp knife. The mullet fillets are places on a plate, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and few drops of lemon and olive oil.
While chef filleted the fish, others picked the tops of asparagus, which were later shortly cooked, cooled, and seasoned. From orange juice and olive oil an emulsion is made, that were added to mullets together with avocado and asparagus. The cook also quickly baked mullet skin (without oil) and added to this beautifully balanced dish with excellent freshness.
Already waiting for us was cooked octopus, to which some bay leaves, pepper and salt was added. Freshly caught, winter and spring octopus are much more cherished in the gastronomy. Cooled octopus is very, very thinly cut, seasoned with parsley and garlic. We also added olive oil and egg’s white. Some breadcrumbs were also put just to have a homogenic burger.
While cooling, good students of Mr Frlan stewed finely cut onion and celery to which asparagus tops were added, and cooked in broth. The final point is baking the octopus’s burgers on light fire. This meal is just perfect, as the fresh, juicy, and mild octopus blends perfectly with the strong flavour of asparagus.
Finishing masterpiece is veal shank a la brodetto with asparagus. The chef used his knowledge to show us how neatly the meat can be separated from strong shank bones. The meat is salted and peppered, then shortly baked on olive oil, and then taken out. On same oil onion, carrots, and fennel are fried.
Then, garlic and meat is added, together with some white wine and rosemary. This shank is then cooked on medium fire for at least hour and half. When done, the sauce is reduced, and asparagus tops are added together with small olives. As a side dish, Mr Frlan chose polenta, to which self-growing Mediterranean herbs are added.
It is indeed excellent (and rare) idea for a chef to invite culinary enthusiast to his kitchen. Easy-going atmosphere, relaxed attitude, a glass of wine and superb cuisine, it is a memory that is going to be cherished by anyone visiting the Stancija Kovačići in Rukavac, just a short drive away from famous Opatija.