Hiša Franko one of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Featured on the Celebrated Netflix Series “Chef’s Table”
Iconfess—I don’t do lunch that much. Whether I’m traveling or home, I prefer to save my appetite and my calories for dinner. I eat a light breakfast, but lunch? When I do eat lunch, it’s a lunch meeting, gathering with friends, or a special occasion.
Today I will eat lunch…this is a special occasion. I have a table reserved at Hiša Franko.
For those of you who haven’t read my previous post, Hiša Franko is a world-class restaurant and guest house. Tucked into a remote village in the foothills of the gorgeous Soca Valley in Northern Slovenia, it’s a few kilometers from Kobarid. With a history that spans some fifty years and now in its second generation, Hiša Franko’s rise to fame is not merely the result of its appearance on the acclaimed Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” or its ranking on the coveted list of The World’s Best 50 Restaurants, but also because of the passion, philosophy, and focus of its proprietors, Chef Ana Roš and her partner Sommelier Valter Kramer. Oh, and Ana was named The World’s Best Female Chef in 2017.
I stand out–I’m the only solo diner at Hiša Franko–and the only one sporting a large camera from which I will attempt to capture the beauty in Ana Ros’ culinary creations.
As soon as I’m seated, Alen, the Sommelier, brings me a glass of local sparkling wine. “We will have fun today,” he announces with a smile. Now that I’m seated, I’m tingling with excitement, though feeling my lunch here is a bit indulgent and decadent. That doesn’t stop me, nor does it dampen my enthusiasm. Long ago I decided that in life experiences are far more important than things.
A server arrives with a wooden platter cut from a fallen tree, carrying Franko’s bread made from fermented apples, and served with sautéed wild mushrooms and a cheese fat and onion broth. Alongside is a small plate of fried pickerel with capers. This isn’t the first course; it’s just a palate tempter.
As more customers take their seats in the dining room, I snap pictures and taste the temptations. Yum.
It’s not long until they seat people at all seven tables. Each table is draped with two white table clothes and accented with a white porcelain vase containing a single deep fuchsia gerbera daisy. A small wooden end table provides extra room for service and wine while a small stool-like table at the foot of the chairs is the perfect place to set a handbag—or my camera equipment.
The server hands me today’s menu. Titled “Eight” for the eight primary courses they will serve me. I have no choice. There is no ala carte menu, no vegetarian menu. But, that’s okay with me, I’ll try anything. They will adjust the dishes for allergies.
First is a dish my server calls ‘Basil Plum.’ It comprises a roll made from the skin of the plum which is deep fried and filled with cottage cheese and five different textures of the plum: fermented plum, plum kernels, and baked and smoked plum. The roll is topped with plum jam and served with a bloody mary cocktail made mixed from plum juice, vodka, and habanero. I take a bite of the roll, let the flavors unfold, and then sip the gently spiced cocktail.
They pair this dish with a 2008 Sauvignon from a small winery in the Maribor region in Northeast Slovenia. It went through eight days of maceration and eight months in an amphora vessel buried in the ground, Georgian style. It’s fruity, with low acidity and a hint of sweetness.
My second course is fig fermented for seventy-two hours with several forms of yeast, served with an emulsion of fig and yeast oil and a few drops of honey. For texture, two chips seasoned with a blend of peppers sit atop the fig. They make one chip from fig, and the other from a yeast blend. A few clove flowers top the dish giving it color and freshness. The fig is fresh and fruity when my fork touches the end of the plate, it rings like a Tibetan singing bowl.
Alen pours me a Pinot Sivi–you can call it Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris. I’m surprised to learn that it’s his favorite grape, telling me how versatile it is. Four months of skin contact gives it a copper color.
The third course is an emulsion of bitter chocolate and salted lemon, compressed melon, a candied tomato confit. It’s been baked and drizzled with meadowsweet oil and topped with a garden cucumber salad. The dish not only melds these unique flavors—it is art. Culinary, edible art.
Alen pairs my fourth course with the 2015 Rebula from Valter’s brother I tasted last night. The dish features raviolis filled with a unique cottage cheese that made from a mix of sheep and cows milk. The raviolis rest on a puree of hazelnut and corn that was boiled and then roasted before a broth made from prosciutto and hazelnuts is poured over them. A touch of polenta and nasturtium flowers top it off.
