We Ate and Paid for It: The Best Restaurant in Albania
We were driving down from the mountains, returning from spending three days in Valbona National Park. The narrow mountain road curved and zigzagged between steep ridges and precipitous cliffs, occasionally revealing breathtaking views of lush valleys and a fast-flowing river. We were heading towards a port city of Durres and from there on southwards to the Ottoman towns of Berat and Gjirokaster, and eventually to the beaches of Ksamil and Himare, where 8 days from now Victor’s mom was going to celebrate her birthday.
“When looking for a nice restaurant to celebrate your birthday,” Victor said addressing his mom, “I came across a very interesting place, considered to be one of the best restaurants in Albania. Unfortunately, it’s in Fishte, not far from here and we planned to celebrate your birthday on the other end of the country, on a beach. So, I am taking all of us there today. It’s a bit fancier than usual, but Julia and I agreed that we want to try it.”
Victor was careful not to phrase the above sentence as a question. Both Victor’s aunt and mother, retired on meager Belarussian pensions, have been outspoken in their opposition to anything they considered to be “excessively expensive”. Victor has already put his foot down in regard to paying for the accommodations and restaurants on the trip, only to be met with, “We’ll be happy to sleep in tents! We’ll eat nothing but tomatoes! Please don’t pay for any luxuries!” They woke up at a crack of dawn to run out and buy groceries for home-made breakfasts and dinners. They claimed not to be hungry for lunch. We quickly learned not to ask their opinions and to simply walk them into restaurants and order variety of dishes, family-style for everyone. If at any point I asked what they wanted to eat, the answer was infallibly “bread and cheese, nothing else!” I had toyed with the idea of walking them up to any concrete Cold War bunker, hundreds of thousands of which were abandoned throughout the country following the collapse of Communist regime and claiming that this was our next AirBnb.
“I’VE BEEN REALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS PLACE!” I announced loudly, immediately squashing any signs of protest from the backseat. Victor and I glanced at each other. That went well.
I have actually been looking forward to it. Mrizi i Zanave isn’t just a restaurant, but an agrotourism resort with a farm, winery, and production facility, all aiming to provide a delicious farm-to-table experience. Named after a place in old Albanian myths where fairies lived, the resort could not be situated in a more magical place. Set in the rolling hills of Fishte, surrounded by a farm where flocks of geese wondered among grape vines, goats plucked grass in the olive tree grove, and endless vegetables fields and fruit trees stretched every which way, the restaurant served fresh cheese, meat, and vegetable dishes, all made and grown and raised a few hundred meters away.
Our visit started with an impromptu tour of the farm and the facilities. A handsome young waiter, bearing an unnatural resemblance to Columbian reggaeton artist Maluma, told us our table would be ready in 20 minutes and that he was happy to show us around in the meantime. He gave us a few history tidbits such as “the owner had learned all of his culinary skills in Italy” and “the production facility was used as a prison for political dissidents during the Communist Regime.” Currently, the small dark rooms with no windows and heavy doors were housing shelves of aging cheese, wine, fruit preserves, and racks of hanging jamon and sausages. We marveled at the difference just a few months of aging can do to color and smell of cheese and sampled dark red wine straight out of the oak barrel. Outside, in a small courtyard, we saw fruits being dried in racks straight under hot Albanian sun and giant glass jugs full of sugar and pinecones, brewing pine syrup. Walking back to the restaurant through the vineyard, we suddenly saw a strange white mess in the distance, rolling down the hill towards us. A giant flock of white geese, honking and fluttering their wings ran towards us, like a menacing advancing army. Just before reaching us, they spread through the rows between grape vines, plucking at the insects and grass on the ground, as their hapless gooseherd tried to round them back up on the main road.
By this point our table was ready and Maluma walked us upstairs. It was stifling hot outside as an unseasonable heat wave brought temperatures of over 100 degrees and we requested a table inside, rather than on a gorgeous outdoor veranda. Once at our table, a new waiter requested to know if we had any allergies or food preferences. Victor requested vegetarian, I chose goat from the extensive meat list the waiter rattled off and Victor’s mom and aunt mouthed something about “bread and cheese”, so I quickly picked pork for them. And that was it. We were not given a menu; we had no idea what was coming or how much it would be. And, boy, were we in for a surprise!
