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Slovenia and Istrian Croatia - Trip Report (also a little Friuli)

_emilie_ | May 29, 201503:39 PM

Just back from a trip though Slovenia and Istrian Croatia, along with a bit of Friuli, and wanted to share an update on the area for anyone planning a trip. Of course I got lots of good recommendations here as always, so thanks, guys! It's a very special part of the world, and we're glad we got to explore it.

We started the trip in Cormons (Italian trip report here http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/1015042), and were back and forth along the Slovenian/Italian border for a few days visiting wineries and enjoying the beautiful countryside, before making a loop through Slovenia and Istrian Croatia to Trieste. Slovenia in particular is just a feast for the eyes! From the Brda wine region, to the Tolmin Gorge, to Bled and Bohinj lakes, to Ljubljana, to the Skocjan Caves, there is not one inch of that country that wasn’t gorgeous.

As far as feasts for the stomach, Slovenia’s not too shabby either – possibly my favorite country of the trip on both counts:

Hisa Franko (Kobarid)
Our first taste of Slovenia was arguably the best we could have possibly chosen. I was surprised to see that no one has written about this place on Chowhound – it is really a gem. Like Subida in Friuli, it’s way out in the countryside (but even more in the middle of nowhere – and in the lovely setting of a quiet alpine valley). We did a 9 course tasting menu, beautifully conceived and plated, highlighting local ingredients, and including wines, for the cost of a basic casual meal out in NY. The chef took a somewhat Japanese approach to the preparations, so despite having this meal the day after we ate at Subida, it all tasted fresh and new. Rather than list out everything we ate, I’ll linger on the most memorable: an outstanding sea urchin wasabi sauce on a deer heart carpaccio (sauce was so good, you didn’t even notice the deer), a nettle ravioli done like a soup dumplings with liquid centers and served with langoustine and the best bone marrow I have ever eaten, a slow cooked, super-rich pork neck with candied lemon, black garlic and winter spinach, and the best plate of the entire trip – black cod fried in vegetable ashes with smoked egg and some kind of sea vegetable – this was impossibly good, with great smoky, umami flavor, great texture on the fish (I am no fan of cod), and a striking “black ash” presentation. Many of the dishes here also featured fresh foraged herbs, so every plate was a riot of edible flowers and leaves – and eating like this, outside, in the sun, with a view across green fields to the mountains – you really could not ask for a prettier moment. I will say that one wild herb dish did falter – the wild asparagus. The tiny stalks ranged from sweet and mild to very very bitter, and if you got hold of a bitter one, it was not pleasant. Service here was very attentive, friendly, and laid back – just what I like. We had great all-Slovenian wine recommendations from our server, and it was just a perfect meal. I hope more of you will visit it!!

Klinec (Brda)
Thank you to whoever recommended this place on the boards, because it was great. I had never heard of their wines, and I loved them! (They do natural wines and are just starting to import to the US.) The food was also nice, but mainly it was the setting – perched on a hill overlooking those gorgeous Brda rolling hills – and the slow easy pace (we were here for hours) and friendly service that made the day. Everything was tasty – asparagus with an eggy hollandaise and ricotta, various salumi, handmade tagliatelle with a sausage onion ragu – but the stand out was the “carne sotto campana” (lamb cooked slowy under ashes) that was the showstopper. I was very full by that point in the meal, but oh those lamb ribs, so good! An afternoon here is a great way to enjoy a day in Brda.

Movia (Brda)
I’m not dropping all my boring wine tasting notes in here, but I do have to make a special mention of Movia for their incredible hospitality. We were just visiting hoping to taste some wines one evening, and ended up invited to a party they were throwing with tons of wine and goodies brought by their friends from all over Italy and Croatia. So while we sipped their lovely wines, and enjoyed what must be one of the best views in Brda from their terrace, we also ate salumi made by an award-winning Florentine butcher, two kinds of just amazing Florentine steaks from the same guy, drizzled with this unbelievable olive oil someone had brought up from Istria, homemade gelato from a shop owner in Trieste (with the same olive oil), yummy chicken liver mousse, and I can’t even remember what else. We are nobody special, believe me. This was just amazing hospitality. Hvala!!

