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Hiša Franko, Kobarid, Slovenia--LONG

Hiša Franko, Kobarid, Slovenia--LONG
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  • Hiša Franko, Kobarid, Slovenia--LONG

    Post #1 - November 11th, 2019, 8:19 am
    Post #1 - November 11th, 2019, 8:19 am Post #1 - November 11th, 2019, 8:19 am
    The San Pellegrino list of the top restaurants in the world for 2019 lists Alinea at #37. Tucked away in the small Slovenian town of Kobarid (population: 1,000) is #38: Hiša Franko. Hiša Franko doesn’t have any Michelin stars because Michelin doesn’t bother with Slovenia. The more fools they. Not only would Hiša Franko unquestionably earn three stars, we ate at several places in Ljubljana, the capital, that would likely also earn multiple stars as well. But I’ll save Ljubljana for another post.

    Kobarid might be more familiar to you under its Italian name: Caporetto. It sits in the Soča River valley along Slovenia’s western border, close to Italy. This part of the world saw major fighting in World War I and Caporetto gained some additional fame when an American from Oak Park who drove an ambulance there during the war fictionalized his experiences in a book called A Farewell to Arms.

    Hiša Franko is known to most people in Slovenia no matter whether they’re foodies or not. If we mentioned that we were going to visit, everyone seemed to know of the chef and the restaurant. The chef, Ana Roš, was named the top female chef in the world a couple years ago by the folks at “The World’s Best 50 Restaurants” (also sponsored in part by San Pellegrino). In 2016 she was featured in an episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Leaving entirely aside the notion of categorizing (much less rating) chefs by gender, it’s not often that a country of only two million can celebrate this kind of celebrity; Peru, a country surprisingly well-represented on the World’s Best list—two in the top ten—has 33 million people.

    Ms. Roš had intended to become a diplomat. She got sidetracked, met her husband, taught herself to cook, and if you’re ever fortunate enough to visit Kobarid (they have a crackerjack museum devoted to the Isonzo front from World War I), you’d be well-advised to set aside time for lunch or dinner. Though I didn’t love everything, as I’ll explain more at the end, I will also say that Ana Roš’s creativity is astounding. Service was a team effort and it was terrific, the room was ideal (there were only seven tables—each large enough to sit six or so quite comfortably; they could have doubled the number and still had plenty of space). All in all, there are very few nits I’d care to pick.

    Front door

    a view of the room

    another view of the room


    Cauliflower and snail caviar

    Rye tartelette, smoked pit cheese, chanterelles, parasol mushrooms

    Plantago taco
    As the menu explains, this included “wild plants, elder blossom, and hazelnut miso.” Although I remember finding this a pleasant course, I also have no particular memory of it being noteworthy or exceptional.

    Fermented cheese and smoked chocolate (in hay “shell”)
    A baby new potato sits inside the shell of pulverized hay and egg white to protect (and flavor) it while it bakes. Inside the shell, the potato is further complemented by the fermented cheese—presented on its own later in the cheese course—and smoked chocolate. When served, you simply crack the shell and feast on the rather delicately flavored potato within.

    Lamb brain and preserved berry bigne, as presented

    Lamb brain, after a bite
    Brain is a delicate flavor; it brings creaminess more than a particular flavor. Unlike some other organ meats, it is not particularly minerally. This presentation, served warm, like a jelly doughnut, relied more on its textural component, to my mind, and it paired very nicely with the berries. The bread-like shell was perfectly fried and had no oiliness whatsoever.

    Spelt sour bread with molasses
    Though not served warm from the oven, there is no doubt that this bread could not have been more than a few hours old, at most. The unique character and flavor of spelt was unmistakable (it is also made from whey) and yet the crumb was surprisingly like a bouncier all-purpose flour. The molasses note was just there, in your brain more than on your tongue, but there nonetheless. Wonderful crust, wonderful flavor. It is worth noting that the bread is made by another woman, Nataša Durić, whose name is rightly featured on the menu.

    Cultured butter with bee pollen

    Mortadella consomme and scallop

    This course was called “Surf & Turf” on the menu and it also included this little gem:

    Crispy soup of old bread and mussels; mortadella mousse, cuttlefish lard
    Soup, of course, cannot be crisp. The mousse was deeply flavored and called to mind the wonderful mortadella mouse one can find in Italy (not the insipid stuff that finds its way into sandwiches in this country). The cuttlefish “lard” (I was too shy to ask how one harvests and prepares it) brought a distinct note of its own and, together, all these elements proved a great complement to the actual consomme (previous picture) that was served simultaneously.

    Deer sashimi (marinated in umeboshi, juniper, chestnut)

    Figs with foie and sage, coffee, yogurt
    The foie was identifiable but not pronounced and the local figs worked even better than I would have thought with the different components that chef brought together.

    “Love(age) ravioli”: game goulash, hedgehog mushroom sauce
    Nothing outrageous: just great, simple food that was really quite enjoyable.

