When Michelin Star Chefs Meet Uninhabited Croatian Islands: 25 Years of Gourmet Excellence at Festa on Zut
Some 25 years ago, on an uninhabited island on the Adriatic with no water, electricity, ferry or tourists, and with the country in the middle of a regional war, a new restaurant opened on the island of Zut on the Adriatic. The story of what happened next was celebrated at Restaurant Festa’s silver anniversary on September 4, 2018, as five of Croatia’s top chefs accompanied four Michelin star chefs and one cocktail maestro to put on one of the culinary events of the year. TCN was there.
I have a friend who works in the luxury tourism sector in Dalmatia, and a few years ago he told me over a beer about the moment when he realised the secret to success in tourism in Dalmatia.
“Lemons,” he said, before summoning the waiter for another round of drinks.
“Lemons?” I replied, more than a little lost, but grateful for the imminent refill.
He told me about his Damascus moment, in an olive grove on Hvar, where he had organised a traditional Dalmatian peka lunch for some rich New York stockbrokers. They loved every moment of the whole experience, and then one of them commented:
“Can you believe that? I just picked a lemon from a tree for the first time in my life. Incredible. You just can’t do that in New York. What an experience! One of the highlights of this fabulous holiday. Truly amazing.”
“Simple, authentic pleasures,” explained my friend as the next round of beers arrived. “Give the client what we have in abundance but do not appreciate, and the client does not have but wants to experience, and there you have the secret of successful tourism in Dalmatia.”
He is right, of course, and a very successful businessman as a result. The thing about offering simple authentic experiences to demanding rich New York clients, however, is that for all that authenticity, they still want their luxury and creature comforts.
Which brings us to the outstanding story of a restaurant which built a 25-year business out of literally nothing in the middle of the war in 1993, and whose silver anniversary was celebrated earlier this week in quite some style, with a team of chefs who would not look out of place in the very best restaurants in the world. A restaurant on an island in the Croatian Adriatic, which has no water, electricity, ferry, inhabitants or anything else except figs, olives, stones and one of the most relaxing atmospheres I have come across. Its restaurant walls are adorned with photos of happy guests who have found this hidden gem on the Kornati Islands – Luka Modric, Novak Djokovic.
I want to start by telling you about the toilets. It is not a subject that people blog about much, but toilets are an essential part of daily life, and nothing can destroy the image of luxury tourism more than a cheap and dirty toilet. And while high-paying guests may embrace the thought of simple, authentic pleasures, the vast majority of them draw the line at the absence of mod cons.
And this to me was one of the most remarkable discoveries of this rather fabulous restaurant, which has been constructed by blood, sweat, tears and passion on an island with no logistics, a good 45 minutes by speedboat from the mainland. One could forgive the restaurant owners for having only basic facilities, but Restaurant Festa has toilet and shower facilities which would not look out of place in a 4-star wellness spa on the mainland. Indeed, there are not many restaurants in Croatia which offer better facilities.
I don’t think I have ever videod a men’s toilet before, but I could not resist the urge at Festa, for I found the detail and effort that had gone into guest comfort on this remote island quite astonishing. Take a tour for yourself above. Beautiful details, authentic stone, and state of the art sensors which preserved every precious drop of water. The showers were activated by cards and usage was charged by the minute. The landscaping outside the toilets made it look more like you were entering the restaurant rather than its restrooms.
“You see the hill over there,” owner Kreso pointed to the hill in the picture above. “That is where the stones came from, some 20 tons in all. The bathrooms were five years in the planning, some 80m2 in all. We had great architects, who worked with Nikola Basic, the architect who did the Sea Organ in Zadar. The bathrooms we wanted to get absolutely right, but the cost was huge. Some 300,000 euro.”
It is not the only major investment made in this remarkable restaurant in an idyllic little bay. There are not many restaurants on the coast which can match the quality of the wine list (more than 500 fine Croatian and international wines, including a Champagne list as good as any I have seen in Croatia) or the setting of its wine cellar.
As I wrote previously, I had visited Festa once before, as part of a Gastronaut trip last November when the restaurant had already closed for this season. It had been a sensational experience, which you can read about here, and so when I received an invitation to come to Festa’s 25th birthday party, I did not need much persuading.
The main highlight of the celebration was to be a 10-course dinner prepared by five of Croatia’s top chefs, four Michelin-star chefs and Festa’s very own Zoran Jajac – the culinary theme, blue fish and deep sea fish in high-end gastronomy. Journalists from Stockholm, Paris, Amsterdam, a film crew from Ljubljana and a host of Croatian foodie writers converged on awaiting boats at both Zadar (for those coming from Zagreb) and Murter (for those coming from Split), and they were kindly asked to come a day early to enjoy the true Festa hospitality before the main event began. As the star chefs enjoyed a relaxed evening before their big day, Festa chef Zoran Jajac prepared a delicious octopus and potato dinner which set the tone for the following day.
