Ljubljana’s food and drink scene relies on simple Slovenian ingredients and turns them into something stupendous.
In winter, Ljubljana’s 30 drinking fountains wear ‘hats’ to stop the pipes freezing – so precious is access to Slovenia’s crystal-clear water. And it’s this prized natural supply that might explain why local beer giants Union and Laško have enjoyed a loyal following for decades. But times are changing and recent years have seen a dramatic increase in craft beer brewers and bottle shops – like well-stocked Že v Redu, Primož.
Sitting on Trubarjeva – a graffiti-strewn laneway that runs parallel to the river, connecting the alternative Metelkova district to the city centre – this welcoming spot stocks the usual suspects (yes, Beavertown has made its way out here) alongside a huge selection of Eastern European offerings. Homegrown Pelicon (in particular Quantum and The 3rd Pill) and Hopsbrew (Tropical Wheat) are must tries before moving your attention to Serbia’s Kabinet (SuperNova) and The Garden Brewery. Sip yours in the shop, or ask the friendly owner to point you in the direction of his favourite haunts…
Beer bar revolution
Ok, these two call themselves Irish pubs, but don’t let that put you off – Sir William’s (10 rotating taps – five cask and five keg) and Patrick’s are a couple of great pubs each with their own distinct personality. For more beer – and longer wine lists – there are a few other bars worth checking out:
Situated on the riverfront this café-bar is a good place to watch the boats go by. Drink a coffee from one of their distinctive orange cups in the morning and move onto something from the Heaps Good Wine Company post-lunch (these bottles are the work of a Kiwi boy who grows Slovenian grapes).
And while we are on coffee:
One of a handful of Bazilika outlets across the city, this stylish coffee and all-day brunch place – its muted palette of greys, blues and browns is gorgeous – does great pies and pita bread sandwiches, and prides itself on sourcing excellent local ingredients. With copies of Lucky Peach and Kinfolk for browsing, it’s about as close to hipster as you are going to get.
Check out the City Museum (Gosposka 15) before descending to its semi-subterranean architecturally designed café, where you will find a boutique roastery, a range of beans and brewing paraphernalia to buy, and a hard-working La Morzocco.
Part gallery, part exhibition space, there is always something cultural – and usually quirky – going on at this bar. An extensive and affordable wine list and a menu of pizzettas keep the cool crowd happy.
And then one bar that oozes novelty value – all 12th floors of it:
Still lovingly referred to us the ‘skyscraper’ by the locals, this concrete block was once the country’s – in fact the Balkan’s – highest building. If your legs are up to it, take the beautiful spiral staircase for arty photo opportunities. A glass of schnapps and slices of potica – Slovenia’s national cake, think of a roulade that consists of savoury dough wrapped around a walnut or tarragon paste – are your reward. The ‘secret’ VIP-only 13th is very loungey – while the 12th floor has an outside terrace for not-so-vertigo-inducing panoramas.
So you’ve done the local cake, what savoury dishes are you in for? Sausages are big news here, in fact the Carniolan sausage (Kranjska klobasa in Slovenian) has been awarded protected geographical indication (PDI) status by the EU. The centuries-old snag contains chunks of pork fat and is served with fresh horseradish, creamy mustard studded with mustard seeds and chunks of freshly baked baguette in an ex-watchmaker’s shop called Klobasarna.
And once you see how popular the cabbage stalls are at the outdoor market (the nearby covered market is also well worth a visit, a lovely maze of tiled walls, glass counters and wooden booths) it’s easy to understand why sauerkraut is the side dish of choice. One of our favourite local finds, however, was the raw milk vending machine. On the way to the funicular railway – that leads to the castle – grab a 100ml of the white stuff for 10 cents, just remember to bring your own glass. Or buy a litre bottle at the machine next door. You’ll also find yoghurt and cheese being sold from these coin-operated dairies.
