Restaurant Katarina Zrinski, 72 Whitehall Street, Footscray. Phone: 9689 5866
It is a wonderfully improvised approach that takes us to Footscray’s Croatian Club this chilly Friday night.
It’s the usual drill – get in the car and seek food with a handful of only vague locations rattling around in our minds.
We’ve enjoyed the food at Restaurant Katarina Zrinski several times but it’s been at least a couple of years since we visited.
(Katarina Zrinski is apparently considered “one of the greatest women in Croatian history” – see wikipedia entry here.)
It’s good to be back in this big, cheerful room.
As expected on a Friday night, the place is pretty much fully booked – not full yet but working on it.
But we’re early enough to snag one of the undressed table, joining another pair of walk-in non-Croatian types.
On previous visits here we’ve mostly loved the grills – things such as cevapcici and raznjici (grilled pork pieces), served with chips and utterly brilliant cabbage salad of the kind so often found in cuisines of eastern Europe.
Tonight, though, and perhaps feeling the onset of winter in our bones, we go big on old-school Croatian comfort food.
But not before tucking into a massive bowl of girice ($11) as found on the specials blackboard.
“You have got to be joking!” proclaims Bennie as our whitebait arrive at our table.
In New Zealand, I grew up regularly eating whitebait of a much smaller kind, usually mixed in a gloopy batter and fried as fritters.
These whitebait are much, much different – bigger, deep-fried, salty, crunchy and very fishy.
Despite his eye-popping surprise at being presented with so many fishes, Bennie likes them as much as I do.
There’s way too many of them for us, though – we don’t even eat half.
They come across to me as an ideal sort of snacky bar food along the same lines as beer nuts, though the staff tell me that is certainly not the intention.
From there we head into much more familiar and heart-warming territory …
Mains here hover around $18 for smaller serves and $25 for larger portions – more if you’re inclined to seafood.
But we’ve learnt from previous visits that the larger deals – especially of the non-grill meals – are humongously big.
So we get smart by ordering $17.50 serves of sarma (cabbage rolls) and “gulas”.
We do good as this turns out, on top of the whitebait, to be just right for two moderately hungry boys.
The cabbage rolls are both different from any I’ve enjoyed before and as good as any I’ve eaten.
The point of different comes from the filling being less rice and more meat, in this case a tangy mix of both pork and beef.
The dollop of mash belies its plain appearance by being an excellent foil for the meaty rolls.
Until recently, Bennie and his mum enjoyed both our mains as cooked by a now former neighbour of theirs named Draga.
Bennie announces with a lofty voice of authority: “There’s no doubt that Draga’s cabbage rolls are better than these!”
Man, Draga’s cabbage rolls must be to-die-for!
The gulas is a stunner – and very generous for a so-called smaller serve.
Atop gorgeously smooth mash, the beefy stew is rich and has heaps of tender meat.
As far as I can tell, it’s cooked with not much more than onion and seasoned with little more than salt and pepper – but that means it’s sublime in its simplicity and packed with earthy soul.
Free advice: Don’t order the large gulas unless you’re sharing!
I suspect that, for ourselves and many other inner-west residents, Restaurant Katarina Zrinski falls off the radar a little.
That’s a shame as the food is great, it’s a very family-friendly place and the service is fine.
Check out the Restaurant Katarina Zrinski here.