Croatia's King of Baristas

Nik Orosi of Zagreb's Eli's Caffé.

Nik Orosi of Zagreb's Eli's Caffé.

Coffee is an obsession there and the coffee culture is as strong and as prevalent as the locally prepared žižule grappa and the Hapsburg flavored buildings. And the coffee itself? It would knock the non-fat foam off of Starbucks latte any day. Here, having coffee is as much of a social ritual as it is an essential kick-start to the day, and hours and hours are spent over a cup and saucer. It’s not surprising that locals have eschewed the “to-go” cardboard coffee cup and sleeve trend, opting instead to revere coffee as a destination in itself.

To understand this, one need only spend Saturday morning at the intersection of Bogoviceva and Gajeva Streets (Near Zagreb’s Flower Square).  The outdoor cafés stack up on these pedestrian-only passageways, and the well-and-high-heeled patrons sit elbow to diamond earring and watch the world, and each other, catwalk by. The most coveted spy-spot is a perch at Charlie (Gajeva, 4), once owned by the late footballer Mirku Bruan who used his nickname as the bar’s moniker. Celebrities, models, actors, singers, and femme fatales descend on this area of central Zagreb to see and be seen, and presumably drink coffee, in a phenomenon known locally as Spica. I've heard many translations for this word. Pinnacle or point is one, and striker (the soccer/football position) is another. But ask a Zagreber and Spica means only one thing---Saturday morning coffee.

In need of caffeine and in search of something a little more down to earth, and with lower heels, I strolled along Ilica Street, Zagreb’s main thoroughfare. I passed a few cafés but none appealed to me---too smokey; too over-lit; too many laptops. Dodging bikers and the endless hustle of walkers, I stopped to lick the windows of pastry shops like those of the family run Vincek whose cakes and cookies looked too perfect to eat. The always-stuffed blue trams of Zagreb whirred down Ilica Street and startled me, and it’s along this filament of urban life where I noticed a crowd gathered beneath an awning printed with the words: “simply luxury coffee.”  (Insert heavenly ascension music here). 

From the moment I entered the miniscule Eli’s Caffé, I knew it was not going to be an ordinary coffee experience, and owner Nik Orosi, turns out, was no ordinary barista.  

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"Dober dan (good morning)," Orosi yells when I walk in. Eli’s Caffé is all white, from the hollowed out cubes displaying coffee cups hanging in the front window, to the walls, ceilings, and streamlined furniture of the espresso-sized room.  There is only room for few high-top tables of two, and they are occupied, and those lounging on the couch at the front of the room look as if they’re staying a while. I zero in on the 5-foot red lacquered bar in front of Orosi. It’s a beacon and my landing pad. The room is jammed, wool coats diminishing the scant space between bodies, and the guttural din of incomprehensible Croatian is my soundtrack as I do the shimmy, duck, and pardon-me dance toward the only empty stool. For a few minutes I just watch Orosi. His hands pound and twist and wipe and push out coffee, orders for which dart through the heated air like fruit flies. Each time the door opens, about every 30-seconds, Orosi looks up to greet a new wave of caffeinerati, many of whom he knows by name. I can't help but think of "Cheers."  Where everybody knows your name is alive and well at Eli’s Caffé. Eventually Orosi asks me where I'm from. When I tell him San Francisco, he asks me if I know Blue Bottle Coffee. Of course I do. It's good coffee, I say.

"They do make very good coffee, but their baristas are too stuffy," Orosi responds.

He faults most baristas for using big words, similar to wine experts and sommeliers. "Why would they do this? People don't understand. It's elitist and scares people away."

Orosi knows a thing or two about barista-ing, if I can use that as a verb. He was the Croatian national champion three times, in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and has several other titles that include the word “best” in them, but Orosi doesn't brag. He opened Eli's, named after his son, in 2005 because of a dream he had had. And “to bring coffee closer to people.”

I order a strong coffee with milk and Orosi's hands and arms know what to do without consulting his mouth or eyes. Orosi effortlessly toggles between English and his native tongue, and simultaneously manages to collect money, make coffee, chitchat, and wipe down his spotless La Marzocco coffee machine that he dotes on like a prized Ferrari. Before he serves the fresh brew, Orosi puts his nose in the cup and takes a sniff, swirls it, then sucks a small amount in his mouth. "No. Too watery," he says, dumping it. He starts over.