We were really impressed with this bring-your-own-vessel, environmentally friendly approach to serving up food and drink and – tripping over another row of recycling bins – we start to appreciate why the city was voted European Green Capital for 2016. Even our digs – Park Hotel – touts the hashtag #urbanandgreen. It has a rooftop garden and beehives to help reduce food miles, urges guests to use the stairs instead of the lifts, and offers a 15% discount for those who arrive by train. Even the (surprisingly soft) toilet paper is recycled.
Being in touch with nature is a theme we see repeated throughout our stay – especially at restaurants where the emphasis is on local, seasonal ingredients and cheaper cuts of meat cooked fantastically well.
Like at Restavracija Strelec in one of the castle turrets, where traditionally peasant dishes of veal tongue, beef cheek and buckwheat are elevated to fine dining status across a three-course menu with (of course) local wines:
Smoked slices of veal tongue with salty smoked eel, radishes and shallots
Served with Ščurek’s Stara brajda belo (Old vineyard white) that has been aged for 24 months in oak barrels
Tender and beautifully seasoned beef cheeks, which are cooked sous vide before being roasted, with quinoa, onion puree and roasted cauliflower
Alongside Kristančič’s cabernet sauvignon with its distinctive peacock on the label
Buckwheat tapioca, buckwheat ice cream, buckwheat popcorn (the Slovenians can’t get enough of this robust grain) roasted plums and milk ice cream.
And a sticky muscat rounding off the sweet-savoury dessert.
We found the same emphasis again at Pri Škofu, albeit in far more homely surrounds, where we left feeling utterly nourished – the kind of satisfying fullness that comes from unfussy cooking that is full of simple ingredients.
The pasta with mushrooms was earthy, silky and creamy – a great bowl of cold weather comfort food – while the pork chop with fig sauce and cheese dumplings put our Sunday roast to shame. But the real showstopper was a simple chocolate mousse. Light – but not whipped into nothing but sweet air – this was amazing, with a generous smear of slightly tangy crème fraiche on the side acting as the perfect complement.
Something extra special
And then leading the affordable and accessible way when it comes to modern Slovenian cooking is Monstera Bistro, where the super-tight, regularly changing lunch menu represents insanely good value for money: a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts can be selected for 15 euro (two courses) and 18 euro (three courses).
Leek soup & poached egg with crunchy bacon and chives
Duck leg confit served with potato and celery puree, pomelo and Belgian endive
Black tortellini with cream cheese, smoked trout and cauliflower cream
Sticky toffee cake with apple puree, vanilla and pumpkin ice cream
Run by local reality TV chef Bine Volčič and his wife Katarina, and located near Congress Square, this little gem is off the well-trodden Old Town tourist trail and is guaranteed to win you over with its clean, minimalist and welcoming interior. And if that doesn’t do it, the Lila Misa craft beer (described to us as something made by mates of the restaurant in their garage) most certainly will – pick from IPA, extra hoppy IPA or stout. If we had another night, we would have been back for dinner – seven-course tasting menu for 50 euro? Yes please.
Talking of more time – Gostilnica 5-6kg caught our eye – it looks like a pig-lover’s wet dream and is just down the road from chicest bakery on the block: Pekarna Osem (Bakery Eight). Situated in a little cave-like basement this place takes scaled back to new heights – but why fuss when the bread never fails to rise to the occasion? Once again, Ljubljana’s food and drink scene takes the simple and makes it stupendous.
It’s free, super-interesting and meets in the Old Town on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.
Gives you free admission to more than 15 attractions, travel on city buses, a guided city tour and 24-hour internet access. Buy online for 50% off – adult price for 24 hours is 23 euro, for 48 hours it’s 30 euro.
This three-hour feast kicks off on Wednesdays and Saturdays from the Tourist Information Centre – 30 euro for adults, in addition the more beer-focused Brewery Experience takes place on Mondays and Fridays at 6pm – 35 euros.
If you are planning a trip, our MyMaps Google map with all of these recommendations and more can be added to your phone: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1AsqOkyszjXKbyafSZpImyMR-Ngw&usp=sharing