Monte Carlo – a dining gem in the making

For our third night at the Montraker rock festival, Natalija suggested we visit Monte Carlo. There’s been a Monte Carlo restaurant, on and off, for a long time – often of dubious quality – and the restaurant had been closed for several years. It re-opened this spring with a new dynamic team and Natalija’s very excited about it. “I want you to go because Adriano’s a wonderful chef,” Natalija explained. “He and Paolo started Fancita and he has worked in several other Vrsar restaurants, but this is the first time he’s had his own place. I want to give him and Jelena all the support I can.”

Monte Carlo's lovely terrace, Vrsar, IstriaWalking up to Monte Carlo, I had my doubts. From the outside, it isn’t a restaurant I would normally opt to go into. As the phrase goes, it lacks kerb appeal and, with so many other restaurants around, why would I choose here? The walk through a rather gloomy, empty dining room did little to ease my concerns, but … once we were seated on the terrace, all my anxieties disappeared. From the outside you’d never know it, but this unprepossessing building hides a gorgeous L-shaped terrace, a sea of yellow sun umbrellas and potted plants, with a view over a garden and park. Things were looking up!

Selfishly, my other concern was my waistline. This was our third night out in a row and I’d already eaten more in two nights at Fancita and Srdela than I’d normally eat in a week (OK, I exaggerate for effect, but only slightly!). While I adore good food, I didn’t think I could face yet another huge onslaught (how do professional food critics do it?).

I needn’t have worried. While the other restaurants had stunned us with huge spreads, Monte Carlo’s approach was far simpler. Handing over the menus with a smile, Jelena said, “Have whatever you like. Everything’s great: my husband’s the best chef in the world!”

We opted to stick with just two courses – a main course and dessert, and let chef Adriano decide what it should be. Our only contribution, having had a seafood ‘banquet’ at Srdela the night before, was that we wanted it to be meat.

 

Pljukanci heaven

steak & pljukanci, Monte Carlo, Vrsar, IstriaBilled simply as ‘steak with Gran Padano and pljukanci’, what arrived was simply one of the best main courses I have ever eaten! Good quality meat always shows and this was a delicious steak. Lightly stuffed with pršut and soft cheese, and coated in shavings of strong Gran Padano cheese, it was beautifully tender, yet tasty. But for me, it wasn’t the steak which stole the show, it was the accompanying pasta dish. Pljukanci in a creamy mushroom sauce is an Istrian classic and Adriano’s take on this traditional dish, involving truffles, was exquisite. I’m still dreaming about it! (Pljukanci is home-made pasta rolled into strips and is unique to Istria.)

Sad to say, while all home grown in their own garden, the accompanying mixed salad was perfectly adequate, but rather unexciting.

For dessert, Jelena suggested we try the ‘torta’. Adriano’s mum and sister are great cake-makers, and each evening produce something different. Yesterday it had been cheesecake; tonight it was chocolate cake with orange. How could we resist? It was lovely – light chocolate sponge with a strong orange tang and thick chocolate icing – my waistline took another hammering.

When we visited, Monte Carlo had only been open for three months, yet it ran like a well-oiled machine. Adriano’s food was delicious and Jelena’s service delightful. I particularly enjoyed watching her repartee with her guests – they all were clearly having a wonderful time. But according to Jelena this is just the start … I went back a few days later to find out more.

 

Planning on perfection

When I arrived, Jelena was just coming back from the laundry with clean tablecloths. “As we’re just starting up, we’re having to do everything ourselves,” she explained, putting her basket down. “It’s exhausting, but it’s wonderful to be our own bosses!”

Jelena & Adriano, Monte Carlo, Vrsar, IstriaJelena’s full of enthusiasm, determination and big ambitions. “I want this to be a place where everyone feels at home, where everyone can have fun and relax. Once you discover us, I want Monte Carlo to be the place you come back to time and again,” she said. And, coming from a restauranting background, she knows what she’s doing. “I think I was born in a restaurant!” she jokes, “I’ve certainly spent most of my life in them.” (When we were there, they already seemed to be well on their way: the place was full, with ‘reserved’ signs scattered across many tables).

While bubbly, friendly Jelena loves meeting people, her quieter husband, Adriano, is far happier in his kitchen – he looked decidedly uncomfortable when she dragged him out to meet me! They make the perfect team: while she’s passionate about service, he’s equally, if not more passionate about the food (in his quiet, understated way). For him everything must be “excellent, 100% excellent”. All the produce must be fresh and cooked to perfection. There can be no compromises: for example, everything is grilled on a wood fire, not a gas burner, like many other places. “It’s more of an effort to do, but you can really taste the difference,” said Adriano. “The wood smoke adds another dimension.”

“He’s also determined that everyone is happy with their food,” chips in Jelena with a grin. “Every time we take the empty plates back to the kitchen he asks, ‘Did they like it?’ ‘What did they say?’ He really wants to know.”

Jelena and Adriano have set themselves extremely high standards and to me, already seem to be reaching them. And yet they plan to improve things further. “The opportunity for this restaurant came at the last minute,” explained Jelena, “so we opened in a hurry and Adriano didn’t get the time to create a distinctive menu. At the moment it’s very traditional, but over the winter we’re planning to expand and develop it.”

Monte Carlo view, Vrsar, IstriaThe menu seemed fine to me – a good choice of traditional Istrian dishes with a mix of pizzas, pastas, fish and grills, all for a reasonable price. “What’s coming?” I asked. Jelena looked at Adriano, but he wouldn’t be drawn. “I’m listening to what people say they like and what they want, and will develop my menu accordingly,” was all he’d say.

Even if nothing changes, I think they already have a winning combination and are a great addition to Vrsar’s dining scene. So, ignore Monte Carlo’s rather un-inviting front, hidden inside is a real gem: the terrace is delightful, the food delicious and affordable, and the service relaxed and friendly – what more could you want.

 

Where is Monte Carlo?

Their address is: Primorska 8, Vrsar. T.: +385(0) 91 506 7505.

There are two sets of steps up to the old town – both start a couple of streets back from the seafront. With your back to the sea, Monte Carlo is just before the left-hand set of steps, on the left. There is a large sign outside and a blackboard.

 

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