The Rebula is a perfect pairing for this dish as the low acidity, slight sweetness, and creamy texture balances with the savory flavor of the raviolis. Yum again!
Wow. This is no longer the temptation of the palate. It’s an unleashing a liberation of flavors and textures. And the wine is damn good too. I look around. Everyone is taking pictures of their food—I no longer stand out.
For the fifth course, I’m served trout, caught fresh last night from the river behind the restaurant. It’s served in a low-rimmed black bowl with a savory sauce made from whey, roasted poppy seeds and topped with a few drops of oil and tonka vinegar and a beet marinated in tonka vinegar with a bit of sour cress. Beautiful.
I’m curious. Tonka? The only tonka I’ve encountered is a Tonka toy or Tonka truck. The server indulges my curiosity and a few minutes later brings a small plate of tonka beans. They are about the size of an almond; I try one. Its flavors reveal a sweetness like honey and caramel.
Alen’s pairing is a 2015 Malvasia from Vipava Valle, aged one year in French oak with fifteen percent of its skins. The bright stone fruit flavors meld with the mild acidity of the trout and whey.
As I take more photos and let the flavors dance on my palate, I can’t stop thinking of the crazy yet careful combinations of ingredients transforming these dishes. Then I wonder, did the forager who found the mushrooms used in my next dish, also pick the wild sour cress?
Next–Absolute Porcini. It’s mushroom season, and my server tells me it is one of the best. Local foragers bring freshly picked porcini mushrooms to Hiša Franko every day. Today the chef glazes the porcini with its juice and tops it with foam made from smoked eggs and a delicate puree of beetroot and paragon oil with a hint of tonka vinegar, which is served with a porcini consommé.
My server tells me to combine the three flavors on the plate to make a bite, then take a sip of the soup. The mushroom is like an excellent steak, and the smoky flavor of the foam combined with the tangy sweetness of the puree makes my head spin. I could eat two of these dishes right now.
This dish is paired with a glass of natural wine, a Pinot Noir from the Maribor region in northeast Slovenia. It’s very dry with firm tannins and bitter red fruit, yet with good minerality. It’s a food wine—the words most winemakers hate to hear. But it’s true. I sense this as it dances on my tongue. I sip the mushroom consomme. The tannins are mellow, and the juice evaporates–with a long, satisfying and beautiful finish.
I’ve been dining for two hours, and there are still two more courses and then cheese. They name the seventh course, “I Love Red.”
Alen gets ahead of the service and pours me a 2013 Merlot from the Vipava Valley. It’s made by an obsessive winemaker who insists on managing his merlot vineyard to have only eight berries per plant and then ages the wine for two years in French oak barriques, and then one year in a larger used french barrel.
Just as Alen finishes telling me about the wine, my server brings my seventh dish–beef tongue prepared sous-vide (cooked for three hours at a very low temperature, then topped with a red pepper glaze). This sits on a red bell pepper jelly with a touch of soy sauce. The side is a salad of deep-fried borage and pickled purslane with mayonnaise made from fresh oysters. I love it–the deep smoky flavor and juicy beef tongue blend nicely with the luscious Merlot. Yes, I love red, too.
A golden retriever wagging his tail keeps strutting into the dining room, and each time the staff walks him back outside. But he returns again and again. By the fourth time, he strolls next to my chair. He looks up and then down, not begging. Once again, he is escorted back outside where he finally decides to sit and watch all of us dining from there.
Before the eighth course, they bring me a platter with a unique hard cave-fermented hard cheese alongside a flavorful ricotta fermented and aged in a jar for over a year. There is also honey, fig jam, dried figs and pears, and walnuts. I pour some honey onto the ricotta. The flavor combinations are unusual and uniquely delicious.
Alen pours a Rebosco, a red wine made from a grape indigenous to Slovenia grown in Istria near the Slovenian seaside. It’s a natural, biodynamic wine made without filtration and aged eighteen months in French barrique barrels. It’s powerful, acidic, tannic and blends nicely with the cheese and fruit on my plate.
For the eighth and final course—dessert, I’m served a Rowanberry sorbet topped with an apple and butter foam, squeezed between two shortbread cookies and resting on goat cheese. The pairing is a 2016 Muscato from the southeastern cold climate region of Bela Krajina. It clocks in at only eleven percent alcohol, low so as not to compete with the sweetness of the dessert.
