A couple of years ago, I a spent a little time Croatia. From Trieste, Italy, where I was attending a weeklong conference on food and wine headed by renowned expert Luigi Veronelli, I dropped down the thirty-mile stretch of Slovenian coast, which gives way to Croatia just beyond a small bay backed by an elongated salt marsh. In the salt marsh, I spied the shells of structures bombarded during Slovenia’s brief war of independence from Yugoslavia, which lasted from late June to mid July, 1991. Slovenians, helped by greater ethnic homogeneity and the decision of the Yugoslav army to concentrate on trying the hang onto Croatia, sustained relatively few casualties, while Croatians were forced to fight on for four more years.
Hoping to gain a better view of the ruins, the only sign I would see of the misery that beset this region in the early 1990s, I crossed the Croatian border, then immediately abandoned the main thoroughfare and followed a secondary road along the high ground skirting the salt marsh. I could find no road that went precisely where
I wished to go. Eventually, I came to a small guardhouse whose sentry was preoccupied with another vehicle. Slipping past him, I found myself, to my astonishment, in the heart of a naturist resort that edged the water. Far from the fulfillment of some puerile fantasy of frolicking Playboy models, the sights soon amounted to “way to much information.”
The naturist resort was the first of many Croatian learning experiences. After wending my way around the lovely Istrian Peninsula etched with charming fishing villages, I spent a night in cosmopolitan Rijeka, then headed inland. During my brief wanderings, I learned that Croatia is a significant truffle producer, that its pasta give Italy a run for its money, that hotel prices drop precipitously if haggled with one foot out the door, that endless rewards accrue to the explorer who eschews the main roads with little regard fro direction or schedule, that hitchhikers are plentiful and afford one of the best means for a solo traveler to take the pulse of an unfamiliar land. I enjoyed some terrific food, but oddly, I never got around to trying any Croatian wine.
At Joseph’s Steakhouse in Bridgeport, owned by Croatian born Josip Kustra, I cured that curious omission. My companions and I were pleasantly surprised by a 2002 “Dingac” Plavac Mali, Ivo Skaramuca Vineyard, Peljesac Peninsula, Dalmatian Coast ($38) served in Riedel goblets designed to show the wine to best advantage. The staff decanted the heady red to help it open, but our initial tasting pour suggested that they needn’t have gone to the trouble. It turns out Croatia has a 3,000-year-old-wine-making tradition.
Joseph’s, which has been giving Bridgeport a much-needed culinary lift for the past five years, also offers an impressive selection of American, French, Italian, Australian and Kiwi wines. On the night we visited, a nearby table of three consumed two bottles of 1999 “Opus One” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California ($275 each). Joseph’s wine list ($33-$275) is designed to please penny pinchers and oenophiles alike – not that the two are mutually exclusive. It’s a definite improvement on the limited offerings of Peter Luger, the prototypical steakhouse where Kustra waited tables for 15 years.
Kustra is open about the fact that his restaurant is modeled after the famed Brooklyn eatery. Why not copy the best? He uses the same meat supplier and doggedly adheres to a limited menu. Kustra says he would rather do a few things exceptionally well than attempt the impossible feat of pleasing everyone.
While Joseph’s has successfully copied key aspects of the Peter Lugar model, the wine list is not the only area of improvement. The atmosphere of this former Bridgeport police station is spiffier than the Brooklyn original. Joseph’s service is friendlier and more informative, its prices somewhat lover. And, of course, it’s much more easily reached from Fairfield County. Nor should readers accustomed to tonier destinations fear a trip to Bridgeport – the restaurant has a large, well-lit parking lot and is easily accessed from the highway.
Many restaurants are slow the first week of the year, but on a chilly night early in the week we found Joseph’s to be quite busy. We took it as a good sign for Joseph’s, perhaps for Bridgeport too. We were seated in a handsome, masculine dining room with brick walls, mahogany panels and oak floor. Joseph’s also boasts an attractive second dining room and a cheery bar area.
A bread basket brought to out table contained an oaty seven-grain bead, a chewy white loaf and flatbread crackers. Good butter and a bottle of Joseph’s signature steak sauce were offered as accompaniments. We stuck to the butter, reserving the steak sauce for out meats.
