A taste of Croatia

Losos na Žaru: Grilled salmon with tomato basil relish over asparagus risotto

Losos na Žaru: Grilled salmon with tomato basil relish over asparagus risotto

The outdoor patio at Dubrovnik in New Rochelle feels more like your backyard than a restaurant, and that’s for the better.

Unlike many congested eateries, tables here are far enough apart from one another to create a laid-back, comfortable environment. This setting is a perfect match for chef and owner Zeljko “Jerry” Tomic’s approach to cooking.

Chef and owner  Zeljko “Jerry” Tomic

Chef and owner
Zeljko “Jerry” Tomic

Tomic’s handcrafted outdoor grill can only accommodate a few fish at once, and many, like the golden snapper, often take up to 40 minutes to cook. Especially on busier nights, Tomic makes it a point to be up front with his customers about the cooking length and makes sure no one is in any particular rush.

Because of the time and care that goes into preparing each fish he serves, Tomic will never squeeze in extra tables for fear the quality of his food would suffer. Instead, he encourages his diners to sit back and relax while his busy kitchen prepares some of the most authentic Mediterranean dishes in Westchester.

Before ordering, every table in the restaurant is presented with an impressive platter of whole, raw fish to choose from in addition to the usual menu. Offerings vary daily, as Tomic will only purchase what’s freshest. When I dined, there was lobster, branzino, salmon, striped bass, skate, John Dory, red snap-per, golden snapper and squid available.

Paired with seasonal sides, each fish is prepared with sea salt—the only salt Tomic has in his kitchen—and olive oil made from olives handpicked by Tomic’s parents in Croatia.

Tomic utilizes just a few simple ingredients; he was raised by parents who grew up having very little and learned how to make the most of what they had. Applying this principle makes Tomic’s dishes healthier, too.

Even more slowly prepared than fish on the grill are fish cooked in traditional Croatian fashion under a bell. Chefs add ashes to regulate the temperature, allowing meat to breathe only through the ash and retain all the flavor. Called “peka,” seafood cooked in this manner takes approximately an hour and a half, depending on its size. In Croatia, Octopus peka is a favorite.

Peka is also a popular preparation for meat. Lamb can take up to two hours, and veal even longer. Because of the meticulous process, Tomic requires a minimum of two days notice for these special orders. Planning ahead is well worth it, as Tomic describes a melt-in-your-mouth final result.

While I was unable to taste peka during my visit, I enjoyed a plethora of other menu staples. The Dubrovnik signature salad was a nice starter with cucumber, heirloom tomato, red onion and cheese shavings from the Croatian island of Pag. Cuttlefish risotto, well-flavored and blackened by squid ink, contained plentiful pieces of fish. The yellow tomato sauce on the daily pasta special was excellent, as was the salmon dish, a permanent fixture on the menu.

Grilled shrimp over vegetables

Grilled shrimp over vegetables

Tomic brought over smaller portions of John Dory, octopus, squid and, finally, a trio of three tasty Croatian desserts. He poured a glass of white wine made of Posip grapes, about 20 percent of which came from his father’s vineyard.

The night escalated into quite a feast as Tomic was eager for me to try as much as I could.

Aside from delicious seafood, what I found most alluring about Dubrovnik was the outdoor garden situated next to the patio. Tomic also has his own, much larger garden at home, from which he often takes herbs—like the fresh fennel he had us smell—to Dubrovnik for widespread use throughout the menu. Some of the romaine lettuce in salads served around me came straight from the garden, where you can also find lavendar, thyme, sage, basil, cucumber, broccoli and more.

Pasta special of the day: Linguini with scallops and yellow tomato sauce

Pasta special of the day: Linguini with scallops and yellow tomato sauce

Tomic is still eagerly anticipating a large batch of tomatoes later this summer.

Gardening is a daily hobby for him; he spends several minutes most mornings in his garden before leaving for work.

Tomic’s talents extend beyond cooking and gardening.
He has worked in construction for the past 27 years since arriving in the U.S. Before going into Dubrovnik each afternoon, he works next door at Top Drawer Custom Cabinetry. In fact, Tomic designed and built every corner of Dubrovnik’s interior himself, from each table to the doors and moldings on the wall. He poured all of his savings into this project and is proud of the outcome, with good reason.

While eating, I befriended a local couple that dines at Dubrovnik weekly. They offered unprompted praise of the super-friendly Tomic and his cuisine. They ordered the same whole fish, branzino, remarking how difficult it is to find genuine Mediterranean food elsewhere in the area. The husband manages Siena, an Italian restaurant half a mile down the road. To see someone in the restaurant business dining at Dubrovnik on his day off speaks volumes.

The one-of-a-kind Dubrovnik was created in honor of Tomic’s mother, a chef herself since a very young age. Mrs. Tomic, 78, visited the U.S. a few months ago and worked in Dubrovnik’s kitchen for three days, much to the delight of the restaurant’s regulars. Tomic said she left quite an impression on his staff, as well

When the restaurant opened less than a year ago, Tomic went through dozens of chefs and employees before finding a team capable of properly paying homage to where he was raised. Given the restaurant’s authentic eats and impeccable service, I’d say he’s found the right enthusiastic, skilled and dedicated bunch.

The preceding is brought to you by SoWeTaste, a division of the Southern Westchester Food & Wine Festival. Join SOWE from Sept. 19 to 21 for a unique culinary celebration featuring the tri-state area’s finest eats.

@sowefoodfest • sowefwf.com