There's something about opening a menu in a country whose cuisine you have absolutely no clue about. No expectations, the way your eye naturally hones in on the dish with the strangest sounding name or the weirdest ingredients, the sense of competitive satisfaction when your choice from the list of unknown, unpronounceable dishes trumps those of everyone else at the table...
Montenegro was definitely a country whose cuisine I wasn't too schooled on before driving into the unblinkingly beautiful Kotor Bay or Boka Bay - which, appropriately, when translated meant "mouth" from the Italian word "bocca" - I couldn't have chosen a better place to call home.
Kotor Bay is strung with pearls of little fishing villages, each more quaint than the last - all suspended between towering mountains that plunge straight into limpid blue waters.
In between blond stone houses peeking out between wooden shutters, clouds of pink and purple bougainvillea bursting across roofs and little white fishing boats dipping and bowing in the shallows, you could be forgiven for forgetting about the food.
But when it is time to sit down to table, you can be sure you will be very happy. Montenegrin cuisine borrows from the easy coastal charm of Italian villages and the heartier fare of the Ottoman kitchen, although meat lovers won't find much on offer by the water's edge. Fans of seafood will have little to complain about however - glistening squid ink risotto, plump hunks of fish brushed generously with lemon and stacks of fresh squid, prawns and scampi make a frequent appearance at every meal.
In fact, if anything, after a few rounds you may suffer from a touch of the "menu deja vu" that Montenegrins and foreigners alike shruggingly lament about... well, before they tuck into another platter of seafood.
"You can open any menu in Kotor Bay and you will see almost the exact same list of dishes. It's like they've only changed the name of the restaurant," says one man who is looking to change the status quo and put Montenegro on the gourmet map - Jusman So, Executive Chef at the spanking new Regent Porto Montenegro Hotel and Residences that has docked at Tivat - once a quiet Austro-Hungarian military port city, now the home of one of Europe's newest, shiniest and most desirable superyacht marina resorts.
I spoke to the chef at breakfast in anticipation of trying his highly-praised degustation menu that evening. "I want to do something different - I've picked classic Mediterranean food overlaid with some Asian influences," said chef So, originally from Singapore. "I like food with a bit of confidence."
It was a tempting dinner proposition if ever there was one in this sparkling new corner of Europe, and as a fellow appreciator of bold food, I was excited to check out what Chef So had in store.
Confident was a good choice of words. One of the stars of the menu was lobster au gratin - delicately lined with zucchini mille-feuille and crusted over with strong traditional Mediterranean flavours of feta, pine nuts and preserved lemon vinaigrette. Lobster au gratin is a childhood favourite so I may be biased, but this dish was probably the culinary high point of my time in Montenegro.
Other top dishes included a delicate wagyu beef carpaccio dotted prettily with extra virgin olive oil pudding and truffle mignonette and served with parmigiano reggiano crisps - it looked almost too good to eat! And foie gras with slow roasted apple and fig compote, dusted with pistachios.
Dessert was a chocolate quartet amongst which the white chocolate and vanilla chantilly and the chocolate croustillant bar shone.
The menu was easily elegant - much like the hotel that served it up. Inspired by the Venetian palazzos that dot the shores along Boka Bay and Tivat's naval heritage, the mellow walls of the Regent Porto Montenegro blinking with lighted windows like a multi-storeyed lighthouse beckoning you to shore, calming waterfront Italian garden and yacht-inspired interiors - done up in chalky sail shades, navy blue and wooden decking - was the perfect spot to berth for a couple of nights while exploring the surrounding historical towns of the bay and the deserted hills of Gornja Lastva nearby, lush with olives, pomegranates, pears and the heady scent of wild herbs.
The hotel is the very first luxury address to open at the swish marina that is fast gaining a reputation as the place for the rich and famous to soak in some glorious sunshine - sans paparazzi and the ridiculous berthing fees of Europe's more established riviera haunts.
"This is Monaco before it was Monaco," says one of the hotel's resident locals - most of the hotel's staff are refreshingly Montenegrin and a chatty bunch - eager to hear what brought us here and quick with tips and personal recommendations on the best beaches to visit, the most charming seaside taverns to eat at and their favourite villages to spend an afternoon in.
There really isn't a shortage of places to pick - within 5 minutes to half an hour from your sail-canopied bed with views straight out onto the gleaming masts of massive sailing yachts floating outside, you could take in the sights of church towers and domes in romantic Perast while floating in the blue waters of the bay, clatter through the cobbled streets of fortified Kotor city, drive up and over the Lustica Peninsula to the sunlit beaches beyond or spend the evening wandering the chic boutiques and bars lining Porto Montenegro, the sound of chattering voices and clinking glasses carrying clearly across the water and over the sharp sports cruisers docked along the pier.
If this is Monaco before it was Monaco - let's hope it always stays Porto Montenegro, just like I remember it.
A Perfect Day Platetrotting around Boka Bay
Start with a sunny breakfast in Perast. The Admiral Restaurant serves up a local specialty of fried bread with tangy sour cream and cheese. With its billowing fish net curtains and outdoor perch looking straight down into the glassy depths of the Bay of Kotor, it's the ideal spot to fuel up for a day exploring the bay.
For lunch, drive over the Lustica Peninsular to the bohemian town of Rose - the old custom's point for ships entering the bay - and tuck into a tasty platter of local seafood delicacies washed down with some chilled Zlahtina wine.
Digest your meal with a stroll up to the eerily silent hills and churches of Granja Lastva, where you won't struggle to find some fresh fruit ripe for the picking.
There isn't a more elegant spot to drop in for an inspired meal than The Dining Room at the Regent Porto Montenegro, with everything from fresh Adriatic turbot and the aforementioned moreish lobster up for the taking. Those who fancy truly living the Russian playboy lifestyle can order a glass (or magnum) of bubbly from the most extensive selection of champagnes in the Balkan's in The Library Bar next door before heading off to the neighbouring Scaramanga Night Club - tipped as the hottest club this side of the Continent - I wasn't feeling fashionable enough to drop in :)
Those favouring more of the flats-over-Choos approach can wander all along the Ivo Vizin promenade down to the old town of Tivat, with plenty of bars along the way to grab a quick drink and people watch as the languid crowds take their nightly stroll along the waterfront before turning in for the night.
Top tip: After considerable humming and hawing about where to stay along the Bay, the choice to pick creature comforts over quaint-but-possibly-dodgy accommodation in the other towns in Boka Bay was the best decision ever made. There's nothing quite like ending a hot day traipsing around in the sun with a lavender-scented bath in a deep soak tub.
Porto Montenegro makes a great main base to explore the towns beyond, has a handy airport at Tivat and is also surprisingly easily accessible from Dubrovnik. Despite what most of the guidebooks would lead you to believe, I think Kotor may be the least smart choice among all the possible options along the bay - the mega cruise liners butting straight into Kotor means an almost endless crush of cruise tourists - and the resultant tourist trap restaurants are definitely worth a miss.
If you have the luxury of time, do stay a night in Perast - if only for the chance to enjoy an early morning swim before the day-trippers descend - a truly magical spot with an interesting selection of sights and two pretty islands to explore.
Definitely lush over crush! (Select images courtesy Mark Hatcher)
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