Updated: Mar 2, 2019
Simple and easy-going, Danijel Deni Šabalja welcomes us with a glass of Žlahtina on the terrace of his restaurant Bracera, a beautiful classical konoba in Malinska, on the northern coast of the Krk island. His humble and welcoming smile hides a man of many talents: from a restoratuer in Malinska, where he also owns a wine bar just across the Konoba Bracera, to the family boutique hotel in nearby fishing village of Porat, and to his love for local Dubašnica tradition that family Šabalja cares for through the local folklore association. Foremost, he is in love with splendid cuisine reflecting this part of the Krk island, with additional accent on the Northern Adriatic foods.
So, we went to see him and taste the dishes offered during the Lamb and Cheese days on island of Krk. Malinska is one of the places combined in region of Dubašnica. This is a name of a village abandoned already in the 18th century, but the name lives on in tradition, folklore, and dialect. Deni’s father Ivan and his wife Doris (whom he calls the Boss, of course) are leading the traditional singing and dancing group, but the whole family is deeply involved in the Dubašnica’s heritage.
And one such heritage is sheep herding. Krk is known for good lamb and excellent cheese which we tried immediately. Sheep cheese from Dubašnica is served as softer young cheese and harder ripe cheese. Both have mild flavour with lots of milky traits and it is excellent balance for any other appetizer. Together with autochthonous Krk wine Žlahtina (we had a nice company of Frajona’s Žlahtina) we also tried Istrian sausages, thinly sliced Istrian-style ombolo, and beautifully balanced sheep curd with truffles. Lovely introduction to the Bracera’s orientation to Istria and Kvarner!
Bracera’s foodways are somewhat typical of a restaurateur’s family. Father Ivan and mother Marija moved with Deni, who had only 40 days at the time, in 1970ies to New York. They worked in Grand Torino on Manhattan and Deni’s younger brother Nenad was born in the States. However, the parents wanted their children to come back to their homeland and start the education there. Indeed, the Šabaljs returned in 1981 and already three years later they’ve build a holiday house in Porat, small fishing place overlooking Malinska. Their sister, Margaret, is proud as the new premium four-star hotel in Porat is named after her, as the Villa Margaret.
Still, the family understand well how the local foodways are important for having a restaurant where both locals and guests can enjoy. They have their own vegetables and some fruits, also in Porat, where we had a privilege to look at the crops. This position is right next to the old island paths that circumnavigate Porat and Malinska. The family also has 280 olive trees and make their own olive oil. Among these plants, in spring also wild asparagus came to life. This beautiful and healthy plant is prepared in various ways in Bracera and we had gnocchi with sheep curd served with asparagus pesto, a delicious addition made of wild asparagus, garlic and a touch of parmesan. Excellent combination of tastes, where mild curd blends with strong asparagus.
Somewhere in the background Krk sheep roam freely through the Dubašnica region. Although the Šabalj family has no sheep, they have good connections with sheep herders and get the best island sheep to be served at the table. Especially in high spring, these sheep are more robust and meaty, as the lamb grows. And while many would expect roasted lamb, we were happy to try something a bit different, grilled lamb. The lamb meat is held in marinade, with olive oil and rosemary, and just put on the grill. No particular addition is needed, as the lamb is aromatic by itself, as they graze through the Mediterranean herbs. Unfortunately, Croatia has so many lamb recipes that are unused, as the roasted lamb seems to be the most beloved and quickest way to savour this noble meat. That is why Deni was proud to give us this meal, prepared perfectly and softly by the chef Saša Turković. We would love to try some other traditional and almost forgotten lamb and sheep dishes that were once prevalent on all four biggest Kvarner islands – Krk, Cres, Lošinj, and Rab.
Otherwise, Bracera will serve you excellent pasta and fish. No, we didn’t try it this time, but conclusion must be such, as the pasta is handmade in a nearby pastry shop – owned by the family, of course. They also have a 11m long fishing ship, anchored at Porat. Indeed, after one works so diligently for the whole day, one needs a refreshment; Frajona is good choice, but we had also a sip of fig rakija (smokovača), homemade drink at Bracera. Arranged together with dried figs, waiter Božidar Kušter was delighted to introduce us to this liquor, while Mrs Doris was telling us some old tales of evil old women in the village (there is always at least one such witch around). But figs are also used in Bracera’s variety of presnac, the most famous cake in the Kvarner. This cheese-based dessert is made better with figs, and the place is also known for the gorgeous pancakes with dried figs.
The only thing to do afterwards would be to laid back at the Porat’s Villa Margaret and enjoy spectacular view from a modern hotel with traditional twists and excellent wine list (as we did peek a bit) and have a great cup of coffee. The hotel’s 30 rooms cater for guests oriented toward the gourmet experiences. If you cannot eat more, don’t worry – the Glagolitic Friars that live in the monastery just next door, may give you a spiritual comfort. Heavenly and manly at the same time, just as the experience in Bracera can be.
Photos by: Andrea Seifert, Mint Media