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(E) TRIO first Croatian Restaurant in New York
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  06/3/2002 | Croatian Cuisine | Unrated
(E) TRIO first Croatian Restaurant in New York

The following excellent review of Trio Restaurant appears in this
week's New York Observer. John Kraljic

I have been in TRIO few times and recommended them many times.. Alwaysexcellent service, charming and unobtrusive host and delicious food. Five stars.Nenad Bach

When's the last time you said, "Let's go out for Croatian"?
Croatian

Now's yourchance.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson
by Moira Hodgson

Where to Go if You're In the Mood for Croatian

The setting is a Murray Hill townhouse. At the entrance is a long
mahogany bar where a handful of men in open-necked shirts are quietly
watching a baseball game on TV with the sound turned off. The strains of
a piano playing "As Times Goes By" drift down a short flight of stairs
that leads up to the dining room: a long room that feels like a
first-class dining car on the Orient Express (except it's twice as
wide). It's done up with dark wood, brocade banquettes, heavy beveled
mirrors, candle-lit sconces, smoked-glass ceiling lamps and small framed
Impressionist prints. The tables, set with white cloths, are decorated
with brandy glasses stuffed to the brim with overblown red roses.

Welcome to Trio, which claims to be the only restaurant in Manhattan
that serves Croatian cuisine. As the pianist struck up "Fascination," we
sat down in a booth under Monet's Water Lilies, near a middle-aged
couple having an animated conversation in Croatian and drinking grappa.

Trio is owned by a Croatian, John Ivanac, who is also the proprietor of
Villa Berulia-a popular Italian restaurant just a block away that's been
going strong for 21 years. His latest venture is a family affair: His
wife Silva is the pastry chef, and his son, John Jr., is the general
manager. Chef James Rich, who was formerly chef de cuisine at
BrasserieBit and executive souschef at Palio, runs the kitchen-he's not
a member of the family, but his grandmother was from Croatia.

Croatia is a strip of land that runs along the Adriatic Coast. Its
cuisine is influenced by a few nearby countries: Italy, Austria and
Greece. From Italy come seafood stews and pasta; from Greece, cheeses
and grilled fish; from Austria, pastries such as palacinka and strudel.
Mr. Ivanac grew up poor in a small coastal village. He left his family
at the age of 16 to work as a waiter on a luxury cruise liner and jumped
ship in New York. In Croatia, his family had produced wine and olive
oil-not exactly a lucrative business in those days-but now the farm
supplies the restaurant with cured meats, cheeses, olive oils and
homemade grappas. There are also some impressive Croatian wines on the
list, priced between $25 and $48, that are well worth trying.

To get in the mood, we started off with a bottle of red Croatian wine,
Dingac, from the Peljesac region, and dalma, a platter of charcuterie
and cheeses from the coast.

"Let me explain you some dishes," said our charming young waiter, who
told us he was half-Croatian and half-Italian. He was smartly dressed in
a black shirt and dark striped tie. As he leaned over the table to
identify the meats and cheeses he'd just set down, his tie landed
squarely in a dish of olive oil. It was like a skit from Fawlty Towers.
We all laughed as he dabbed his tie with a napkin and started again.
"That must be prosciutto," I said, pointing at some dark pink slices on
the plate. "Great!"

He looked surprised. "You like that! Are you Croatian?"

It was prosciutto, but made from lamb, not pig, and it came from Mr.
Ivanac's estate. It had a rich, meaty flavor, like duck prosciutto. The
platter also held smoked beef; a sausage similar to mortadella (also
brought in from his farm); a mild, creamy feta, manchego and
sheep's-milk cheeses; and black and green olives marinated in garlic and
herbs. It was the kind of simple dish you imagine ordering in a local
cantina at sunset with a glass of the house wine.

But the food at Trio is more ambitious, and the chef casts his net far
and wide. Crab Louis is not exactly a traditional Croatian dish (I
believe it dates back to the 1920's, to some fancy hotel like
Delmonico's). Mr. Rich folds the crab meat into a pink mayonnaise and
serves it with slices of avocado in an updated presentation, on a
radicchio leaf. The grilled calamari took us back to the Adriatic coast:
It's a little tough, but nicely charred and served with a wonderful,
light balsamic sauce. The seafood salad is also fresh and clean-tasting,
mixed with potatoes and onions in a red-wine vinaigrette.

Mr. Rich has altered some Croatian dishes for American tastes, such as
the strukli, turnovers that are normally made with pastry. He uses a
pasta dough instead, to make large ravioli that he fills with a
seductive mixture of goat's-milk ricotta, salt cod, raisins and pine
nuts, and serves with a roasted-garlic beurre fondue. The ravioli were a
bit leathery around the edges, but the filling was wonderful.

Just about every seafood dish seems to be on target here. Poached
monkfish with grilled prawns, braised leeks and pommes maximes is a
terrific combination, even though it comes with what is described on the
menu as "a 25-year-old balsamic drizzle." Roasted whole Atlantic sea
bream stuffed with herbs comes Croatian-style on a bed of melting
braised cabbage. My favorite was the buzara, a subtle seafood stew in a
tomato white-wine broth laced with chunks of fish, scallops, shrimp,
potatoes and clams.

On another night at Trio, we had a different waiter who was not quite as
charming as the one who'd dipped his tie in oil. We ordered a mixed
grill for two that consisted of kielbasa, a Croatian sausage called
cevapcici (a blend of pork, lamb and beef), lamb chops and steak. The
dish was garnished with artichoke chips and a bright-pink coleslaw made
with red and white cabbage marinated in a red-onion vinaigrette, and it
came with three different sauces. I asked what they were.

"Typical Croatian sauce," replied the waiter.

"What's that?" I persisted.

He shrugged. "Mustard," he said, indicating with his finger. "Red
pepper. Brown sauce."

(The red sauce, in fact, is called ajvar and is made with eggplant, red
peppers and roasted vegetables; the brown sauce is bordelaise, and the
yellow sauce is a mustard- tarragon béarnaise.)

Desserts include a feathery strudel (the fillings change daily) and
rozata, a flan made with a purée of strawberries. The palacinka (crępes)
come filled with a berry mousse and were served cold; they were
pleasant, but I prefer them hot.

After dinner, Trio offers a digestif on the house (one of the
restaurant's many nice touches). Of the dozen or so house-made grappas
to choose from, we tasted the "fig," the "home blend" and what our
waiter described as "wild grasses." They were all very good, but the fig
was our favorite.

Trio is a charmer of a restaurant. It's different, comfortable and
old-fashioned in a thoroughly endearing way. When's the last time you
said, "Let's go out for Croatian"? Now's your chance.

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