Life has a funny way of shaking things up and throwing in surprises that often lead to unexpectedly-delightful outcomes.
Let me introduce you to Dubrovnik restaurateurs Gildas and Ružica, who epitomize this idea. This couple visited in Dubrovnik several years ago, intending to visit for a single day. However, upon arrival, they decided that this tourist mecca of Croatia would be a “great place to live and work.” Shortly afterwards, they made Dubrovnik their home.
The certified chefs, who were trained in hospitality management in Switzerland, first opened a smoothie / juice bar in the city’s old town. When that venture was successful, they decided to meet Dubrovnik’s large demand for vegetarian cuisine by opening Nishta Restaurant. As the city’s only vegetarian spot, Nishta also caters to gluten-free and vegan diners, and those who prefer raw food.
As a gluten-intolerant eater and ‘selectarian’ exploring a region that favors pork, beef, and bread, I was delighted to discover and dine at Nishta. I even received two of the restaurant’s signature recipes to share on this blog. (The Zucchini Spaghetti and Fig and Sweet Wine Dessert recipes follow below.)
And if it hadn’t been for my recent gluten-intolerant diagnosis, I likely wouldn’t have even found Nishta’s.
The first days of our Dubrovnik sojourn were overshadowed by grey skies, swollen clouds and unusual downpours. Arriving at Nishta’s on a spring Wednesday afternoon, we were instantly cheered by the restaurant’s welcoming cadre of quirky animal toys, bright purple and orange walls, and friendly owners, Rosa and Gil, and their animated infant daughter, Anastasia.
As we would later discover, Shawn sat in the same seat that American actor Edward Norton did when he frequented the restaurant four times. Apparently the Nishta waitresses did not recognize Norton, but before long, they were participating in a video he was making for Harrison Ford’s birthday.
We also learned that Gil and Rosa’s backgrounds are about as eclectic as Nishta’s menu offerings and decor. Gil originally comes from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and Rosa is a Croatian who hails from Bosnia-Herzegovina, but spent many years in Switzerland. The restaurant’s name even reflects diversities. In Croatian,‘ništa’ means ‘’nothing’. In Sanskrit, the word defines an elevated state of mind in meditation. And the restaurant’s funky interior is fun and whimsical: quotes from the Dalai Lama and Croatian authors scribbled on the walls in gold ink and chalk, Barbie and Ken dolls designating the male and female restrooms, and little toy elephants, lions and frogs adorning the tables to tempt young passersby.
Sitting down with the young family, we quenched our thirst with a homemade iced tea infused with berries and mint. The red tea was served in a quirky milk bottle adorned with a happy cow. It was quite tasty, and I was impressed to hear that the beverage blends are constantly changing.
As we perused the menu, overwhelmed by the plethora of imaginative choices, we sought Gil and Rosa’s advice. I finally decided upon the Crazy Nuts & Grains starter and the Falafel.
The starter dish was a buckwheat and quinoa salad, tossed with rocket lettuce, dried apricots, figs, plums, cranberries and almonds. It was light and tangy, with a nice texture and aroma about it. I found that the chewy almonds complemented the tender quinoa well. The dish was garnished with fresh mint. It didn’t seem possible that gluten-free eating could be so flavorful. I was euphoric.
Shawn chose the Simplicity as a starter and the Indiastic as his main course.
When the Simplicity dish arrived, I wanted to spirit it away from Shawn. The fare was lively and inviting – colorful raw zucchini, fashioned into spaghetti-like strips, topped with dollops of three different sauces: sun-dried tomato and date olive oil, pesto, and cashew, each sprinkled with sesame seeds. As someone who appreciates meat dishes, but still survived in India for a full month eating pure-veg meals, I wasn’t sure how Shawn would react to a raw vegetable dish. Let’s just say that he liked it so much that he only let me sample a few strands of the zucchini goodness. I couldn’t get enough of the cashew-based sauce and simply must try my hand at making the Simplicity when we return home!