In terms of wineries, we had a great time at every single one (and bought way too much wine). I particularly love the macerated wines (orange wines/skin contact wines) of the area, and we were warmly welcomed by the families at Gravner, Princic and Zidarich in Italy, and Cotar, Fon and Movia in Slovenia. And since this is Chowhound, I have to say that in the battle of winemaker-made salumi, Cotar comes out on top with some really unique sweet proscuitto (prsut?) and a peppery salami with some serious meat-funk. And we had a great time walking around vineyards with Marko Fon – I learned so much, and ate yet more wild asparagus (if you do not like asparagus, do not visit this part of the world in May – it’s inescapable).

After spending several days buying too much wine, we headed into the mountains in Slovenia, to stay at Lake Bled. Unfortunately it was pissing rain that day so we missed all the views. In the area, we ate two meals, one great, one not quite as great:

Gostlina Rupa (near Lake Bohinj)
It’s not that this place was bad, it just wasn’t anything special. I did enjoy my (tiny portion of) smoked trout, especially as it came with a HUGE portion of horseradish mousse that I was content to just eat by itself on bread (it overwhelmed the trout), and I did also really like their bread. But other than that, the aparagus gratin was just very large stalks with some melted cheese on top, and the sausages and potato my partner had were just standard. I was excited to try the traditional buckwheat dumplings, but we had them two ways here (with the sausage, and then the same exact ones, filled with the same cottage cheese, but topped with stewed cherries), and both were rather flavorless mush. If you’re hungry, this place is fine, but I wouldn’t make it a destination.

Finefood at Penzion Berc (Lake Bled)
I normally shy away from Tripadvisor reviews (they can steer you oh so wrong), but I was just not finding what I was looking for in the area so I gave it a try. Bless Tripadvisor! This place was great. They’re doing a sort of upmarket riff on the classics of the area (the larger area, so lots of Italian and Istrian influence too). It’s a charming little place too, and service was very nice though a little understaffed. We had a delicious monkfish carpaccio with raw scampi (I love raw scampi in any context) that they paired with some sort of herbal schnapps, maybe thyme; an excellent octopus black risotto (one of the top two black risottos I’ve ever had), Istrian style homemade pljukanci pasta with truffles (the BEST truffle dish of the trip – and it wasn’t in Istria!), and trout with mushrooms. Bravo. (Cash only though)

We left rainy Bled the next day for sunny Ljubljana, which is a pretty little city. I saw it described somewhere as a less-touristy, more lived-in Salzburg, which I guess I can agree with.

Das Itz Walter (Ljubljana)
Once started reading Tripadvisor (because I was finding so little Slovenia coverage on Chowhound), I decided to go looking for cevapi and came across this place, near Metelkova City (where they have all the street art). Das Itz Walter rules. We spent €19 on an absolute feast of incredible cevapi, spicy “sudzukice” beef sausages, “pleskavica” – which were like cevapi pressed into a hamburger patty shape and griddled on top of cheese, fluffy buttered and toasted pita, ajvar, kajmak, beer and turkish coffee. It was enough to feed four, and we devoured it. (The waitress literally told us it’s too much food.) If you are into Balkan sausages, this is the place. It is really casual – practically a bar – and it is also a chain. You shouldn’t care about either because it’s delicious.

Gostlina na Gradu (Ljubljana)
Since we were already breaking all the rules, why not eat an expensive lunch in the touristy castle? Luckily the folks from Hisa Franko have an interest here and it shows in the food. And lunch in a castle square with entertainment provided by passing tourists was actually quite nice. We did yet another tasting menu here, since they did so well by us at Franko, and the highlights were: tender lamb with a fantastic sauerkraut strudel (best use of pastry on the trip – actually tasted like a very very fancy egg roll, in a good way), tortellini with dandelion greens, pancetta and walnut, and another blissful raw scampi preparation with mint, anchovy cream and lemon orange sauce, and some very good homemade bread.