The tabletop started to quickly fill up. First came four glasses of fresh juice, breadbasket, cheese and fruit platter with jams and honey, pickles and olives, and a selection of what we though were different types of bureks but turned out to be a pumpkin pie with maze, kallmet penny pie, and corn pie with leeks and nettles. We dug in, ravenous from the long drive, slathering jams onto bread and topping off with various cheeses, popping olives into our mouths, and almost completely finishing off the pies. Just then, the waiters brought in a platter with young grilled potatoes and larger baked potatoes, another with roasted seasonal vegetables, and a fresh salad with ricotta, tomatoes, and basil. We slowed down, now suspicious of just exactly how much food we were going to be served. And it kept coming. Tender goat meat baked with thyme, pork shish kebabs, and a blueberry yufka, a unique local creation of tagliatelle pasta with sweet blueberry sauce and rich dairy cream all crowded our table. We ate and ate and couldn’t even make a visible dent in the culinary abundance laid out before us. An hour later, the waitress found the four of us, leaning back in our chairs, breathing heavily, our food-stained napkins sprawled out in our laps.
“Dessert!” she said cheerfully. This was not a question.
Quickly, our table was cleared and filled again. An entire dessert buffet sprawled out before us – a moist yogurt cake with wild berries, oven baked quince with caramel sauce, creamy custard tart, and various ice creams. Suddenly, the waitress whipped out a metal coffee roasting drum on a long handle and spun it over the table. We sat, mesmerized, as roasted coffee beans flew out and landed on top of the coffee-flavored ice cream. One thing we barely noticed at the time, as we were too busy gorging ourselves, but photographs later revealed – the dishes were all plated gorgeously, and the presentation rivaled that of top Michelin star restaurants.
Finally, with dessert course devoured and all spoons licked clean, we sat back to enjoy the view of the farm out of our window.
“Why don’t you go take a walk?” Victor asked his mom and aunt. “Go pet the goats. Or see the geese.”
As they walked off, he turned to me, “I don’t want them catching glimpse of the bill. This will be too much of a shock. How much do you think this will be?”
I thought about it. This was a top-level culinary experience that in any other country would be no less than a hundred dollars per person. But this was Albania, and we had already learned how cheap it was.
“Two hundred dollars for the four of us?” I said, unsure. Victor nodded.
The bill arrived in a small carved wooden box. Victor opened the box, considered the contents, slammed it shut and stared off into the distance.
“Well?” I asked. “What is it?”
Victor sighed and shook his head.
“Six hundred dollars.” He said in a flat voice.
I grimaced. It was a lot of money to spend on a dinner. But, all considered, we were in one of the best Albanian restaurants, we absolutely loved it, and there are four of us, after all.
“Sounds like a lot, but it’s $300 for the two of us,” I said, “We’ve spent more in worse places. Also, your mom and aunt will talk of this experience for years to come.”
I pulled the bill towards myself and opened the box. The bottom line of the bill clearly said 5800.00 leks.
“Victor…” I said. “That’s not $600. That’s $60! $58 to be exact!”
“Yeah…” he said, still staring off into the distance, “That’s what I initially thought too. But it just can’t be, can it?”
He turned to me, confusion on his face now evident to me, “HOW CAN ALL THIS BE $60!”
We both stared at the numbers, going back and forth whether there was a decimal before the last two zeros or just a speck on the paper. Finally, we agreed to pay with a credit card, to avoid the embarrassment of handing over $60 for a $600 dinner. The credit card receipt clearly showed that we paid $70 with tip for four people in one of the best restaurants we have ever been to.
We walked outside to find Victor’s mom and aunt admiring the sun setting over the olive trees grove. It was a gorgeous ending to the entire experience.
Every time we thought we had Albania figured out, it found a way to surprise us again. But the thing that surprised us over and over again was how a country with such delicious cuisine, magnificent mountains, gorgeous beaches, ancient Roman relics, and friendly people can be so incredibly cheap? The answer will be explored in the next post.
Spoiler Alert: It’s Communism.