Joseph’s offers French onion soup ($5.95) and a soup du jour ($5.95). Although enjoyable on a wintry night, the French onion soup was quite standard and would have benefited from a more assertively flavored cheese melted across its top. It was the only time we found the flavor wanting in anything at Joseph’s. The soup du jour was a pale orange lobster and crabmeat bisque-rich, creamy and delicious.
Our attentive waiter, Chris, suggested the best way for a small group to navigate the starters was to order the special appetizer ($19.50). He didn’t steer us wrong. Combining three starters in one, the special appetizer included generous servings of jumbo shrimp and lump crabmeat with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce plus fresh mozzarella with sliced tomato and basil. No oxymoron at all, the jumbo shrimp were plump and snappily fresh. The firm pieces of pale crabmeat were of the finest quality. The mozzarella was the creamiest and fluffiest available, the beefsteak tomato juicy and blood red, the basil leaves as if they just emerged from the garden. Let lesser restaurants mask inferior products with strong seasoning and sloppy sauces – Joseph’s realizes there’s simply no substitute for obtaining the finest ingredients. This was a theme we saw repeated throughout our meal.
In addition to the special appetizer, Chris insisted we had to try the extra-thick grilled bacon ($9.95). The last thing I thought I wanted before a main course of an onslaught of meat was more meat. I’m a big enough person (most critics are) to admit when I’m wrong. Not even the slab bacon my parents used to special order from the butcher could measure up to this savory treat. And however strange the combination might sound, Joseph’s steak sauce, which isn’t overly sweet like so many homemade steak sauces and has echoes of horseradish and vinegar, proved ideal accompaniment to the rich bacon.
Before our all-meat main course (Joseph’s also offers a chicken du jour, grilled salmon and lobster tails), we took a breather by trying two salads; an arugula salad ($7.25) with tomato and onion, and simple, crunchy hearts of iceberg lettuce ($5.95). With both salads, we enjoyed Joseph’s Dijon-balsamic vinaigrette; to the latter, we added crumbled Gorgonzola ($3 extra). All of Joseph’s dressings are homemade.
The arrival of hot plates preceded the main course by just moments. A veal chop ($31.75) – thick, juicy and a little pink on the inside – was simply the best I had ever had. The chop was served with an avalanche of buttery mushroom pieces. A rib-eye steak ($31.75). U.S.D.A. prime beef aged only one week-unlike the three weeks afforded Joseph’s sirloins, porterhouses and T-bones-was still a heckuva good steak with plenty of flavor.
But all of these other offerings are, in my opinion, distractions. I don’t think I could visit Joseph’s without ordering its porterhouse ($49.75 for one, $68.50 for two). The beautifully marbled beef is cooked at 700 degrees until its outside reaches a perfect char, which gives way to reveal a succulent pink interior. This is the best American beef being all it can be. Joseph’s seasons its steaks with just a little salt, letting the quality of its meats speak for itself. Purists might pass on the steak sauce, but it has won many converts. The three of us couldn’t resist taking bottles of the sauce home.
Joseph’s meats may take center stage, but its side dishes make an ideal supporting cast. Especially irresistible are its home fries for two ($8.95) and its creamed spinach ($7.50). The home fries have the perfect balance of crunchiness and softness, the onions supplying a touch of sweetness. The creamed spinach as I prefer it-still a bright attractive green, rather than being saturated in cream.
As with the starters and entrees, Joseph’s desserts ($7.95) may not be a wildly creative lot, but everything we tried was done exceedingly well. The slightly sweet whipped cream that garnished the desserts was homemade. There’s nothing hard about that, so why is it so uncommon? Joseph’s satiny crème brulee sported a faultless caramelized crust. The chocolate mousse cake was very much formed of a fluffy chocolate mousse, rather than being one of those heavy, over-rich and fudgy creations that sometimes bear the name. The graham cracker-crusted Key lime pie was tart and citrusy. Our favorite dessert, however, was the delicately layered apple strudel, which would have done any German bierhaus proud.
Shots of rakija (not for sale), Istrian grappa, put a little fire in our full bellies. Glasses of Presidential, 20-year-old, tawny ($15) were a stately finish to a grand dining experience.
Kustra spent 15 years catering to the likes of Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley while studying every aspect of Peter Luger’s operation from the inside. Clearly, the lessons haven’t gone to waste. This critic feels that Joseph’s offers a complete dining experience, from a the warm masculine atmosphere people have to expect of a top-flight steakhouse to professional service to superior food.
Can a copy improve the original? Your be the judge.