ZAGREB, Croatia — You would think that a restaurant in a garage on the outskirts of Zagreb, Croatia’s hyper-urban capital, can only be daunting or alluring. Magalinska Klet bistro is alluring, worth the train ride and a 20-minute walk into the working-class neighborhood of Tresnjevka.
The name comes from the street (Magalinska) and the word for cellar (klet). The only markings signifying a restaurant are a red and white handwritten sign, and a green banner advertising Lasko, a Slovenian beer. And yes, you really must walk through a garage to enter the restaurant, which can only be described as kitsch. The decor of the two rooms inside presume that the designer experienced a thematic crisis.
With bamboo walls, astro-turf green carpeting, faux plants, and tablecloths embroidered with red and white hearts, the first dining room resembles a tiki hut more than anything else. The roof is open and tiny white lanterns illuminate the room at night. Walking further into the restaurant, the designer might have been attempting a German lodge feel with dark wood and long tables, but then you see strange touches like candles with penguins dressed as Santas.
Menus are laminated like those you’d get at a diner, displaying photographs of every dish, mostly meats. The waiter is a stern-looking man, bald and very muscular. Croatians do not often appreciate a tourist’s best efforts at their language, so you’re met with impatience. This gentleman, however, finally cracks a smile at how we pronounce the dish cevapcici, which is ground pork and beef formed into a sausage shape and then grilled. If you go, the correct way to say it is “shay-VOP-chee-chee.”
Four dishes offer enough food for 10. One is grilled sausages, which snap to the bite, pork with perfect grill marks, juicy meat patties, and farmer’s cheese that tastes aged and fresh simultaneously, with chopped onion. A mound of fried potatoes and fries tower on a separate platter.
A small casserole cradles muckalica, described on the menu as grilled meat stew with vegetables and spices. It tastes almost like a ragu that had been simmering all day with spicy peppers, and comes garnished with a heavy handful of parsley. Muckalica is a traditional Serbian dish, made from leftover meats, best eaten by dipping hunks of a fluffy white loaf, brushed with plenty of oil, into the stew, and cleaning the bowl.
To balance out the heft of the meal, sopska salata provides something fresh and light. Croatian restaurants are more meat-and-potatoes than salads, but this glass bowl of chopped tomatoes, green peppers, onion, and farmer’s cheese is appealing. In a miniature gravy boat is a condiment called ajvar, which many countries claim is their own. Ajvar is a spicy, smoky pepper and eggplant spread eaten on bread, with meats or hard-cooked egg.
Unlike the seafood-centric cuisine of the Dalmatian Coast in southern Croatia, the northern part of the country doesn’t consider a meal a meal without meat. There’s a saying in the North that eating fish is pleasure and eating meat is food, which reflects the gruffness of urban Zagreb compared with the leisurely attitude of Croats in Dubrovnik.
At the end of a meal at Magazinska Klet, rakija, the national drink, a high-alcohol digestive similar to strong brandy, is a necessity. Select the quince flavor and toast your dining companions with “ zivjeli” (“to life”). Rakija either soothes the stomach after heavy meats, or makes you forget how full you are.
Ulica 7, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia
Molly Kravitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.