Think of dining destinations in Europe and Slovenia might not be high on your list.
You’d probably have trouble finding it on a map – and then be reduced to Googling to discover places to eat. Michelin has never troubled to explore the restaurants of a nation whose cuisine reflects Italian, German, Hungarian and Austrian influences. But it turns out Slovenia is enjoying a tourism boom as people explore the home nation of First Lady Melania Trump.
And yet you can dine very well in Slovenia, a beautiful country of mountains and valleys, whose capital of Ljubljana is an undiscovered gem. The city is dominated by a 15th century castle on a hill, below which a gentle river is lined with the classical architecture of Jože Plečnik, who tried to model Ljubljana (pronounced LUBE-liana) on ancient Athens. This city is relaxing, inexpensive and very pretty.
So where to eat in Slovenia? Here are some suggestions based on a recent visit.
This gastronomic restaurant is housed in a tower in Ljubljana Castle, with tables on a terrace overlooking the city. It’s a gorgeous place to dine. Rather than just play safe for the tourists, chef Igor Jagodic produces flavorful dishes that are as beautiful to look at as they are to eat. There are tasting menus (four courses for 44 euros/HK$405) as well as a la carte, featuring coloruful options such as scallop with watermelon, melon, cucumber, pistachio and bread. The combination of exciting food and wonderful views makes this a destination restaurant and one I hope to visit again.
This unusual restaurant in a village 20 minutes north of Ljubljana is worth the trip - for the funky decor as well as the food. The interior is cluttered like a junk shop, while tinny music - marches and waltzes and swing - emerges from a vintage gramophone. You can sit outside if you don’t mind being buzzed by countless wasps. (My low point was when I took a swig of my drink only to find I had one in my mouth. I get a buzz out of dining, but still. ) The food is rustic without being dull or predictable. There is no menu: The meal might include dishes such as beef tongue with garlic, topped with goat’s and sheep’s cheese; and pork in aspic. The pace is unhurried, so allow three hours for a meal.
Chef Janez Bratovz’s sophisticated restaurant celebrates Slovenian cuisine, focusing on seasonal ingredients rather than technical innovation. It’s hushed and a bit formal, but its family run and children are particularly welcome. Bratovz is a veteran chef who helped gain international attention for his country’s food, winning awards and collaborating with Alain Ducasse and other leading culinary masters. Dishes may include homemade ravioli filed with cottage cheese and pistachio, meat and cream sauce, goose liver, licorice. Bratovz’s food is full of flavor and he’s more likely to be in the kitchen than on TV, though he is a celebrity in Slovenia. This is one of the smartest restaurants in the country, and the tasting menus start at 45 euros.
This modern, stripped-down restaurant serves creative dishes in informal surroundings. It’s affordable gastronomy. But it is the evening when things get most interesting, with tasting menus that may feature dishes such as baby cuttlefish with pea cream. This place is rated No. 1 of 479 restaurants in Ljubljana on Tripadvisor, but don’t let that put you off: It really is good. The two-course lunch costs 16 euros and tasting menus start at 40 euros. Book early.
This Indian restaurant is worth a visit mainly for the location, though the food isn’t bad either. On a warm summer’s evening, you can sit outside and enjoy the views across the Ljubljanica river to the castle. Most of the dishes are Moghul cuisine from north India, and there are also some Mumbai street-food snacks.
This restaurant near the border with Italy is a destination for diners from as far away as Australia. Chef Ana Roš was this year named the world’s best female chef, and diners can’t get enough of her food. She grows vegetables and herbs on the hill behind her restaurant, while most of the other produce comes from the surrounding area. Just don’t go making the two-hour drive from Ljubjlana without a reservation. Hiša Franko is often booked out two months in advance for dishes such as sardine, candy lemon fennel; and tripe, duck jus, cave cheese, fried nettles, chanterelles. The tasting menus cost 85 euros and 120 euros.
If you can’t get into Hiša Franko, all is not lost. This traditional inn in the nearby village of Kobarid is the new project of Roš, and one of her deputies is in the kitchen. The prices are low and the service is informal and friendly. You can dine very well for a few euros on dishes such as zabeljena (frozen) polenta, with cottage cheese and bacon; and venison goulash with bread souffle. Better still, there are home-made craft beers on tap, and the customers are a good mix of tourists and locals. If you are there late in the evening, this is a hangout for staffers from Hiša Franko.
For a village with a population not far north of 1,000, Kobarid is blessed with good places to eat. Topli Val, less than five minutes’ walk from Hiša Polonka, is a surprisingly good restaurant. Topli Val’s specialty is seafood, with dishes such as giant scallops with sweet tomato; and grilled sea bass. If you don’t fancy fish, options include filet of venison Kobarid-style. There is also a strong wine list, with bottles from around Slovenia. The best place is the terrace, where you can enjoy views of the surrounding mountains. The restaurant is part of the Hotel Hvala, a family business. The owner’s son, who waited my table, was happy to discuss the different wines as well as the food, and then offered me a lift to the nearby Hiša Franko.