Even though I had never eaten at Palo Alto’s Lavanda Restaurant and Wine Bar, somehow I had an image in my mind of what it was all about: Italian food that rambles around the Mediterranean to pick up a few other culinary influences. I figured it was pretty good, but given the profusion of lackluster Italian restaurants on University Avenue, I never stopped in to see if my preconceived notions were correct.
But a few weeks ago, I happened to walk by the restaurant and a flier caught my eye. “Specialties from Croatia,” the paper read. Croatia? That’s not what I expected.
Co-owner Luka Dvornik is from Croatia, and he told me that Lavanda has been running the special Croatian menu seasonally, but, because of the popularity of the dishes, he’s considering adding them to the regular menu. I hope he does. I like Italian food as much as the next guy, but there’s plenty of it around here, and too much of it is pretty mediocre.
Croatian food—that’s a different story. Until now, I didn’t know of any Silicon Valley outlets for good Croatian food. While few in number, most of the Croatian dishes I had sampled were very good. Add excellent service, a handsome dining room and an intriguing wine list, and you’ve got a great, midtier restaurant.
First, a quick word about geography. Croatia, once part of Yugoslavia before ethnic conflict ripped the patched-together country apart, sits opposite Italy on the Adriatic Sea. It looks west and draws culinary influence from Italy, but since it backs up to Eastern Europe, the country is rooted in that part of the world. It’s a culinary crossroads.
I’m told the special menu will be around for a while, but I would still hurry in for the grilled octopus salad ($13). Eating grilled octopus is often like chewing rubber bands, but here it’s wonderfully tender, with a deep, smoky, meaty flavor. Served with creamy fingerling potatoes, fennel, red onion, Kalamata olives and parsley, it shows off the East-meets-West flavors of Croatian cuisine. Burek ($10), another great starter, is made with crispy sheets of phyllo, fresh spinach and both cottage and feta cheese.
From the list of entrees, the cevapcici ($20), grilled lamb and beef sausage with sliced spring onions and ajvar, a red bell pepper and eggplant relish, is flat-out delicious. So too is the Croatianish mixed seafood grill ($25), expertly cooked chunks of tuna, shrimp, calamari and mussels drizzled with a nettle salsa verde and plump Israeli couscous. The only dish that let me down was the dry Dalmatian braised beef ($24). But the house-made potato gnocchi served with it sure was good.
Don’t miss Lavanda’s excellent Croatian and Slovenian wines. I especially liked the 2007 Lirica plavac mali, a big, juicy but well balanced red wine. It tastes like
a well-behaved zinfandel. Croatia is actually home to the zinfandel grape (better known in Croatia as crljenak kastelanski) and the plavac mali grape is an offshoot of that grape.
While it was the Croatian food that got me in the door, a second visit revealed even more delicious surprises. I’m a sucker for grilled fresh sardines and Lavanda’s four dainty grilled fillets ($5) topped with cherry tomato halves fed my yen. And I absolutely loved the farinata ($5), a chickpea pancake made with sweet grilled onions and pleasingly salty Kalamata olives. The interplay of sweet, savory and salty was just fantastic.
And I was really surprised to find a shrimp po’ boy ($12) on the menu: delicious, lightly fried Laughing Bird shrimp (a brand of ecologically farmed shrimp), spicy remoulade sauce and shredded romaine lettuce on one of the best French rolls I have ever had. The lightly grilled, heavily buttered bread was spongy and light yet perfectly crisped on the outside. Even the farro and cucumber salad that was served as an option on the side stood out for its simple, fresh flavors.
Lavanda’s Italian food is not too shabby, either. The “handkerchief” pasta ($15), square sheets of thin, house-made pasta served under a rosemary-flavored Bolognese sauce, was delicious and surprisingly light.
Other than the braised beef, the other only less-than-stellar dish was the Croatian-style baklava ($7). While I loved the fact that is was several notches less sweet than traditional baklava, the thicker layers of phyllo had a gummy, pastry texture that blended in with the sweet ground-nut filling rather than setting it apart. The scoop of house-made honey lavender ice cream was pretty good, though. Better picks are the flourless chocolate cake and hulking bread pudding with vanilla crème anglaise (both $8). Lavanda. Who knew? Apparently a lot of people. The good-looking restaurant fills up for lunch and dinner. I’m just late to the party. But I’m glad I made it.