Sometimes having a dinner that’s more expensive than your hotel is easy enough to accomplish. Just stay in a hole and go to KFC. On the other hand, if you’re staying at a hotel posh enough to be part of the Self-indulgent Retirement Tour, you’d probably need to go to the Zinfandel Restaurant in the Regent Hotel Esplanade just across the road from the Zagreb train station.
A small plaque subtly peeking from behind the orchids on the maître d’s desk announces that the Zinfandel was selected, in 2011, as the best restaurant in Slovenia, Austria, Greece, and Croatia. (The certificate does not say which, if any, other countries might have fared better in this survey.)
The Zinfandel is the kind of place where it’s useful to remember words like “amuse bouche,” which turns out to be a bit of pureed chicken and tomato wrapped in a spiral of seaweed and presented on a smear of something that looks like molasses on, a plate large enough to serve a lobster. I didn’t know, but I looked it up, that ‘amuse bouche’ has become an all-purpose word, probably because waiters or patrons draw the line at “palais nettoyant” or palate cleanser (but isn’t it nice to know that the French believe the roof of the mouth to be a palace?). Gives a French kiss a whole new life, doesn’t it?
The pate de foie gras was a much a mystery as a dish. Happily, I was at an inconspicuous table surrounded by thirteen tables of Japanese tourists, all of whom were eating precisely the same meal, so no one saw me taking judiciously small tastes of each item on my plate. The plate was a rectangle four by 15 inches. Spread out along its width were a circle of some spongy looking material, a tiny globe the looked maybe like cream cheese with bits of olive, a rectangular tannish substance that might have been the pate, another tiny globe of cream cheese, and a three-inch tall glass cylinder the diameter of a dinner candle filled with a pinkish gel that was somewhat too liquid to be the pate. Back to the judicious nibbling: the spongy material turned out to be a soft bread of an almost pudding-like consistency, lightly seasoned. The globe of cream cheese and olive turned into a palais nettoyant—a light vanilla ice cream with bits of vanilla beans interfused therein. The rectangle was indeed the pate, so mild and un-liverish that a second taste was required to confirm its identity. And the candleholder of pinkish gel was a puree of raspberries (and maybe some wild berries as well) to drip onto the pate that was spread on the spongy bread that invited you to cleanse your palate from time to time, as the spirit nudged you.
On the side, by the way, were rolls and sufficient butter. The dark roll had a familiar aroma, sotto voce, but it took a moment to identify because one doesn’t associate it with bread. Actually, I don’t know what it is, but you will know it right away: it’s the aroma that gives an Indian restaurant its distinctive allure. Is it cumin, coriander, curry leaf, cardamom, some combination of all? Put delicately into a roll, it’s quite splendid.
The sole was not served like the Austrian schnitzel or the Austrian sole: a great long slab of food that droops off either end of the platter. No. This sole was served in two or perhaps three layers, the whole being no longer than 4 inches long. Perhaps this was the Fillet de Fillets. Leaves of something semi-pungent were scattered on the plate, floating, on the one side, in a light butter sauce and, on the opposite side, in a frothy cream sauce. Eventually, the two sauces met, mingled, and gave an entirely different flavor to the remaining fish. Adding a little pungency to the fish were another mystery food: olive green and the size of a baby olive, but filled with many tiny seeds rather than a stone; attached to a long stem; slightly salty and savory rather than berry sweet. Ah, a giant caper!
On a side dish, layers of phyllo dough surrounding an asparagus soufflé.
On the desert dish, more layers of phyllo dough stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled—maybe drowned—in a cream sauce and baked till a few shades deeper than golden brown. Some palates say, “Sugar, please.” Others like it straight.
And a small platter of chocolate riches of which a person could sample only one.
Now, 40 minutes to checking out of Zagreb. Istanbul in 8 hours.