I have met a lot of people from the Croatian goumet scene in the 10 years since I started Total Hvar. Incredible meals, fantastic wines, plenty of hidden gems.
But for innovation, constantly pushing the boundaries, trying new directions, but with a refusal to compromise on quality, I have yet to meet anyone who comes close to Nikola Bozic, the charismatic face of legendary Varazdinske Toplice meat restaurant par excellence, Djurina Hiza, award-winning burger king both here and internationally, and taking the Croatian street food story into interesting new directions.
We first met at a private dinner in Zagreb 5 years ago, soon after which I had my first taste of the outstanding meat selection at Djurina Hiza, which has made it one of the few restaurants in continental Croatia that attracts a steady stream of Zagreb clientele. But it was only after my second visit to Hiza, and the ensuing COVID-19 lockdown, that I got to know Nikola a little better.
And to see the efforts he was making to raise the standard of Croatian gastronomy.
That second visit, at the invitation of legendary Croatian food blogger, Domagoj ‘Ribafish’ Jakopovic, in early 2020 was one of the culinary experiences of my 18 years in Croatia, as we were treated to a selection of the finest dry-aged steaks in the Djurina Hiza selection. And what a mouthwatering selection it was, as could be seen from the special dry-aging fridge in the restaurant.
The restaurant was deservedly getting recognition as one of the premier meet restaurants in the country. And then came…
2020 was a terribly difficult year for everyone, not least the Croatian hospitality industry. With tourism decimated, and with restaurants closed or with restricted access for much of the year, it was inevitable that business would be down significantly, with numerous bars and restaurants closing permanently. Success stories in such difficult times were few and far between. Indeed there was only one restaurant that was reported to have increased its business during this challenging time, a Varazdinkse Toplice establishment run by Nikola Bozic. (Read more in How Djurina Hiza Owner Overcame Corona Crisis and Created A New Brand.)
As others closed their doors and hoped for the best, Bozic completely re-thought the business model and decided that rather than waiting for customers to come to him when his business was finally allowed to open, he would instead take his business to those who wanted his products. At the height of the pandemic, just as the roads in Croatia were almost totally deserted, he launched a nationwide premium steak delivery service on April 7, 2020.
The service was a total hit, with Bozic and team on the roads daily, fulfilling orders to Zagreb, Osijek, Istria, Split, the Makarska Riviera, as well as various Dalmatian and Kvarner islands, as grateful customers – old and news – welcomed the quality meat and other premium products in his collection.
As Europe finally opened its borders on June 15, one of the first people heading north across Croatia’s border with Slovenia was Bozic, the first toe in the water at a more ambitious delivery project – delivery of premium quality Croatian gourmet products to an international clientele. Nikola invited me to join him on the trip, and it was a pleasure to accept. This was when I got to know him a little better and his unshakeable philosophy of high-quality food without pretension.
It was encouraging to see how receptive this potential new target market was from just a few posts on diaspora Facebook groups. A whirlwind trip saw us delivering to numerous customers all over Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg, as well as establishing potential partnership arrangements with Croatian gastronomy businesses abroad, such as our visit to Maison d’Istrie in the heart of Brussels.
One thing became clear during our many discussions along the Autobahns of Germany. His lack of compromise on quality was total, and his desire to have more control over the production process was a major aspiration. If he could somehow influence the production of meat, rather than having to rely on others, the control of the quality would be all the stronger.
On the road home from Munich, he told me about his latest project and invited me on one more road trip, a road trip like no other I had been on.
He explained that he had purchased four wagyu cows and intended to make these Japanese cows the first truly free-range wagyu beef products in Croatia. He spoke with such passion about the subject that it would be an honour to join him on the trip, transporting the cows from a miserable existence in Medjimurje to the freedom of 25 hectares of pristine hills and nature in Zumberak Nature Park. It was an eye-opening day and remains the only occasion in my life when I have actually seen a cow skip with joy (see below). Compare and contrast the two spectrums of cattle rearing in Croatia today in Medjimurje to Zumberak: Transporting Croatia’s 1st Free-Range Wagyu Cows.
