A Dalmatian Fish Fest
At Fischrestaurant Kaj near Praterstern, the day’s catch is flown in and presented on a silver platter
For seafood lovers in Vienna – and in all of landlocked Austria for that matter – satisfying a desire for frutti di mare tends to begin with a bit of a hunt and end with a hefty bill. However, Fischrestaurant Kaj, a small slice of Split located in the 2nd District, offers authentic, no-frills cuisine found by the fortunate in the restaurants and cafés of Croatia’s coastline – at prices that won’t break the bank.
So for the first night of a visit from home, this Adriatic bistro seemed like an idyllic choice. Kaj, whose name comes from the Zargreb dialect Kajkavski, was opened 15 years ago by Zlata and Miro Sapic, who run the kitchen and the counter respectively, bringing genuine coastal Croatia from the victuals to the environment.
Upon entering, we were immediately greeted by Miro, tall and mustachioed, with curly grey tresses and Trotsky glasses, who took our coats in a flourish of friendliness, ushering us to our seats. He made us feel very special, as he does everyone. Settling into a basic wooden booth by the front window, we surveyed the establishment’s minimalist décor – vases filled with seashells rest on windowsills, the red and white walls sparsely adorned with simple mirrors and a series of acrylic paintings depicting female mannequins. Designed by Miro and Zlata’s son Igor, an art student, it all evoked vivid memories of travels along the Dalmatian coast, and only reinforced what had already become apparent: Kaj is a family affair.
As we began to peruse the menu, Miro appeared with a silver platter festooned with fresh whole fish from Croatia’s Mediterranean coast: brazano sea bass, bream, turbot, gurnard. Knowing that the Croats boast some delicious white wine, we ordered a bottle of the indigenous Zlahtina, from the small island town of Vrbnik; at €23, Kaj’s most expensive bottle. Full-bodied and fruity, it was accompanied by a jumbo carafe of water. We sipped and swiveled, struggling to make our selections.
While still vexed by indecision, Miro laid before us small complimentary plates of anchovies. Salty and succulent, the fillets rested atop little rings of red onion, drizzled with the perfect amount of balsamic vinegar – flavorful, but not overpowering. As we gobbled down this muse bouche, Miro attentively replenished our bread basket, and we finally made our choices.
My appetizer arrived quickly – the Risotto "Nero", a dish of chunky rice blackened by squid ink, containing tender slivers of sepia and topped with tiny shavings of parmesan. A dish of unique texture, the squid was meaty, the ink giving the enjoyer a flavorful seawater allusion. I had enjoyed it before in the restaurants of Split, and Kaj’s was just as good.
My companions devoured the other starter, fried sardines accompanied by a lemon wedge and homemade tartar sauce – a dish common to small Croatian waterside grills, where locals park their motorboats for a plate of the little, pommes-like critters.
While waiting for the main course, we chatted and I took stock of Kaj – it was a clearly a neighborhood staple. While constantly keeping an eye on us – the only formal customers – Miro chatted with a handful of patrons at the bar; regulars, clearly. At one point, one of Vienna’s plentiful street-walking flower merchants entered, and was quickly met with a friendly arm around his shoulder, as Miro proposed soothingly, "Vielleicht, später." It seemed as though they knew each other – but then Miro seems to know everyone.
Our entrées arrived – mine was a generously-cut steak of walleyed pike (zander); a plethora of silver, brown and gold, glistening appetizingly, with roasted potatoes, a wedge of lemon and a boat of garlic and olive oil for drizzling in accompaniment. I took my first steaming bite – equal parts crispy and tender, it was luscious and savory. All this, for €15.50.
Two plates of grilled calamari were also on our list. A classic seafood dish with many variations, this time cooked with fresh coriander and served with pan potatoes. Coated with a thin palatable sauce, the portion was a mix of small, luscious tentacles and large, slightly rubbery heads, €11.80 per plate.
Ready for dessert, Miro left the merry gang of locals, now seated at the Stammtisch, to recommend a Croatian specialty: Zagorski Strukli, a soft, gooey pastry filled with sweet Topfen and covered with powdered sugar. We also ordered the Mangonockerl, creamy, delicious balls infused with rich mango flavor, accompanied by fresh whipped cream and a raspberry sauce, sprinkled with caramelized brown sugar. We ate with real pleasure as Miro talked with us about his son, coming to Austria, and the seafood buffet Kaj will be providing on the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday.
And then, as stuffed as the branzino being served at the next table, we prepared to ask for the bill when Miro enquired if we would like a glass of red wine, to which we obliged. It was dry and mellow, and it gave us a chance to talk some more with our exceedingly accommodating host.
Finally, after settling the tab – less than €100 for four people – we exchanged goodbyes to Miro, who invited us back with a genuineness that felt more like a friend’s request than an entrepreneur’s proposition. As we neared the door I noticed that the flower man was back, now seated at the table with the other locals, his flowers sitting idly on the counter by the register. Miro took his seat next to him and jumped back into the conversation – so they were friends after all. It wasn’t surprising; Kaj is a place where affability and kindliness are as abundant as the fish.
2., Fugbachgasse 9
(01) 216 64 95
See also: A Croatian Tradition