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Why an “anti-restaurant” is the best restaurant yet

Bibich winery, located on the picturesque northern Dalmatian coast of Croatia, does not have any Michelin stars. You won’t find it when you search TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet for “the best Croatian restaurant EVER.” In fact, between cracking somewhat inappropriate jokes and telling tales of the winery’s rich history, staff members insist that Bibich is absolutely positively not a restaurant. But I can tell you that I have yet to find a better culinary experience anywhere else in the world. (Believe me, after 36 countries and counting, I am still looking!)

The cynical behavioral scientist in me recognizes the possible reasons that the 3-hour 14-course dinner with wine pairings at Bibich may be less of a pure exercise in culinary (over)indulgence and more of an example of clever marketing as an “anti-restaurant”.  For example, one clever differentiator of the place is its emphasis on wine.  The food, prepared with utmost care and inspiration by the owner’s wife Vesna -- a molecular gastronomy guru -- is pitched as an accompaniment to the “main course” of spectacular wines.  The status quo at restaurants is the reverse, of course. [By the way, there is only one place I know that operates on a similar model: the Aviary in Chicago, where the cocktails take center stage, accompanied by delectable small bites.]  But make no mistake – the food at Bibich really is the star and the genius of the entire production. In the mind of the guest, the delightful small plates – each dish a work of art – become something extra.  After all, you are really here for a wine tasting. But look – you are also getting a variety of “perfect bites” that pair so well with each glass of the crisp Debit or the cherry-nosed, spicy Grenache.  Bibich masterfully rounds out the experience with little “extras” (“free” dessert, and “How about a rakija for the road! Zašto ne!” = Why not!).  And “extra” always tastes better.  

The other reason for the appeal is scarcity (read: uniqueness or exclusivity or the “hard-to-get-ness”). The concept allows marketers to increase the desirability of any product.  Bibich is an experience that is, in all senses of the word, “scarce.” It is one of the most remote culinary destinations in the world: a half an hour drive on country roads from a tiny medieval town of Skradin, itself located hours from any major airport in the “not-so-mainstream” Eastern European country of Croatia. Just getting here seems to be part of the magic. And although the diner can look forward to reminiscing about Bibich by drinking their widely exported wines, the taste of the essence of olives exploding from the “reversed engineered olive with skin made from olive oil” feels like a once-in-a-lifetime deal.  The feeling is reinforced by the seemingly fleeting nature of the establishment.  The place would never be the same if Chef Vesna decided to abandon her passion for cooking. [In this sense, Bibich reminds me of another favorite, Cafe Jacqueline – a tiny French spot in San Francisco that only serves souffles.  Just like Bibich, this soufflé heaven is inseparable from its Chef, Jacqueline Margulis. And just like with Bibich, my “once-in-a-lifetime” experience there turned into a recurring pilgrimage. ]

Clever marketing, luck, and the foodie street cred from the 2012 feature on Anthony Bourdain’s "No Reservations" obviously make a difference.  But if the place didn’t live up to the high expectations, then none of it would have lasted.  So, ultimately, the simple local flavors and the feeling of being invited into a family home, rather than a restaurant, are really what it’s all about.  They stand out over the hype, over the complexity of cooking techniques, and over the artistic presentations, making Bibich an "anti-restaurant" worth writing a food blog about.

Below is a sample tasting menu from August 2015, listing the wines first and dishes as pairings, to honor the winery's "anti-restaurant" modus operandi

  1. Debit sparkling wine (Reversed engineered olive with skin made from olive oil)
  2. 2014 Debit white wine (Tuna crusted with wasabi caviar and sesame, daikon in lime juice; pictured below)
  3. Sauvignon Blanc Bas de Fain (Deconstructed beetroot “ravioli” topped with poppy seed butter filled with homemade ricotta)
  4. PS Pinot Grigio (Cuttlefish caviar and cuttlefish waffle cone with cream cheese filling)
  5. PS Pinot Grigio (Whitebait and black salt chips fried like a salty churro; pictured below)
  6. R5 Riserva white blend of 5 Croatian grapes (Scallop poached in asparagus cappuccino)
  7. Maximilian white blend of Slovenian grapes (A take on “macaroni and cheese” -- Local river cuttlefish deconstructed in the form of tagliatelle  with saffron cheesy cream and leaves of fresh almonds; pictured below)
  8. R6 Riserva 2013 blend of three red varietals Babić, Lasin, Plavina (A take on “eggs and bacon” -- egg white spaghetti, pork, and chives on top)
  9. G6 Grenache 2013 (A take on “chicken and waffles” -- Napoleon of chicken skin filled with layers of foie gras mousse; pictured below)
  10. Sangrial Shiraz 2012 (“The white plate” -- filet of rabbit on Pag cheese (Paski sir) cream, topped with goat milk caviar, olive oil powder, hazelnuts; we came back to Bibich two years in a row for this dish, pictured below; Chef Vesna obliged to cook it for us off the menu)
  11. Sangrial Merlot 2011 (Duck leg confit on potato purée in demi glacé, served with fried barley and marigold flowers)
  12. Bas de Bas Rouge 2010 blend of 70% Shiraz + Plavina, Merlot (Butter squab filet)
  13. Aleph -- Bibich's top wine: a 67-23-10 blend of Cab Sav, Cab Franc, Merlot (Venison filet with rosemary on top of juniper powder and berries)
  14. Ambra dessert wine from Debit + Maraština (Chocolate egg ball poured over with Bourbon vanilla cream; pictured below)  
The extras:
  • Ambra (see above) wine caramels topped with salt, wrapped in edible paper
  • Gin and tonic sorbet paired with gin and tonic 

Some of the wines can be found for sale here.

Here are some of our favorite dishes and memories from Bibich.
Bibich “Macaroni and cheese”
The "white plate"
Sesame crusted tuna

The "Napoleon" of chicken skin
The whitebait chips
The chocolate ball


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