The four cows are clearly enjoying their new home. Named after characters in the cult children’s TV programme from the 1970s, the Magic Roundabout, Dougal the bull, has managed to father a calf each with Ermintrude, Florence and Zebedee. All three are pregnant again.
We were back on Zumberak yesterday, visiting the cows and enjoying a lunch prepared by Nikola. The first cows in the region for 40 years, the black Japanese residents have become a hit with visiting children.
The cows now reside in the hillside hamlet of Tihocaj, where local entrepreneur Davorin Stetner is creating an eco-farm of high-quality Croatian produce, of which the wagyu cows are the first step.
Raised on 100% natural products without any artificial additives, they are the first free-range cows to be reared in Croatia. The ensuing wagyu beef will appear on the Djurina Hiza menu later this year. A special, exclusive first wagyu beef tasting dinner, limited to 25 paying guests, is planned in Varazdinske Toplice for the end of November this year.
(Lunch yesterday – simple, but delicious. Photo credit Taliah Bradbury)
But while Bozic is building his name in the quality steak market, he is also expanding his range – and the debate – in the world of burgers and street food.
Last weekend saw his Resetka International brand take second place at the Zagreb Burger Festival. It was the fourth year in a row that Bozic has been among the medals at the most prestigious burger festival in the region (including first place in 2019). It also crowned a successful year for the man from Varazdin, who added it to his 2021 burger prize collection of second place in Belgrade and first place in Siroki Brijeg.
His signature burger, Wild Djuro, has been a popular hit, but this year’s event had a new addition attracting many plaudits. A strong believer in promoting quality domestic products, Bozic is proud of his Varazdin roots and is keen to promote the region’s gourmet excellence at every opportunity. Djuragan 042 (the number related to the Varazdin telephone code) is a new burger dedicated to the ingredients of the Varazdin region.
(Djuragan 042, a burger made in Varazdin County – Photo by Josip Novosel)
The meat is sourced from a supplier 40km from Varazdin, the Varazdinec cheese from Varazdin firm Vindija, as is the brown butter with fresh cheese, and the onions from Tomasevec, 5km from the city. Discussions are ongoing to offer this complete burger package via Vindija stores in vacuum packs of 9 burgers each, complete with additional ingredients. The perfect way to impress at a barbecue with minimal preparation.
High-quality street food has been a major thrust for the Reshetka International brand, which has enjoyed considerable success with its pop-up street food concept, particularly in partnership with chef Katarina Vrenc, whose innovative combinations include this outstanding octopus and pork belly kushiyaki, octopus jus, fermented garlic, and sea fennel croquette, above – one of the highlights of my first Reshetka pop-up experience.
After so long on the road, promoting and preparing Croatian gastronomic excellence, the latest chapter in the Nikola Bozic story is going full circle. Last week, he took possession of the restaurant where his career in hospitality began some 21 years ago. He has taken over Gaudeamus in the centre of Varazdin, which will reopen its doors later this year as Reshetka Street Bar Varazdin.
The basic concept will be to provide a place to go out and chill, but with food. The award-winning burgers will be the base of the menu, but with a selection of international street food on offer as well. A small laboratory for new tastes, if you will.
The suppliers of the Varazdin region will be supported and celebrated, and the drinks menu will feature quality craft beer, craft gin, as well as sparkling wines. Local suppliers will include Devetka Craft Beer and Saperlot Craft Gin.
Nikola Bozic is coming home, and his new venture in his hometown will no doubt have Croatia’s gourmet class heading up the A4 motorway from Zagreb when it opens.
But one thing is for certain – whatever the success of his new enterprise, it will not be long before he appears elsewhere with some new quality addition to the Croatian gourmet scene.
You can follow the Nikola Bozic culinary journey in the dedicated TCN section.