I took a sip of the my wine, sat back, and smiled. As the server was clearing the most recent course and re-issuing me silverware, I tentatively asked, “So, does Ana cook anymore?” The server looked at me, smiled, and although I knew the answer, she said it so much more eloquently than I could have imagined. She simply said, “Ana creates.” Such a simple statement, but such a powerful testament to Ana’s success. She has worked so hard, and surrounded herself with such a solid team, that she gets to do what she is passionate about- creating delicious works of art to fill the senses of diners in search of just an ounce of that emotion. And emotion is what comes across in Ana Ros’s cooking.
Rewind to about a year ago. My best friend, Tony and I were waking up after a night of hanging out at my house and we casually flicked on “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. We both sipped our coffee, and then I’m not sure we spoke for the next several hours. We watched episode after episode of some of the most premier chefs in the world who talked about their inspiration, their lives, their hard work, what they gave up and what they gained by sticking to their passion of creating edible works of art. It’s truly the best way I can describe it. If you haven’t watched this series, it’s binge worthy and so beautifully done. From the music, the images, the cinematography of the whole thing makes this casual foodie’s heart soar. Although, perhaps it’s not the food. I am inspired by passion. Passion turns me on. Passion takes a person from mediocre to the most attractive human in the world. And I think I fell in love a dozen times watching this series. Tony eventually left my house, and I continued binging on Chef’s Table. An episode began with lush, green, vegetation and a young woman with blonde fuzzy hair who looks like she could potentially be my family member. I remember stopping what I was doing and watching intently as she introduced that this magical place I was seeing was Slovenia. I sat back and watched Ana Ros tell her story- she talked about how she was trained to be an international diplomat… that her family had plans for her and expectations. And she chucked it all for love, and a passion for creating and cooking. And now, after years and years of hard work, Ana has one of the 50 best restaurants in the world (2018). Ana is unlike a lot of chefs, she is completely self-taught. She read books, watched others, and found her path using ingredients indigenous to her surroundings. I was enamored with the verdant hillsides and valleys by which she was surrounded. The fact that this was the same country my great-grandmother left many years ago, made it even more alluring.
Fast forward a few months and I was planning my trip to the Balkan Peninsula trying to figure out where to begin and end my trip and this episode of Chef’s Table popped into my head. Slovenia. What if I could end my trip in Slovenia and have an experience at Hisa Franko? A bit of excitement bubbled up inside me as I sent an email to the restaurant to see if it was possible for a single diner to get a reservation at this incredible place. A few days later, my email was answered. Yes, of course they could accommodate me, but it was a bit early to make reservations (it was February, I was looking for July). They asked me to email back in March. And I did- I had my dates set and 27th of July I would sit down and experience a production of 11 courses with wine pairings in the beautiful Soca Valley in Slovenia.
For the last seven weeks I have been backpacking up the Balkan Peninsula. I’ve wound my way up via bus, plane and ferry from Greece to Albania to Montenegro to Bosnia & Herzegovina, to Croatia and finally to Slovenia. I’ve been staying in dorm beds in hostels, eating free breakfasts, eating pizza for dinner, and watching every penny. However, last night, I shook out my one nice dress, sprayed it with some febreeze, put make up on, and put on my “fancy” flip flops. It was like I was getting ready for a first date. I was ready an hour early, and would chatter to anyone who would listen about my excitement. Being all dressed up, I stood out at my outdoorsy hostel where hiking boots and smelly hiking gear was the norm. I could hardly contain myself as my taxi picked me up and we made our way down the valley, hugging the blue-green Soca River down to Kobarid, and out a few kilometers to Staro Selo where we arrived at Hisa Franko. I actually had to remind myself to wait until the car stopped before getting out. My driver, named Danilo, laughed and reminded me that I turned into a pumpkin around 11:00pm. After some obligatory photos in front of the Hisa Franko sign, I walked across the parking lot, hoping my footsteps would drown out my heart that was beating so fast, I was sure everyone could hear it. I breathlessly walked to the restaurant which can be best described as going to dinner at someone’s country home. The restaurant actually is where Ana, Valter and their two children live (I’m unsure if they still do, but they did while building the restaurant up). There is also a bed and breakfast on the property- I had tried to get a reservation there too, but they were booked up even before March! Mountains surrounded the restaurant, while green fields stretched out in every direction giving the feeling that you were truly in the middle of nowhere. Flowers blossomed and hung from baskets, and grew in vines up the buildings. A simple plaque hung by the front double doors that said “Hisa Franko”. I steadied my breath and opened the door.