As we enjoyed our starters, Gil and Rosa mentioned how they often encountered roadblocks when starting Nishta’s. In Dubrovnik, Gil explained, it can be difficult to source spices. In the past, he regularly travelled to India to purchase massive amounts of them. The couple has since found a supplier from Croatia’s capital, Zagreb.
Some locals also had a hard time imagining why the couple would want to open restaurants with non-traditional offerings such as breakfast smoothies and vegetarian cuisine and smoking regulations. (Smoking is rampant in restaurants and public places in the Balkans.) I think Nishta’s TripAdvisor ratings about great food and friendly service answer that question with an emphatic “here’s why.”
My falafel entrée was served with a cucumber and tomato salad, hummus and a chili sauce. Since I cannot eat gluten, I didn’t order the Naan bread that typically accompanies the dish, but still I felt pleasantly full once I’d eaten the ground chickpea balls and vegetables.
Shawn’s Indiastic dish was served on an authentic stainless steel thali dish that is common in India. As we soon learned, Rosa and Gil are avid travelers, who’ve spent time in India and Vietnam, two spots that we also visited last year. Their travels, they explained, greatly influenced the fusion dishes that they have created for Nishta’s. Shawn’s thali was studded with Yellow Dahl (a lentil curry), Palak Paneer (blended spinach and cheese), a vegetable curry, and served with rice and Naan bread. Though the dish was not as spicy as its subcontinent equivalent, Shawn enjoyed it immensely, and it satisfied his Naan cravings.
Infant Anastasia had woken up somewhere in between our starters and main course, and instantly charmed the two of us, as well as other diners. Gil moved her through the air like a little airplane. She couldn’t resist Shawn’s camera and Shawn couldn’t resist her wide smiles. We concluded that she’ll either grow up to be a great chef or filmmaker, based upon her parents’ talents and her love of Shawn’s camera.
Though we were both pretty full from our first two dishes, the couple convinced us to split a dessert. Learning that the Figs in Sweet Wine offering was inspired by a northern Croatian dessert, we decided to give it a whirl. When the warm figs and lightly-spiced cream danced in our mouth, we were so glad we did.
With Anastasia ready for another nap, and us thinking about one too, we bid farewell to our hosts, and strolled back into the raindrops. We’d love to return to Nishta’s during the summer months so that we can sample their new offerings in the outdoor seating area and just watch the world go by.
‘Simplicity’: Zucchini Spaghetti, with Raw Tomato, Pesto & Alfredo Sauce (serves 4)
To make the zucchini spaghetti, cut each zucchini using a spiral cutter for vegetables.
Raw Tomato Sauce:
You will need a blender to make the three different sauces.
1. Blend each sauce separately until it’s smooth and creamy. You might need a bit more or less olive oil than what’s noted in the recipe, so you can adjust for your desired consistency.
2. Separate the spaghetti into three equal portions and mix each one with a different sauce.
3. Serve them like three pyramids on a plate and garnish with fresh herbs. Enjoy!
Figs in Sweet Wine / Smokve i Prošek (serves 4)
1. Cut the figs into thin slices.
2. Put the figs, orange and lemon zest, 1 tbs. brown sugar and 1 half teaspoon of cinnamon into a small pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Add the sweet wine. Stir, and set aside.
3. Mix the Mascarpone cheese, whipped cream, 1 tbs. brown sugar and half a teaspoon of cinnamon into a cream.
4. Take four Muscat or martini glasses and spoon the warm fig mixture onto the bottom of each glass. Top the fig mixture with the cream.
5. Garnish with a mint leaf and some orange zest.
Where in the World?
Beverage: Iced Tea
Starters: Crazy Nuts and Grains (Tricia) & Simplicity (Shawn)
Main: Indiastic (Shawn) & Falafel (Tricia)
Dessert: Figs in Sweet Wine
Thanks & Disclosure: Many thanks / hvala / merci to Nishta Restaurant for hosting us for this dining experience. The dishes were fresh, delicious and imaginative, and pleasantly flavorful despite being gluten-free and vegetarian. We also enjoyed your warm hospitality and learning more about your backgrounds and life in Dubrovnik. Meeting Anastasia was, of course, another highlight!
These words, experiences, images, and opinions are entirely my own. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.