Saturday, July 14, 2007


Dinner at Darko's


I feel compelled to begin this story near the end:

... And so, having led his donkey into the restaurant, Darko fed it from a bowl, as the Slovenians at the next table looked on, laughing and pointing.

Maybe I should back up.

When our hosts, Miloje and Miroslav, told us that one dinner possibility was a “rustic” restaurant in a small village in the mountainous center of the Island – and that you had to call a day ahead and order goat or lamb (presumably so he’d have time to kill the animal?) – how could we say no? Plus, the guy’s name is “Darko.” How cool is that?

Darko runs apparently all operations of the restaurant himself ... and I mean all operations. He raises his own animals, and cooks them, makes his own wine and liqueur from grapes he grows himself, and makes salad and side dishes from home grown vegetables. He does his own baking. And he waits the tables.

The “restaurant” itself consists of a patio – probably the patio of Darko’s house – with four wooden picnic tables, two of which appear to be the sort of massive wooden spools used for coils of large wire, turned on their side. At one edge of the patio is a small shed which houses the oven and a larder. And the patio is covered with a bower of vines so dense that you feel like you’re indoors.

DSCN8612 DSCN8610
Left: the vinous roof. Right: the dining area, with cooking shed in the background.

Darko cooks the meat in a brick oven by covering a large metal dish full of meat with a metal dome and sliding it right next to the fire.

On the left side is the covering pan, on the right a dish of octopus pre-ordered by other diners.

And he seasons the meat simply, with “a little bit of salt,” pursuant to his theory that the flavor comes from the grass and herbs the animals feed on.


In the photo above, you can see the main course, which stuffed four adults. In the background, a pitcher of strong homemade wine proved crucial to cut through the "clear gravy" (see below). The round black thing in about the middle of the meat platter is a rock. Darko told us that (from the current vantage point) the lamb was to the left of the rock, the goat to the right. Why did he cook with a rock, Miroslav asked. Because, Darko replied, people always ask him about the rock and he gets a big kick out of that.

When Miloje and Miroslav had called to reserve a place, they asked Darko if it was okay to bring their dog. He said that would be no problem, so long as the dog wouldn’t mind his donkey, which, he promised, would bray “hee-haw” at us when we arrived. None of us could figure out whether Darko was kidding, and as it turned out there was no donkey to greet us. But when other guests arrived – the Slovenians, according to our hosts, who ID’d them by their dialect – we did hear the donkey braying.

The meat was incredibly good. I don’t know whether I preferred the lamb or the milder-tasting (!) goat. Or the potatoes. It was deliciously salty, and I couldn’t get enough of the almost clear gravy the meat was floating in, which I kept spooning over my meat and potatoes.

It was only when the demolished meat platter was removed that I realized that the clear “gravy” was actually fat, and that I may well have consumed about half a cup of clear, liquid fat in addition to what was already in the meat. Thinking back a few years to an unfortunate experience I’d had with barbecued ribs back in the States, I realized that the entire tone of the blog post I was already writing in my head hung in the balance, on the delicate question of whether I’d ultimately keep this food down. When I awoke at 5 a.m. the next morning, I found myself incredibly thirsty and with a meat hangover. But I was basically in one piece.

Darko, a curly-haired man in his late 40s or early 50s, looks like he’s “been through the wars,” and for a resident of former Yugoslavia, this could literally be true. He’s very jolly, and he bantered continually with our hosts, finding some occasion for a hearty laugh with each course.

At the end, he asked how we enjoyed the meal, and Miroslav said that everything was wonderful except that we were disappointed that the donkey did not greet us personally. Darko took this literally. Which brings me back to where this post began.


Fat on fat is a renowned culinary tradition--don't turn your back on gravy on pot roast, hollandaise on eggs benedict, gorgonzola on your steak, avocado on your bacon. I once fried chicken in bacon fat. Mmm.
I'm quite happy about the donkey for some reason. Everything about the meal seems like the perfect intersection between some mythological old world and the new reality of a happy donkey.
Word Verification: tebuhi. So food-talk appropriate. Tabouli to the slurring drunk. Or the average two-year old.
This is all very surreal to me. I'm reading the decade-plus-a-bit-old PJ O'Rourke tome "All the Troubles in the World" and I just yesterday finished the chapter on the former Yugoslavia, which was having a bit of a war at the time. In which your restauranteur could easily have been involved. (and I have to keep reminding myself that the happenings in the book are 10-15 years ago, and things change in that time).

So, goat is milder than lamb, eh? I can get goat meat around here someplace, I think...
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