I have never been a risotto person. Somehow the idea of rice that has been cooked to a congealed consistency with vegetables that have lost their bite or protein that has leeched its flavour has never really appealed.
Moreover, back home - as in most Asian countries - rice is a sideshow to the main culinary event – meant to be doused in curry or infused with the flavours and aromas of generously-spiced hunks of meat . It has always defied logic to me to fill up on a bowl of risotto before even hitting the main course. This was perhaps the strangest element of the entire Italian meal plan I encountered on my first visit to Europe many years ago – why serve me a bowl of starch before getting to the really good stuff?
So lurid yellow risotto a la Milanesa? No. Pea-green risotto that, honestly, is one of the most unappetizing dishes one could ever be presented with? Definitely not. Slick, black squid ink risotto? Maybe – only because I quite like the metallic, briny taste of squid ink.
Red seafood risotto?
Now we’re talking :)
The dish responsible for changing my mind on the virtues of risotto was a dish of tangy, tomato-ey, red risotto eaten in Perast.
Imagine the scene: The Restaurant – Conte, one of the most perfectly located restaurants I have ever come across, fronting Boka Bay winking and shimmering in the late afternoon sun, dense green hillsides of the Bay’s famous fjord-like formations dipping headlong into the water, retro-style airplanes gracefully performing some sort of celebratory airshow overhead (we never quite figured out what the occasion was) while zippy little speedboats cut through the glassy waters. I could have been favourably inclined by the setting, but that risotto tasted perfect!
The dish is something you won't struggle to find along the Montenegrin coast – influenced as it is by its Venetian maritime heritage and its close proximity to Italy – but the red risotto we ate in Perast was by far the best version we tasted.
A mound of plump rice coated in a sweetly tart tomato sauce and studded with shrimp, squid and mussels – surprisingly light and perfect with a glass of the crisp local white wine. It’s the only risotto I’ve ever eaten that made my mouth water even hours (well weeks, cause it’s still watering now as I am writing about it) and spurred me on to order the seafood risotto a few more times during our time in Boka Bay, although sadly we didn’t find another one that compared.
Needless, to say if I ever find myself in Perast again, a trip to Restaurant Conte is definitely on the cards :)
And while on the topic of tables with a view, here are three of my waterfront favourites:
Tataku Vave, Easter Island - Chile
This restaurant on Easter Island is the place to go to have a sunset meal – perched on wooden decking that juts straight over a rocky coast just outside the island’s only town, Hanga Roa. The restaurant’s juicy ceviche pyramids are only outdone by the spectacular view of the luminous blue Pacific waves crashing just metres away.
Foreign Correspondents' Club, Phnom Penh - Cambodia
This legendary sundowner spot by the Tonle Sap does a good line in Asian-style tapas. But more than anything, grab a bar stool overlooking Sisowath Quay and the river beyond and get ready to drink in the view.
Rock Bar, Bali - Indonesia
Touted as one of the world's top bars - and for good reason - you can dine on stone pots of noodles, punchy Asian sea food and Balinese-spiced bites, washed by the spray of giant waves pounding the rocks below you. The bar's hot reputation means it does get insanely busy around sunset, but head there later in the evening and you can enjoy a fairly chilled out dinner suspended over the wild waters of the Indian Ocean.
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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