Srdela – the place for a fish feast

Vrsar is a seaside town with an active fishing port, so no visit would be complete without tasting the fruits of Istria’s sea – but where to go? “Srdela,” said local expert, Natalija.

It was the second night of our visit to the Montraker rock festival (Director of Vrsar Tourism, Natalija, is one of the organizers) and, with Eric Sardinas playing, Srdela and a sardine-based meal sounded the perfect combination (‘Srdela’ is Croatian for sardine). Natalija booked us a table and we agreed to exchange a Live Istria review for a dinner.

Nicky, Snjezana & Srdjan waiting for dinner at Srdela, Vrsar, IstriaSardines are hugely popular in Croatia: a mainstay of many Croatian BBQs and celebrated in festivals up and down the coast. But while I love fish, I’m no sardine expert, so we took Srdjan and Snježana along – not because they are some of our closest friends, but because they are Croatians who could offer real local expertise to review Srdela’s offering properly. Srdjan is a foodie, one-time chef and self-confessed sardine-lover, while Snježana is an expert on local herbs –  Srdela would need to be good to impress their knowledgeable palettes.

Having been told by Natalija that Srdela was in a wood hut, next to the tourist market and children’s fun fair, we were expecting fairly simple fare, probably the Istrian equivalent of fish and chips (some sardines in a paper bag?). But we got far more than we bargained for …

 

Let the banquet begin

Starter at Srdela, Vrsar, IstriaOwner Mirijana gave us a really warm welcome. “Do you want to choose from the menu, or would you like me to bring you something?” she asked. “You know what’s good,” we said, “we’ll leave the choice to you.” And so a meal began … that turned into a banquet.

First up was a mixture of hors d’oeuvres – two types of anchovy and tuna pâté on one plate, and two varieties of marinated sardines on the other. All were classic Istrian dishes – a real taste of the Adriatic, according to Srdjan. I didn’t record the differences between the dishes because I was too busy enjoying them, all obviously very fresh, tasty and beautifully presented. We might be eating outside a wood hut, but there was no dropping of standards – no fish supper in a rolled up newspaper here!

Risotto, bordet & paella at Srdela, Vrsar, IstriaNext came black risotto (inky black from squid ink) served with fresh parmesan; ‘brodet’, a rich fish and seafood stew with polenta; and ‘fish paella’. We all enthusiastically piled into everything and soon agreed the brodet was excellent. “This is a real Croatian speciality, said Srdjan, “and this is exactly how it should be.”  He was equally appreciative of the black risotto … which surprised everyone, including himself, as normally it’s not a favourite of his! Only the paella didn’t get five stars from us. It was being cooked in an impressive-looking big frying pan in front of the restaurant – probably to lure guests in – and we felt it was somewhat overdone and lacked that traditional touch.

Thinking it was over and feeling pleasantly stuffed, we sat back, only to be amazed when yet another couple of huge platters arrived! But it looked so good, we managed to find a little more room … On the first was local šarak (a firm white fish, much like monkfish) in a white sauce, with three different types of home-made gnocchi – plain white; black gnocchi (again, flavoured with squid ink); and a delicious herb gnocchi. Herbs expert, Snježana, was keen to find out what went into this one (answer: dill, oregano and fennel, all grown in Mirijana’s garden). On the other Yet more fish at Srdela, Vrsar, Istriaone, another set of Istrian traditional dishes: fried oysters, white bait and sardines, and crispy tuna and sardine puffs. I’m afraid we were so full we didn’t really do this lot justice, but we all agreed the šarak was magnificent, a real change to the sea-bass and sea-bream that’s more usually served. I loved the white bait, Srdjan adored the oysters and P ate too many of the tuna puffs (P – They were amazingly light for a fried dish … just too good to resist!)

For desert we were offered pancakes with forest fruits and ice-cream, but were all far too full. I’m sure they’d have been equally delicious, but we needed to stop before we popped.

Instead, we finished with a shot of home-made travarica, the local herb rakija (‘trava’ means herb or grass in Croatian and travarica is a grappa – grape schnapps – made with a selection of herbs (but no grass!), with each family following  their own recipe). This was a particularly good one, and Srdjan and Snježana were soon squabbling, trying to identify the herbs inside. Mirijana was called over to adjudicate and proved them both right. Our small glasses of pale green spirit contained a mixture of ten different local herbs, many I’d never even heard of, but they knew well. I just knew it tasted delicious.

(At this point Snježana asked me to point out that, for a herb expert, things like this are important to know, especially as they sometimes make their own travarica. She also said to make sure you realised that she has a wide selection of herbs for sale on her stall in the Porec market, all home-grown in Srdjan’s greenhouses – hint, hint!)

Ordering lunch at Srdela, Vrsar, IstriaBy the end of our fishy feast, I felt we must have tasted everything on Mirijana’s menu; she certainly gave us enough! But according to her, there is even more to choose from. It seems that, whatever you fancy, if it comes from Istria’s sea you’re almost certain to find it here.

While we had gone for dinner, Srdela would also be perfect for a light lunch when you’re visiting Vrsar. Many of the dishes on the menu are great for a snack or could be combined to form Istrian-style tapas.

And as to Srdela’s rather quirky location – wood hut, next to children’s fun fair – we all agreed that it was ideal for this simple, yet delicious food. There was little noise from the fun fair: what there was, just added to the relaxed, seaside atmosphere.

 

Why Srdela’s so good

I caught up with Mirijana a few days later to find out more about Srdela. First off, why does she only serve fish and seafood?

The Srdela team, Vrsar, Istria“It’s what I know best,” she explained. “I worked in Vrsar’s fish market for many years and people kept asking me where they could eat traditional sardines. They didn’t want to go to a fancy restaurant, they wanted something simple and affordable, so I decided to open Srdela.”

That was seven years ago. Today the whole family (husband Gino, daughter Ana and son Mario) work here, and her menu’s expanded well beyond sardines, but her basic principles have remained the same: it’s still all fish and seafood, and it’s all freshly caught. “All our fish is landed in Vrsar harbour,” she said, pointing to the seafront just metres away. “It’s just our mussels and oysters that have to travel. They come all the way from Lim Fjord,” she added with a smile, “all of 15 km away!”

 

Where is Srdela?

Srdela doesn’t have an official address – it’s just one of the huts in the tourist market, next to Vrsar’s main car park, on the left near the OMV petrol station down by the harbour. If you’re coming by car, park in the car park and walk towards the tourist market of wooden huts. It is the large hut on the left, just as you come to the children’s fun fair. If you are coming from the harbour, go through the tourist market towards the parking, and it is on the right. (T: +385-52-441278)

Other recommended places to eat in Vrsar are Fancita and Monte Carlo.

 

 

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