From here, we drove to Rovinj in Istrian Croatia (with a stop at the Skocjan caves on the way – which I highly recommend):

Kantinon (Rovinj)
I’m afraid we did not give this place it’s due as we were tired and somewhat full from lunch at Gostilna na Gradu, so it wasn’t too memorable. I did like their marinated sardines with onions – they had a nice fresh flavor and lightness you don’t always get in sarde al saor – I actually liked them more than the ones we had later at Batelina. The grilled scampi, octopus salad and pasta with clams were all fine, but nothing stood out. It was fairly affordable by Rovinj standards.

Toklarija (Istria countryside)
This was a very worthy Chowhound recommendation – it feels very special (they make literally everything they serve, and everything is local except the salt and pepper), and yet totally relaxed, which it has in common with Hisa Franko and Subida. We had a delightful 3 hour meal, just the two of us, essentially in the family’s yard, eating rather haute cuisine (for a yard), paired with some great Istrian wines (mostly Roxanich), and excellent “white tablecloth” level service. Some highlights: fried acacia flowers with dendelion capers they picked and pickled themselves, ricotta and sausage; ravioli of a very bacony prosciutto and cheese with egg, pepperoncini and various wild herbs and greens; and rare roast beef with the most unique mashed potatoes – they were made with cucumber, fennel and thyme and were outstanding! Like if you made potato salad into a mash. All I really wanted with this dish was some more of that horseradish we had in Italy and Slovenia though. This was not a cheap meal, and it was a long drive, but it was absolutely worth it.

Stari Podrum (Istria countryside)
With the exception of the mushrooms that came with the antipasti platter (they sent me over the moon!) everything here was just ok, not super memorable. I was worried about the roast ox my partner ordered as it was swimming in a questionable gravy, but the meat was actually quite yummy if you didn’t look at it. My pasta with truffles was a pale imitation of the one I’d had at Finefood Berc, with too much cream and too little truffle. I really should have ordered the mushroom pasta too! If you are in the area visiting Koslovic or Kabola, by all means it’s a fine lunch stop, but don’t make a destination of this.

Monte (Rovinj)
We’d had such good luck with relatively upscale places and tasting menus this trip, that we thought we’d do the same here, and it was nice, with one major caveat. When our server was describing the tasting menus she had (that they don’t show you beforehand), she mentioned there would be two desserts. I told her I don’t really like sweets and was concerned about two desserts but she waved this off saying the desserts weren’t really sweet and that we should do the longer tasting menu. Then of course once you start the tasting menu it becomes clear that there are not just 2 but 4 desserts (a pre-dessert dessert, two main desserts, and the sweets that come after dessert – oh AND the desserts they send you home with, and not to mention the last savory dish was also crazy sweet). I feel this was quite bad service to tell someone who does not like sugar that they’re just going to love this parade of 6 sweet dishes. I felt disgusting after this meal. But that said, the first savory dishes were very nice, especially a trio of crudo (scampi, tuna and scallop) each wrapped in pancetta, laid on top a rosemary branch and the branch torched tableside – a very wow dish, and absolutely delicious. I would go back just to eat this a la carte. Also quite nice was an amuse of yogurt, eggplant, oregano spuma, sundried tomato and sunflower seeds; and a large shell filled with perfect fruti di mare like mussels, octopus, king prawn and steamed on a bed of hay. There were a handful of other nice dishes, but overall this was less memorable than Toklarija or Hisa Franko despite the theatrics, and the wine pairings, while nice, we found a little pedestrian. Maybe this is what we get for eating in Rovinj.

