The Slovenia Times

Slovenia - what lies beneath (and outside Hiša Franko)?


In June, at the time covid-stricken restaurant industry desperately needed a push, Slovenia got its first Michelin guide - the stars always mean a lot to chefs, but in this very particular case they were literal lifesavers.

For some Slovenian chefs and officials the arrival of Michelin to Slovenia has been long overdue, while outside observers were questioning if this tiny country had enough to offer to merit its very own red booklet.

Aside from Hiša Franko, that is. Number 38 on World's 50 Best list, headed by prodigal Ana Roš, seemed to be a safe bet to be awarded a star. In the end she got 2 stars - now branded proudly not just on Hiša Franko's front door, but also as tiny red tattoos on forearms of the chef, her partner and sommelier Valter Kramar and her sous chef Leonardo Fonseca. For Roš shooting straight to two stars meant a validation that her fame, accumulated through Netflix and world's best female chef title was more than just savvy PR. For five other restaurants that got a star, it was like Christmas.  

Young guns
Slovenia does have a handful of consistently good restaurants with skilled chefs behind the helm, restaurants that "fit" Michelin standards, but it's the young guns that are spearheading the most exciting and trendy cuisine at the moment. Some of them have done stints at Hiša Franko, some of them learned the ropes of fine dining abroad, with some of the biggest names in the industry. Like Roš they mostly all build on traditions, refining the hearty, starchy, robust Slovene cuisine into lighter, more up-to date dishes that pay respect to the local environment and producers.

If the success of Hiša Franko and its philosophy taught them anything is that the international foodie crowd responds more to local trout roe than caviar, more to Adriatic shrimp than Mozambique lobster, more to pungent fermented ricotta cheese than imported Camembert. There's no shame anymore in using humble farmstead ingredients, breaking down the whole animal and creating dishes that reflect the rich Slovenian landscape, often uplifting them with natural wine pairings.

And if young Slovenian chefs still have ways to go when it comes to international recognition, winemakers don't have such issues. Slovenian organic and biodynamical wines have seen a huge surge in the last years, featured prominently in natural wine bars of Paris and Copenhagen, and in world's top restaurants like Noma, Relae, Gaggan and Septime.

Let's take a closer look at some of the venues headed by young chefs who are creating the most buzz in a picturesque, lush green country that's heralded as the next gastronomic hotspot.

Grič, Šentjošt pri Horjulu, chef Luka Košir (1985)

By the looks of it - cozy rustic wooden cabin in the wooded hills outside the capital Ljubljana, loads of ferments and misos from locally sourced ingredients, experimenting with ageing - this could be Slovenian Fäviken. Hell, even the ducks were, until recently, raised by former Magnus Nilsson's duck breeder. And Luka Košir doesn't hide the fact he's a huge fan of New Nordic approach, Noma's (ex) king of ferments David Zilber and even Mugaritz' exploration of edible mold. Almost everything that's served in Grič is mile zero. The eggs he serves with radicchio, buckwheat "žganci" and soy made of pumpkin seeds come from Luka's father-in-law, the trout he serves raw, with its own glistering roe, is from a stream that runs bellow the property. Then there's the amazing cabbage, fermented in aged beef fat with trout fish sauce and served with red mold cheese by most evolved Slovenian cheesemaker, Orešnik, just across from Grič. The wine list is heavily based on natural, Slovenian wines.

Tabar, Ljubljana, chef Jakob Pintar (1989)

Jakob Pintar, Košir's brother-in-law, 2019 Slovenian entry for San Pellegrino young chef, is creating some of the most exciting dishes in Slovenia right now. Having worked under Heinz Reitbauer at Steirereck and Joel Robuchon at Atelier Robuchon, his cuisine is more eclectic than Košir's, not shying away from using exotic ingredients like eucalyptus or ostrich, but he also does great take on traditional dishes like sour cabbage with beans and lardo. Pintar isn't afraid to push the envelope and offals are always featured prominently on Tabar's menu, often in unexpected combinations, be it the traditional blood sausage paired with chicken egg and oysters, or calf brain with carrots, garum and whey. Tabar is also your go-to place if you're into natural wines. Their impressive wine list features some of the most lauded Slovenian labels of biodynamical wines, including Aci Urbajs, Marko Fon and Klinec. 

Monstera, Ljubljana, chef Bine Volčič (1980)

Bine Volčič, a Cordon Bleu graduate once heralded as the most promising young Slovenian chef, is now at 39 a veteran among the young guys. With his heavily tattooed arms, hipster beard and rock'n'roll attitude he was the obvious choice for a TV celebrity chef, a role that brought him fame, but at the same time, ironically, pulled him away from the kitchen. That changed in 2016, when he opened Monstera, a small, Paris style bistro where he is able to express himself fully. There are traces of his days at L'Arpege and L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, hints of New Nordic from his stint with Sasu Laukkonen and an unmistakable zest for Asian fusion. But at the same time his zero waste approach and penchant to push the envelope produce iconic dishes like the in-your-face pig snout, served with pig's brain foam; or dormouse, baked whole, glazed and stretched out naturalistically on the plate.      

Atelje, Ljubljana, chef Jorg Zupan (1987)

Jorg Zupan got his feet wet in fine dining in Volčič' former restaurant, before venturing out of Slovenia and working at a diverse range of restaurants, from Australia's Quay to Fat Duck to Maaemo in Oslo. In the four years Atelje has been open Zupan has managed to find his very own voice, with elegant, yet at the same time unpredictable cuisine, playing with fermentation, touches of Asia and paying extra attention to sauces. Result? Dishes like glazed pork brain with lacto-fermented carrots in sour pork soup or lamb sweetbreads with black garlic, grilled iceberg lettuce and vadouvan sauce. The star came as a little bit of surprise to some who were favoring more classical venues, but for the restaurant it has been a lifesaver. Atelje, frequented mostly by international guests, got hit hard by Covid pandemic and there was even talk of closing down the venue - star changed everything and they are now fully booked.

Pri meni, Manžan/Ljubljana, chef Črt Butul (1989)

Črt Butul is definitely the most restless Slovenian young chef, not one to settle in one place or one concept for too long. The most recent project is a brunch pop-up in his own living room. "Pri meni" ("At my place") is a very casual affair, but with prime ingredients and flawless execution. Everything that is layed out on the table is home-made, home-grown, home-pickled and home-bottled. Marinated sardines, pickled wild asparagus with cloves, home-made sausage with juniper, jams by Črt's mother. Charcuterie, served with freshly baked sourdough, is impeccable, as is young goat cheese with Istrian truffles. Family is also producing skin contact biodynamical wines with a twist - they add roasted grape pits to the must. Idea so crazy that it actually works. With produce like these no wonder Butul ran one of the most successful take-aways in Ljubljana during the pandemic.


Restaurants in Slovenia with Michelin stars
- Hiša Franko; chef Ana Roš**; Kobarid
- Atelje*; chef Jorg Zupan; Ljubljana
- Pri Lojzetu (Zemono)*; chef Tomaž Kavčič; Vipava
- Dam*; chef Uroš Fakuč; Nova Gorica
- Vila Podvin*; chef Uroš Štefelin; Mošnje
- Hiša Denk*; chef David Vračko; Zgornja Kungota


Article was first published in Fine Dining Lovers.



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