    Lamb and crab: pulled lamb and crab, wrapped in lamb stomach (caul fat) and swiss chard

    This course comprised two elements. Served alongside the above and meant to be enjoyed simultaneously was

    Egg yolk filled with anchovy cream
    This was a wonderful pairing for the other part of the course because it brought great depth and umami to the unexpected pairing. I’m a fan of lamb, crab not so much; the Lovely Dining Companion is the opposite. Neither of us found either element to be particularly forward in its little wrap. Indeed, if I had a quibble it would be that I expected and did not find a strong lamb or a strong crab flavor to the meaty little wrap. But when combined with the richness of the egg yolk and the mild saltiness of the anchovies, the whole became more than the sum of its parts, the chard adding a slight vegetal note as well. (The egg yolk, it was explained, was baked slightly to form a skin, after which the anchovy cream was injected.)

    Trout: fried in cornmeal, porcini buttermilk
    Local fish, local mushrooms.

    Roasted pumpkin; tonka-flavored beurre blanc, sea urchin

    Brown beans, cabbage, pig snout sausage, smoked trout

    Roebuck: horseradish “cheese,” horseradish triple cream, boiled pine cone, pickled pine sprouts

    Apple and goat milk croissant filled with rosehip
    A croissant made of thinly sliced apple. Clever concept, brilliantly carried off, and with just the right ingredients to make the apple stand out.

    Roasted apple ice cream and beeswax English cream
    Very good for what they were but, in the end, a bit disappointing, I thought.

    “(R)evolution of Kobariški Štrukelj”: parsnip, apple, walnut and pork crackling dumpling glazed with pork fat
    Štrukelj are a Slovenian national dish. We had them a number of times during our two weeks in Slovenia. They can be sweet or savory and encompass about as many flavors and components as you could possibly imagine. Among the most popular fillings are apple, cottage cheese, and tarragon. They’re not dumplings, though they resemble them. They’re made of a simple, straightforward dough, filled, and then shaped into a roll. They’re often boiled but can also be baked. In the wrong hands, they can end up tasting of nothing. But in the right hands…. Kobariški štrukelj are unique to Kobarid and usually feature walnuts and raisins. Ana Roš is not your usual chef, though.

    This was followed by a small apple juice “chaser” to cleanse the palate for what came next:

    Smoked pork crème brulee, sun-dried plums, horseradish

    Tolmin cheese: 1-, 2-, 3-year-old, and fermented
    The menu offers the option, for an additional €10, to have a cheese course. I opted. In the photograph, you’ll note homemade caramel, candied walnuts, cabbage chutney (!) and honey to accompany the cheeses (which were also “homemade”—made by chef’s husband, Valter Kramar). The cheeses are made from cow’s milk and each was distinctive…more than I would have thought considering the relatively short period of time between each sample. The fermented cheese tasted like it was fermented; not particularly to my taste, but a nice illustration of the cheesemaker’s art (and talent).

    Preserved lemon, brown butter and bergamot curd, vervienne

    The flowers are flowers: lovely to look at, not meant to be eaten. If you look closely, you can find a small, shiny black “stone” that includes lemon sorbet, bergamot, and caramelized whey. Delectable!

    I chose not to have the wine pairings; I rarely do any longer because I find that it’s simply too much alcohol for me. In addition, I tend not to focus as well on each offering and lose track quickly of what I had and what I thought of it. Instead, I usually order one or two glasses to last the entire meal. In this instance, I had two plus a third, fascinating, glass with the cheese course. The sommelier and I discussed my tastes and predilections at the beginning which he combined with his knowledge of the food to come. I played no other role in the selection. I had no wine list. I imagine that one exists; I didn’t ask because it seemed unlikely that I would be familiar with very much on it given the understandable emphasis on Slovenian producers. He chose for me based on his knowledge. I should note that as the restaurant focuses not only on Slovenian food, but on dishes and suppliers local to the area, so too the wines are Slovenian.

    First up, a lovely Šumenjak 2018 Sauvignon, 12.5% alcohol. From far eastern Slovenia, the heart of one part of Slovenia’s wine country. To follow: a Štemberger 2009 unfiltered Cabernet (not a blend), 13.5% alcohol. I can’t honestly recall the last cab I had that was straight cab, not blended. This was a pleasure and matched very well with the second half of the menu. This producer is in the far west of the country, a second major wine region near Italy and the restaurant itself.

    When it came time for the cheese course, the sommelier and I had another talk. I mentioned that ordinarily I might be tempted by a dry sherry and the sommelier picked up the comment and ran with it. He brought over a wine that he seemed particularly proud of, one that I sensed he didn’t serve often or that people didn’t tend to ask for. It reminded me very much of a bottle I had years ago at Next (I think), a white wine produced as if it were a sherry: Šuman/Schumann “Moon Drops” 2015. According to its label, “Maceration with stems and skins, natural fermentation, aged in oak barrels, no added sulfur. Very special complex white wine yellow gold color, discreetly fruity herb odor, gentle taste of butter, yeast and rusk.” It is aged for two years in oak and secondary fermentation produces its strongly sherry-like taste.

    The wines were €4, €5.50, and €6 a glass (about $18 for all three). Yes, they were all Slovenian, not first-growth Bordeaux. Which is, among other things, a lesson in just how remarkable Slovenian wines are.