And so to the day itself. A day of fine tradition, of food, of music, of costume.
The tranqullity of the location was given at extra atmospheric boost by this excellent local string quartet, whose music throughout the event was mesmerising.
A truly fantastic culinary lineup, with 5 of Croatia’s top chefs (David Skoko, Hrvoje Zirojevic, Dino Galvagno, Tom Gretic and Josip Vrsaljko) accompanied by 4 Michelin-star chefs (Guiseppe Costa, Felice Sgarra, Vinod Sookar and Cristian Torsiello)
And while food was the key theme, legendary cocktail maestro Marin Nekic was on hand with his original mixes, with a heavy emphasis on the herbs and other treasures of local islands.
I asked him to surprise me with the first cocktail of the day, and he certainly did – Bourbon, oranges from the restaurant, carob seeds and sage. Fantastic.
Located right on the water, the cocktail tent was a huge hit. Take in a little of the atmosphere above, as yet one more original cocktail is mixed before TCN eyes.
It was time to put the celebrity chefs through their initial paces, and the afternoon was a true culinary delight, with each chef preparing some quality nibbles which were washed down with a selection of fine wines. Here is Vinod Sookar with his mussels appetiser.
Hrvoje Zirojevic, the man who captured the heart of U2’s Bono two years ago on Hvar (and again this year as Bono returned for another Zirojevic special this summer), talking tuna, above.
Remember once more than this is an uninhabited island. Since opening in 1993, with the war having reached nearby Zadar, Zut now has four restaurants, and Festa itself has some accommodation, but with more than 100 guests, many of them international journalists, the need for good quality accommodation was clear. The Festa team pulled out all the stops, renting all that was available on nearby islands, which led to some fabulous experiences for some guests – a waterfront stone house with private jetty in splendid isolation for some…
And a very comfortable first ever night on a sailing boat for this correspondent. Perhaps it is not too late to launch my sailing career…
The scene for dinner was set.
An outstanding menu, with three wines per dish offered as a pairing. And some bottles looked larger than life, and that was just the beginning of the evening.
The menu in full. I will do a photo special of each dish in a separate article as a) the menu and the evening deserves it, and b) I need to find photos from a more accomplished photographer than I, for my photos do not do it justice.
And after the dinner, the fireworks.
“I have a big problem with this place and my readers,” confided the man from Paris over one more excellent Nekic cocktail. “The problem is the name. Zut. Do you know what Zut means in French?”
I took a bite of sage.
“How about a title of ‘Zut Alors! Paradise Found on the Adriatic’?” I replied.
Father and son. Perhaps my favourite part of the Festa story came from a colleague who was telling me that Festa had used the form on her gourmet website to advertise the restaurant. Father Mirko had filled in all the contact details of the restaurant, and then came the section to describe the restaurant. Instead of talking about Festa’s exceptional gourmet offer, he had simply inserted one of his poems about the stones of Zut. Simple, authentic and totally natural.
Son Kreso has much of his father’s tradition and love for the island, but also more of an eye to the outside world, and I suspect he was the driving force behind this very international celebration. He was a joy to watch all weekend, pulling the strings to make the incredible logistics of this event work (and it passed off more perfectly than even he dared hope). A fantastic team, and just five minutes in conversation with either will explain to you why the Festa phenomenon is succeeding and thriving where so many others have failed.
For some, the party went on long into the night, but this correspondent retired to his sailboat for a sound night’s sleep, before waking in time for THAT breakfast. Natural living on Zut.
We left as we had come, by powerful speedboat, the wind in our hair (at least for those who have hair), taking in the magical moments of the previous 48 hours, and all aware of the special moments we had been privileged to witness.
(Photo credit Valerio B.)
And as we left, so the celebrities arrived. Just another day at Festa, as Mexican photographer Yuri Cortez, who had been flattened by Croatian players following a goal in the World Cup but who had somehow continued to take pics, rocked up at Festa as part of his holiday at the invitation from the Croatian National Tourist Board.
On a personal note, my heartfelt thanks to the Festa team for their wonderful hospitality. With so much of Croatian tourism heading towards mass tourism and easy solutions, it is heartening to find such passion and commitment to excellence in the most trying of circumstances.
To learn more about Restaurant Festa, visit the official website.