Westchester’s First Croatian Restaurant, Which Misses the Mark
Dubrovnik, New Rochelle’s on-and-off dining spot
Wood-roasted branzino, its skin still crackling from a fragrant fire
Dubrovnik Restaurant 2.5 ★
721 Main St, New Rochelle
(914) 637-3777; dubrovnikny.com
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 am to 9 pm; Fri - Sat, 11:30 am to 11 pm; Sun, 3 pm to 9 pm
Appetizers: $5.75-$15.75; entrées: $17.75-$39; dessert: $8-$9
In journalism, there is the expression “to bury your lede”; it means hiding the article’s most important facts in a haystack of secondary information. The shame in burying one’s lede is that the journalist has missed the story in the story. In the business, this is a major sin.
Dubrovnik Restaurant in New Rochelle commits the same sin. It is, in equal parts, a frustrating and intriguing restaurant that has the unfortunate habit of hiding its own charms. The restaurant—which takes its name from the Croatian vacation mecca located across the Adriatic Sea from central Italy—resides in a particularly scruffy stretch of Main Street. Nevertheless, Dubrovnik’s dining room surprises with a virtual quarry of pricey sand-colored stone. (Dubrovnik’s owner, Zeljko Tomic, is a building contractor.) While all that stone might be a relief from the Adriatic Coast’s relentless sun, the same materials can feel mausoleum-like during a chilly New York winter. But if you happen to visit Dubrovnik on a mild fall or summer night, you will discover this restaurant’s secret.
Accessed through the dining room is an outdoor terrace that sits high above a pretty vegetable garden. The terrace bears a stone wood-burning grill/oven complex that Tomic usually mans himself, often while enjoying a glass of Croatian wine. Don’t skip these wines (they’re hard to miss—their names bear a superabundance of diacritical marks). All are reasonably priced, and all are delicious. From Tomic’s perch emanate the best dishes in this restaurant—but good luck finding them on the menu. When we visited, these gems were hidden in the no man’s land headed by the words, “Ask About our Daily Specials.” Some, like wood-roasted lamb, pig, or goat, you will need to order a day in advance.
Oh, but the rewards! On one visit, it was a starter of tiny squids—rosy tentacles curled, delicately charred, and tender—dressed in Croatian olive oil, lemon, and a sprinkling of Croatian sea salt. On another, it was skinny spears of asparagus—treated the same way, and equally beautiful. In warm weather, snag an outdoor table where the confluence of moonlight and the scent of meats roasting over wood is intoxicating.
Many of the starters that don’t emanate from Tomic’s wood-fired grill are also fine, like cool, slippery sardines marinated lemon, or Dubrovnik’s salata od hobotnice (octopus saladwith potatoes and garlic).
Service can be problematic at Dubrovnik. About this, The Chef busted out with the word “atrocious” (while I might have gone with “bumbling”). On some nights, you’ll sit without a menu for what seems like hours; on others, a waiter disappears while you are telling him your order, leaving you to wonder, “What just happened?”Sadly, there are gaffes. I visited with a well-known chef who questioned whether the pale tomatoes in the Dubrovnik signature salad were “heirloom anything” (as the menu claimed), but he was won by the crni rižoto (cuttlefish risotto in ink), which he declared to be “perfect”—creamy and subtly flavored of the sea.
The don’t-miss dish at Dubrovnik is Tomic’s lamb cooked “under the bell,” which you’ll need to order a day in advance. It uses a traditional Croatian technique in which simply seasoned, bone-in sections of lamb are placed in a round pan over which is fitted a large iron dome. In turn, the top third of this iron dome is girded by a metal ring that allows Tomic to pile more red-hot coals and wood embers on top. What comes from this oven-within-an-oven is the stuff of carnivorous dreams. The lamb is roasted until its fat is crackling and delicious, and its flesh is rendered nearly melting and juicy. This is a primal dish, almost primitive, and not at all cheffy. It arrives with potatoes that have been roasted in lamb fat until they are crisp, yet still creamy. Of this dish, The Chef raved, “He nailed that roasted lamb and I would recommend anyone to go back to Dubrovnik just for that dish. It was perfect, succulent, well-seasoned. And the potatoes: crisp and saturated with lamb juice.” Also good was a finely tuned whole wood-fired branzino, though a weirdly jiggly rib-eye steak was overpowered by the bitterness of burned peppercorns.
Advice? Stick to the wood-fired dishes at Dubrovnik. Says The Chef, “That’s where Tomic’s newness and his lack of understanding of restaurants comes into play. Because, for someone like me, I would design that whole restaurant around that outside oven. You can tell: That’s where he excels. That’s his real strength.”
To end, one might try palačinke Dubrovnik (blintz-like crepes filled with Nutella) or the traditional crispy kallab: a dry, biscotti-like cake that was unfortunately “unengaged” (according to The Chef) by its accompaniment of cakey, overwhipped cream. Also worth a try: pony glasses of delicately plum-scented Slivovitz—perfect for sipping while you enjoy the remains of the fire.