Pelegrini: Rudolf Štefan’s Mediterranean Breviary

Croatia desperately lacks author’s cuisine restaurants. Those that are a destination worth travelling to, those that don’t just satisfy your taste buds but also rewire your neurons like a good book, film or any remarkable piece of art, those that will surprise you with something new every time you visit them. What various eateries from simple taverns to fancy restraurants should care about much more is “to get the story that connects place, ingredients, chef’s identity and purpose of restaurants and answers the question – what are we trying to do with our food“, says our Zagreb expert Andrea Pisac Freškura.

Sadly, on the whole Croatian side of the Adriatic Coast only a few establishments meet these requirements: Marina Gaši’s Marina in Novigrad, Andrej Barbieri’s Bevanda in Opatija and his newly opened bistro La Conca D’Oro in Rijeka, Vesna Bibić’s fares at Bibich winery and Rudolf Štefan’s Pelegrini in Šibenik. Actually, the choice is just a bit bigger, says our Dalmatia expert Mila Hvilshøj: “…there are heaps of personalities in the country that redefine local cuisine, but these are mom and pop businesses without a marketing budget as the others.”

For a long time Pelegrini was on my bucket list as many Istrian and Dalmatian winemakers I respect were raving about Rudi’s dishes and this year it was voted the best restaurant in Croatia according to Dobri restorani project. Rudi achieved impossible – he runs a gourmet restaurant that remains open throughout the year, during winter four days a week. Many people describe his style as the new Dalmatian cuisine.

Speaking of wine, local Šibenik winemakers perceive having their bottle on Pelegrini’s wine list as more prestigious award than winning a gold medal by Decanter. Each year Rudi reshuffles the list and doesn’t care about brands and old friendships, his palate is the only judge. One winemaker I met right after the dinner told me he was disappointed his wine didn’t enter the list this year, but he admitted Rudi is right, his bottles need more time to settle.

Very often us Croatians forget about the beauty that surrounds us, either natural or historic. Hundreds of stone heads, emerging from the wall of St. Jacob’s Cathedral, stare at me as I slowly step into Pelegrini. A wave of hectic atmosphere overcomes me as I see a bar turned into an improvised open kitchen, where four young sous chefs work frantically, finishing dishes under Rudi’s supervision. I greet him quickly and we quickly agree about the tasting menu – it will be fish and seafood paired with wines from Šibenik area.

My tiny table is on the stairs with a magnicifient view of the cathedral, the summer breeze is here, soon I am in zen mode again. The waitress is unpretentious, humble, well prepared and educated, with enthusiasm and a whispering voice she elaborates on every course – nine in total. To keep a long story short (you can find the whole menu at the end), we went from pure, essential flavors that honour the locale (oysters, langoustine, amber jack), through a modernist approach to cod tripes that reminded me of the new Catalan cusine, then suddenly we flew north to Normandy with bistro-style mussels served with cream and cider, followed by Rudi’s signature dish angler tripes (again!) in cocotte that transferred me back home, to my very own Mediterranean cucina povera, just to finish the savory part with cosmopolitan, classic style of a John Dory fillet and tangy Šibenik agretti. The wine pairings were stellar, nothing to add on that. Raw minerality of Šibenik white wines Debit and Maraština, as much as the red Lasina (they call it Dalmatian Pinot Noir), is something you can’t forget easily.

The sweet part was equally thrilling and started with simple strawberry sorbet turned into an instant pop hit by adding crackling chocolate candies. After this palate cleanser, I got Vlaška čaša (creative translation – Hinterlander’s cup), another signature dish of Pelegrini. It is my kind of dessert, as its strength doesn’t lie in the intensity but elegance and subtleness. Vegetable flavors of extra virgin olive oil mousse, vanilla and melon aromas and almond cracker create a mesmerizing sensation best described as a sensual, tender kiss that lasts for minutes. Pelegrini’s very own Prošek made from Plavac mali grapes from Vis, whose flavor intensity is much stronger, was paired with this gentle dessert and, although breaking the rules of the classic sommelier-style pairing, it created a dance of the beauty and the beast in my mouth. It is entirely justified to break the rules when there’s a story behind to tell.

So, is the new Dalmatian cusine a good description of Rudi’s cooking? Not quite, although he celebrates highly local produce, wine and olive oil. His neighbor Vesna Bibić does that, too, but while she uses the toolset of molecular cuisine, Rudi prefers technically simple dishes that will be more approachable and easier to understand for general public. His culinary techniques have little to do with the traditional way of cooking in Dalmatia, although the feeling in the stomach is the same. To explain that feeling more, let me tell you that cooking for Dalmatian grandmothers who have been cooking their entire life can be tough. They don’t care about the dish presentation, they just want taste, simplicity and the “feel good” in your stomach hours after you have finished eating. They would prefer a simple fish soup with a sip of good olive oil, gregada or a succulent brodet to gratinated scallops or grilled lobster. I believe Rudi’s dishes, especially the ones that have to be eaten by spoon, would satisfy any Dalmatian grandmother, and in that sense it is the new Dalmatian cusine. Don’t get me wrong, his cooking will equally satisfy a sophisticated palate of well-travelled gourmet globetrotter.

Rudi is now in a very creative phase where it is obvious he likes to experiment and play around with local ingredients. He is like a good DJ whose musical taste is eclectic and always does surprising remixes, but prefers to source his samples from vintage vinils rather than from sterile MP3s. Go visit Šibenik, the hidden gem of the Croatian Adriatic, and enjoy the magic of Pelegrini.

Now let me know in the comments what YOU think, what is Rudi (in the pic) trying to do with his food?


Goran Zgrablić

A PhD in physics that 10 years ago realized he needs to expand his innate research spirit into new horizons of food and drink. For the last 5 years he has told the story of Istrian wine and traditional cuisine to foodies all over the world. He's shown them the secrets of Istrian wine cellars and taught them tips&tricks on how to bring a piece of Istria back home.