    As the meal wound to its end, I was asked if I wished to have anything to close: a dessert wine, a digestif, something different? I wasn’t feeling like a dessert wine but knew I wanted something. Again we had a discussion and again I made an off-hand comment in response to the digestif suggestion. In response, the sommelier described a liqueur called tuta: a blend of forty-five local herbs, etc. Would I like to try it? Of course! I particularly enjoy drinks like this and when he mentioned that it is made in small batches by a local doctor specifically for Hiša Franko, I couldn’t resist. It was like an amaro but even more complex. Layers upon layers of flavor; extraordinary depth and distinction. He mentioned that I could buy a bottle as we left. What was wonderful about it as well was that it epitomizes what Ana Roš does in focusing on local, traditional recipes and products. (This drink, I should note, was a gift of the house.) (Second note: to my disappointment, when I asked to buy a bottle to take home, they could not accommodate me. The doctor makes tuta in small batches and the restaurant had but a single bottle left for its customers. So I left with the memory, but not the bottle. And maybe it’s better that way.)


    My takeaway: perhaps the most inventive food I’ve ever had. Ana Roš pushed the envelope and, for me at least, pushed it a bit too far. It was nevertheless impossible to have this meal and not come away with enormous respect for her talent, ingenuity, and thoughtfulness. Some of what she has accomplished is astounding. Even so, for a few too many courses, although I admired her creativity, I didn’t actually love what I ate.

    Case in point: the smoked pork crème brulee. It actually came off surprisingly well. But even so (and I should note that the horseradish, freshly grated, was likely soaked or boiled, because its pungency was gone and the flavor muted to just the right degree), simply because something can be done doesn’t always mean it should. It surprised me at how well the various elements came together, but I guess I’m a captive of my upbringing. Which means, in this instance, that smoked pork and horseradish just don’t work as elements in what is, quintessentially, a sweet dish. To me, anyway.

    Final note: as we prepared to leave after nearly four hours, the chef came out of the back and asked if we’d like a tour of the kitchen. The kitchen was immaculate, small, and staffed by a group as international as that that we found in the dining room. During the meal, other tables had diners from Austria, Slovenia, Poland, and France (that we could tell). The kitchen boasted an international staff as well, including a woman from San Francisco. Everyone was warm and friendly and, perhaps more important, happy. We’ve been in kitchens before where no one’s head rises and where everyone looks pretty grim. Not so here; people were responsive, engaged, and happy to chat for a moment. I even got into a detailed discussion with one chef who was particularly eager to hear about our experiences at Alinea!

    Hiša Franko was probably the longest lunch we’ve ever had and it ranks up there with the priciest ones as well (around $380 for two). Was it “worth” it? Did I enjoy it? Did I like the food? I can’t think of a single course that wasn’t fascinating in some way even though only some of them are courses that I’ll look back on and remember with great pleasure. But I also think that these are the wrong questions. Or, more precisely, only some of the right questions. A meal is not just about the food. Not all remarkable experiences are unalloyed pleasures and as important as the food is, it’s still one element in the entire experience. I would like to think I learned from the lunch, discovered some things, and enjoyed some things as well. There is not the shred of a doubt in my mind that chef is one of the most creative chefs working. The lunch was unforgettable: a magnificent room, excellent service, and ingenuity displayed course after course for nearly four hours. I would not hesitate to return. (That said, Kobarid is a couple hours drive from Ljubljana and, unless you’re planning to visit the Soča Valley, also recommended, this may be more of a challenge—or PITA—than most meals. The nearest railway station is 15 miles away. They don’t have Open Table in Slovenia and arranging it was a bit more involved that just sending an e-mail asking for a spot.)


    (P.S. I should point out for those who are not fluent in Slovenian/Slovene: something that is true of this restaurant and true of Slovenia as a nation: nearly everyone speaks English. Even in the tiny, rural, out-of-the-way corners, most people speak at least a little English. Some speak it better than others, of course, but the number of people we encountered during two full weeks in Slovenia who spoke no English could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Like most places, most people were grateful for our efforts to speak Slovene and that always encouraged us to try. But we never, not once, had much trouble being understood.)

    (P.P.S. Going to Madrid soon? I note the following from their website: “Hiša Franko is moving to Madrid thanks to the In Residence Project. In Residence is an annual event organised by the culinary counseling agency Mateo&Co, which brings renowned national and international chefs to Madrid while offering an extraordinary pop-up experience. From 19 November to 7 December 2019, you may find us at NH Eurobuilding Hotel in Madrid.”)
    Last edited by Gypsy Boy on November 14th, 2019, 7:58 am, edited 1 time in total.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #2 - November 11th, 2019, 9:09 am
    Post #2 - November 11th, 2019, 9:09 am Post #2 - November 11th, 2019, 9:09 am
    Great post! Strukelj are a tradition in my gf’s family and this is the first mention of them we have seen. They make a large dessert version and use a bedsheet to form the rolls.
  • Post #3 - November 11th, 2019, 9:32 am
    Post #3 - November 11th, 2019, 9:32 am Post #3 - November 11th, 2019, 9:32 am
    Fabulous photos, Gypsy Boy! Thanks for sharing your meal with us.