Back then I used to eat good fish and fresh scampi at this place, but later on the restaurant started stagnating, changing chefs very often, and I, on the other hand, got more involved in the world of gastronomy. At some point they simply started to be less and less interesting, but nowadays things are finally changing for the better.
Near the end of October, I came across information that the restaurant Villa Ariston was awarded the title of best restaurant in Croatia during Tourism Days in Mali Lošinj (Bokeria Kitchen & Wine in Split, San Rocco in Verteneglio and Hotel Esplanade Zagreb were also competing for the title). No matter what someone might think about this award, the criteria and the official judges, the very fact that Villa Ariston became a part of this competition meant that things were finally moving forward and that the ambition leading towards the gourmand path was present once again. The path leading this place to become a fine boutique hotel and restaurant was somewhat expected, since Villa Ariston was reopened in 2014 after going through some major renovations. It was announced back then that only about 10 constantly employed staff, with the help of a few seasonal workers, would try to make big changes in quality. Three years later, that's exactly what happened.
At the beginning of February, Villa Ariston organized a special lunch to celebrate the new membership of Villa Ariston in JRE Croatia, an association which is a part of the larger European gastro family that's been active in 16 countries. It doesn't hurt to remind you that JRE is currently gathering more than 350 European restaurants and chefs, with a total of 180 Michelin stars and more than 4.000 points in Gault Millau guide combined, not to mention more than 7 million guests, 6.500 employees and business worth 550 million euros.
Croatian subsidiary of the association which has 44 years of culinary tradition (we talked about that in detail earlier) had 14 restaurants under its umbrella - Pergola (Savudrija), San Rocco (Verteneglio), Badi (Umag), Marina (Novigrad), Monte (Rovinj, 1 Michelin star), Zigante (Livade), Draga di Lovrana (Lovran), Villa Ariston (Opatija), Plavi podrum (Volosko), Boškinac (Novalja), Foša (Zadar), Pelegrini (Šibenik), Restaurant 360 (Dubrovnik) and Dubravkin put (Zagreb). This year, JRE Croatia has the same number of members, since restaurant Bevanda went off the list with the departure of chef Damir Tomljanović, and Villa Ariston became the newest member.
By accepting Villa Ariston into this prestigious European association, JRE Croatia did not only get a new gastro ace in its portfolio, but a place of extreme historical and artistic value. Namely, the idea of building a villa on this spot started developing around 1908, when the landowner, baroness Hedwiga von Haas-Teichen from Vienna, entrusted Oswald Meese to make the building projects. Since then, villa was renovated and adapted on several occasions, and the way it looks today is the shape inherited by the famous Viennese architect Carl Siedl, who studied at the University of applied sciences of Zagreb and made most of his work along the Opatija Riviera (villas Schidt-Zabierov, Santa Maria, Magnolia and Frappart in Lovran, and Villa Eder, Fire department building and the church of the Annunciation in Opatija, among others).
Through adaptations in 1915 and 1924, Seidl turned Villa Ariston into a real Mediterranean jewel above a stone cliff, which has, through the years, had the names Villa Haas and Villa Papo. At that time, the big house plot was repurposed into a quiet English-style walkway, and in front of the villa there still proudly stands, as some say, the oldest palm tree of Opatija. Between the two world wars, Villa Ariston was owned by an Italian prince Andre Boncompagni, then a jewish family Papo, and in the 60s it became a hotel and restaurant which has the same name today, Villa Ariston (from Greek aristos – the best, the most noble). Throughout this entire period the inside of the Villa is almost completely preserved, and its rooms have been host to a string of royal families, statesmen, and various celebrities, including members of the Habsburg and Kennedy family, and the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel.
New ambitions of Villa Ariston, especially in regard to its gourmand restaurant, are to be allotted to its current owner Marko Barbić, an entrepreneur of Croatian descent with an address in Milan, the director of the hotel Cyntia Vučaj, and the one who makes these ambitions come alive in the kitchen – chef Robert Benzia. Benzia has, as he told us at the beginning of the lunch, started his professional path in art, especially painting and sculpting, but in the meantime he exchanged the atelier for the kitchen, thanks to his passion for food. Thanks to his talent, experience, and Italian education (esteemed culinary school Etoile Academy Boscolo in Tuscany, near Viterb), Benzia translates his artistic creativity into his meals. An important link in the team of Villa Ariston restaurant is the sommelier Marko Škarica, who has the title of the best sommelier of Istria and Kvarner.
After a welcome drink (Veuve Clicquot Brut champagne), a few small bites, and the presentation of the new member of JRE Croatia, lunch started, designed by chef Robert Benzia in four courses, three consisting of sea food, and dessert. Since he could not show much of his repertoire with such a short menu, he decided to split the first course into three parts, and the second course into two parts, so we actually had the chance to try six meals.
It started with a cold appetizer, a trio of interesting combinations – Kvarner scampi terino and bream with a pistachio cracker, then an octopus cooked sous-vide, with foam made out of shallots and cold caponata, and bass tartar with orange and honey cream.
Served as a warm appetizer was a black and white risotto with oysters cooked in beer and caviar made from wasabi and parsley, and for the main course the interesting part – mackerel roles with cherry tomato confit, vegetable cream and dried olives, and a marinated shark with zucchini and almond pesto, pancetta chips, foamy fennel cream and crunchy vegetables. Served with all this was the official JRE Malvasia Kozlović, vintage 2015, and as a spice JRE Chiavalon olive oil, vintage 2016.
Lunch ended with dessert shaped like a tartlet, made from two types of chocolate, with gel ravioli from lemon peels confit and tangerine ice cream, and Franck espresso.
Irina Ban from JRE Croatia has used the occasion to notify the guests about the plans the Association had for 2018. For the third time in a row, after the Museum of broken relationships and the baroque castle Miljan, on March 10 there will be a gala function called Talent & Passion Dinner, where all 14 chefs from the restaurant-Association members will cook, and the ticket revenue will be given to charity (tickets for the event are being sold in all member restaurants).
Also, project Chefs at sea was announced, which will further connect Croatian and international chefs from JRE. The project was intended to bring foreign chefs into Croatian member restaurants. Traditionally, JRE Croatia will continue with activities that include partnering firms – Miele, Miva wine gallery, Franck, Kozlović and Chiavalon. In the meantime, a new mixture of Chiavalon olive oil and Malvasia Kozlović was chosen which can, under a special JRE product label, be tasted in all the member restaurants of JRE Croatia. Furthermore, at the beginning of April, a new issue of the national restaurant guide JRE Croatia 2018/2019 is expected, which is printed with the support of the Croatian tourist association.
In the end, we have no doubt that Villa Ariston and chef Robert Benzia will add a new value to JRE Croatia, and provide the guests of the restaurant of the idyllic and historically rich house, in its luxurious hall and on the stone terraces overlooking the Kvarner bay, with numerous culinary surprises and delights. It will be interesting to keep track of the development of the restaurant and the young, ambitious chef.
Translated from source: //www.iceipice.hr/hr/blog/novi-adut-jre-hrvatska