Konoba Astarea (Brtonigla)
I feel like I ordered wrong here. We had a pretty nice but simple crab salad, a really dull octopus salad, a basic seafood risotto, a pretty good grilled scorpion fish, and an absolutely to-die-for pair of roasted mussels. I really should have only ordered a giant plate of those mussels, and probably a roasted/grilled octopus instead of the boring salad. I want a do-over here. As it was, I can’t really recommend it as a destination place.

Konoba Batelina (near Pula)
We were counseled by locals to just let them bring out what they have and to try everything here, so we put ourselves in their hands. We started with a table full of small antipasti tastes – delicious white bream carpaccio, a yummy, fattier red mullet carpaccio, fresh nice sardines in saor, another dull octopus salad, a luscious conger eel mousse with salted anchovies, cooked sea bream with pickled sea beans, a kinda funky shark, and a very funky but delicious shark liver paté. Then we had a bouillabaise style soup with polenta – very flavorful and crabby – and a plate of steamed shells: mussels, scallops, venus shells (clam), noah’s ark mussels (which I’d never heard of – they have a more assertive flavor and are a bit more chewy), and canestrelli. Everything was very good, but maybe not in the epic proportions that you read about. Service was very welcoming and nice, and should you go, you should know that they only have house wine, but will happily open your own wine for you. I found it curious that the Istrians are not at all familiar with Slovenian wines – they were puzzled by my 2009 Malvasia as it was only about 12% abv. Cash only.

Damir & Ornella (Novigrad)
This place specializes in crudo, and is a great (but expensive) experience if you like raw fish. If you don’t, I’m not sure what you’d eat. There is no printed menu, they just tell you what they have and see what interests you. We had some more incredibly sweet raw scampi, a branzino crudo that they slice FROM THE WHOLE FISH for you tableside, then serve with cheese polenta an shaved truffle, and a canestrelli crudo that rivaled the scampi – so sweet, but more complex. The pasta that followed was a little bit of a let down – tagliatelle that was not fresh pasta but dry, dressed in a very simply cooked sauce of branzino and other fish – it was simple to the point of being dull. But the excellent crudo made it worthwhile. Also of note, we did not really drink much as it was lunch and I was driving to Trieste after, but they must have a nice wine program, as we were drinking out of Zaltos. (When I say expensive, I mean it – this cost almost as much as Toklarija but was not anywhere near the amount of food, level of service, etc. – think high end sushi restaurant.)

We did go to a couple of wineries here – Roxanich and Clai – who both make beautiful wines and graciously showed us around. The hilly vineyard areas of the interior are more beautiful to me than the coast, unless you’re right on the water in one of the old towns, and then of course that’s lovely as well.

And last but not least, we spent a beautiful yet rainy afternoon with the nice folks at Kumparika Goat Farm, who made us an outstanding brunch of all their cheeses and goat products – fresh, still-hot ricotta, cheese spread (my favorite), farmers cheese with fresh oregano, ricotta with black pepper, outstanding feta with olives, semi hard and hard goat cheeses, cajeta (like dulce de leche, but Mexicans make it out of goat milk – so does Kumparika), the best bread of the trip – a chewy, puffy flatbread with a crisp crust, homemade sausages from the black pigs they also raise, pancetta, a hearty vegetable bean stew, fresh green onions and green garlic from the garden, homemade melissa tea – it was an incredible spread and all so yummy. They’re making some of the top cheese in Croatia. Plus the goats are adorable and so friendly. It was tough to find (I had the GPS but our Garmin was misbehaving terribly), but so worth it. It would have been so much better on a sunny day too! They have a website if you’re interested in a visit: http://www.kumparicka.com/

Both Croatia and Slovenia were delicious and beautiful and absolutely worth your time, but I was really surprised how much more we liked Slovenia – a rather unsung little country – than Croatia, which seems to be very much the travel darling of the moment. Again, thank you to everyone for your previous postings – we had a lovely time and hope this is helpful to others in the future.

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