After dessert, I’m treated to a three-month aged Tominc cheese and a selection of other local cheeses. These are served with gelatin made from the Fea IPA beer brewed at Valter’s other restaurant, Hiša Polonka, in Kobarid. That’s not all! They bring me a small bowl with white chocolate mousse, walnut crumbles, and autumn fruits.
While I know my words cannot express the flavors and sensation I experienced and so enjoyed, I hope the descriptions here spark your curiosity and give you a sense for Slovenia that makes you think. If you’ve been following my posts for the past week, you know how surprised I’ve been and how welcome I feel traveling through this small but vibrant country.
Once the lunch service finishes in the dining room, I move to the garden patio for more cheese and fruit. I join a curious couple from the USA who just finished lunch. They enjoyed the experience much as I did. Valter brings us a bottle of the Edi Simicic Duet Lex. It’s as delicious as a remember from a few days ago.
Inside aftward I chat with Ana and convince her and Valter to sit for a quick photo. I asked them to pose near the piano in the reception area, which has a story. Valter had been looking for a piano for the restaurant. It couldn’t be just any piano. It had to be this one. He finally got the news that the piano was available on July 21, 2003, the same day their daughter Ava Clara was born, and also the date that Valter’s father first opened Hiša Franko in 1965. Prophetic indeed,
Before we sit down in the courtyard, I need to take one more photo. This time, I’ve got one subject who is more willing, so I get Valter to stand near his BMW and snap a few pictures.
He prefers the smaller F800 GS to the 1200cc many of his friends ride. “It’s too heavy,” he tells me, “Maybe if I go on longer rides to Albania or Greece, I would prefer the 1200, I don’t know.” He pours wine made by his brother.
On Monday he took a quick 700 km trip on Monday because he doesn’t have time to go long trips. So he took some time alone to ride for just two days. “I wanted to go high in the mountains.” He tells me he rode through twisty mountain passes on the Italian side of the border to the Town of Souris. “It’s a traditional town, famous for speck and prosciutto. I stayed there for the night, and after a leisurely morning breakfast, I ride home. I’m here by 2 pm, and I feel like new.”
With lunch service over and still a few hours before the first dinner seating, Valter wants to share with me wine from his favorite winery. He asks Alen to get a bottle of wine from Organic Anarchy. It’s a biodynamic white blend called Radi Call1, made from Chardonnay, Kerner, and Riesling.
Like so many whites with extended maceration and skin contact, the color is unbelievable. “What does this color look like to you?” Alen asks.
“It doesn’t look like wine,” I explain that had I experienced some incredible new orange and amber wines over the past week which I would never have guessed to be wine. “This wine looks like beer,” I say. It does. It looks like beer, sherry, or cognac.
“Now we are on the top,” Valter assures me. “Sure you tried some great wines, but this-this is the top.”
“They make this with balls and with heart. It is wine from a completely another world.”
We toast. It’s the 2015 vintage, and with every minute, and each sip, it evolves, gets better.
“You cannot find more pure nature in any other wine, and when I open this bottle, I go crazy. But I must work. You enjoy this.”
Valter’s phone rings. He lights another cigarette while talking.
He asks to see the teaser for the new television show I’ve been developing. When I tell him that the show goes well beyond just food and wine the conversation turns, and we dig into history, culture, and people. I sense he resonates with the idea.
“It’s everything, like life,” he says.
This sparks something in Valter, and for a moment, we sip more of the crazy good wine, and he reflects.
“I have a million interests,” he says, “and this is the difference between Ana and me. I want to go see the beautiful movie. I want to go to the theater. But If we go to the theater, she sleeps during the movie, because she’s tired all the time. She thinks only about the food. Focus. She’s a runner. She has running, and she has work. She is running and working. Me? I am happy going somewhere to—see a beautiful concert, to ride my motorcycle, meet people, or talk about agriculture, everything.”
He pours me another glass and tells me to enjoy, and he will meet me once again tonight at Polonka. For now, he must work. And I must appreciate this crazy good wine and meditate on it and the sound of the church bells.
This is amazing. The day. The food. The wine.
Later that evening we meet again at his other restaurant in Kobarid, Hiša Polonka where we make new friends and enjoy a late dinner in a much more casual atmosphere.
Staro selo 1
5222 Kobarid, Slovenia
+386 5 389 41 20
Gregorčičeva ulica 1,
5222 Kobarid, Slovenia
+386 51 486 676