Like everything in the café, Orosi’s set up behind the bar is also uncluttered.  No CDs for sale. No mug-lined shelves or cookies or breath mints either. Just stacks of white coffee cups and saucers, the espresso machine, a sink, and the white on white relief of his café name and again the words “simply luxury coffee.” 

Orosi sets down a thick-rimmed white saucer on the bar and turns it a few centimeters clockwise. He then places a small silver spoon on the saucer, followed by the cup, which he turns so the handle faces right to expose his logo, which is really an anti-logo. He pours in the coffee, and then pours in the hot, slightly aerated milk. With a flick of the wrist, there is a heart patterned into the foam of my caffeine confection. He slides the coffee toward me and I ask him about the writing on the cup that reads "No logo/ just taste."

"I just want to make good coffee," he says. "I don't want people to think it's good because it's a certain brand."

Orosi also removed the menu that once hung behind the bar, to encourage people to talk to him directly about his product. He also tells me the walls of the room used to be charcoal grey---the antithesis of the caffé’s current unpigmented interior.

"I don't want people to come in and order #5. I want it to feel open, and for people to focus on coffee and learn something about coffee," he says, "Just because you drink it every day doesn't mean you know about it. I eat every day but I'm not going to call myself a chef."

As if on cue, two women walk in, wave, and yell out something in Croatian. "See, that's what I'm talking about," smiles Orosi.  I ask him what they said.  

"They just asked for two of my best coffees," he smiles, and wipes down his coffee machine again.

I take a sip and the coffee’s full-bodied, almost hidey taste forces my eyes closed. It’s not at all acrid like a lot of coffee I have tried thus far, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It also contains just the right amount of heated milk. Too often cafés add milk that tastes as if it has been sitting out too long, the spoiled taste also spoiling the taste of my prized morning elixir. But not here. Orosi prides himself on his expertise as much as on the inviting and familiar environment he has created.

"Look at this," Orosi says. He opens his hands to reveal a palm full of coffee beans. Dry, brown, aromatic. Eli's Caffé, for now, is the only establishment in Zagreb that roasts its own beans.  Orosi takes a whiff and identifies the beans as Tanzanian and the ones he is using today. Nic has about seven other orders that have landed on his ears, and he grows silent to catch up.  

"I love being busy but it keeps me from talking to people," he says, not looking up. 

I sip, watch, and listen. Every now and again Orosi sings a few bars of the national anthem, the American national anthem, which I assume is for my benefit. I ask him if I can take his picture and he smiles sheepishly, lowering his eyes. His list of awards and accolades is long, and I know I'm not the first to ask for a photo, but he keeps moving, avoiding the lens and my request. I drain my last drop and I go to leave but Orosi insists I stay for a second cup.  

"After two glasses of Champagne, you'll do something wrong. After two cups of coffee, it's all right." 

For the next another 20-minutes, I am content to remain in Orosi’s caffeinated world, a world I accidentally fell into and one I tell him I'll return to in a week.

"Come on Monday," he yells as I open the door to leave. "The Ethiopian beans will be perfect by then."  

The coffee was indeed perfect, again. And Orosi still wouldn't look directly at the camera. Next time.


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Kimberley Lovato

Kimberley Lovato has written about travel, lifestyle and food for national and international publications and websites including National Geographic Traveler, Executive Travel, American Way, AFAR, Condé Nast Traveller (UK), Ryan Air, b.there, Easy Jet Traveller, leitesculinaria.com and frommers.com, among others. She is the author of a Michelin Guidebook on Brussels, where she lived for six years Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, about the Dordogne region of France, won the "Best Travel Book" nod in 2012 from the Society of American Travel Writers, as did her personal essay, "Lost and Liberated," which also appeared in Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 8. When she's not plotting her next trip or her annual pilgrimage to France, she resides in San Francisco where she is a correspondent for BBC's Passport Blog, a student in Stanford University's Creative Writing Certificate program, and a brave mother of a teenaged girl.