I was greeted by a lovely hostess who confirmed my “no beef” preference for the menu. I truly hate putting limitations on this menu, but after not having eaten beef for going on 23 years, I didn’t think now was a good time to introduce that to my belly. That said, I told myself no matter what I was served I would eat it all. I had the option of doing a vegetarian menu or a fish/seafood only menu- but I felt that was too restrictive. So here we go. As I was escorted to my table, I was taken with the simplicity of the decor. A simple, but elegant, egg shaped spotlight was strung across the wood beam and white ceiling over each table. Each table had a crisp white table cloth emblazoned with a pale purple flower which matched the linen napkin perfectly rolled in front of my seat. My purse had its own seat next to me so it didn’t have to hang on my chair or rest on the floor. A thick, cylindrical white candle, a stone, and a vase with pale red, but not quite pink, flowers were the only decor on the table. A simple stone bread plate, a sleek butter knife and a small stone bowl containing the creamiest homemade butter I’ve ever had in my life, made up my place setting.
I was immediately presented with 6 thick slices of home made sourdough bread fermented with apple peels. My mouth immediately started watering. Sourdough is my absolute FAVORITE bread in the whole world. The person who presented my bread explained that it took four years to get the recipe right and this was their “house bread” now. Next up was the Sommelier who poured me a glass of sparkling wine as an appertif. Then a crunchy cheese lollipop made from cheese from Tolmin which had been aged 2 months and then another 4 months in Valter’s cheese cellar. Everything happened swiftly, it was like a waltz, I was spun around, slightly disoriented, left a little breathless, but wanting a little more. I couldn’t even imagine what was to come.
As I settled into my role as “madam” (that’s what they called me… “Certainly madam”, “My pleasure, madam”, “Here’s another piece of paper for you to take notes on madam, I noticed you were running out of room”) I realized that I was here to be taken care of. I was a guest- not just a customer. The sommelier would refill the glasses of my wine without hesitation, my water glass never was empty, and silverware specific to each course was placed at my setting along with a casual comment or conversation from the servers. That’s the thing about this place. There was no pretentiousness. The servers spoke like humans, not robots. They indulged my silly questions and comments. The sommelier even warmed up to me when, after telling me one of the wines was from near Maribor, I told him my great grandmother was from there. He said, “Oh, so you have roots here” And he seemed a little flustered as we had a little conversation about the region. The servers helped each other… I caught them laughing, smiling and enjoying the experience. Dining alone I was able to be a conscious observer of others, and it was fascinating. There were newlyweds, friends, and groups together. They delighted in each bite, being little food critics, taking pictures- smiling at these creations. That’s the thing about food. It’s a medium that truly uses every single one of our senses. It’s not just about filling our bellies- it can be so much more than that. Watching people get excited to try things, and with wide-eyes, exclaim that they were NOT expecting that- I loved watching how food brought people together.
A smiling server set down a sliver tray with a single dish and a small glass cup on it at my side table, took a breath and began to explain. My Eleven Course Symphony was about to begin, and I couldn’t have been more ready. I hope you enjoy my memories of my favorite restaurant experience to date.
My journey began with something called “Salty Recycled Bead and Tarragon Story” which was a tiny dish of a whipped bone marrow with salty creaminess and a chip of recycled bread (they use the day old bread so it doesn’t go to waste). The dish was accented with tiny flowers and a small glass of buttermilk sprinkled with tarragon. The idea was to use the chip as a dip of the marrow, take a bite and then a sip of the buttermilk. Such a surprise that I liked this. But the salty-creamy-crunchy balance was outstanding with the pop of herb and tangy sour of the buttermilk. The sparkling wine I had been served as an appertif was perfect for this very full-of-fat dish.
Next up was “Apricot, fermented cottage cheese and hibiscus flowers” This was such a neat dish. The meat of the apricot was pressed out, rolled super thin and filled with a fermented cottage cheese mixture. It was like a dehydrated fruit roll up, and then rolled up with a creamy center. Somehow the apricot was also flash fried, but the dish wasn’t warm. It was topped with dehydrated onion chips, hibiscus flowers and salt. Maybe the best part was that it was served with their version of an apricot bloody mary! I picked up the apricot roll, took a bite and immediately took a sip of the Bloody Mary. Wowza. The slight crunch giving way to the creamy cheese inside, and the pop from the onion chip with a little floral from the hibiscus was actually hilarious to me. I couldn’t believe that this all went together so perfectly! I tried to make this one last… but in 3 bites it was gone.
The sommelier joined me again for the next dish and poured me a glass of wine which was called Zelen. It was a great white that went well with the funkiness of the next dish. The next dish was called “Fermented Fig, different textures of yeast and wild clove flowers”. A tiny slice of fermented fig was surrounded by a creamy sauce of the fermentation liquid, yeast chips and Ethiopian spices. There were a lot of textures going on here, and I wanted to absolutely love this dish, but it was just ok for me. The best part was the way the texture played with each other. I wanted more fig flavor- but I got a mouthful of yeast really instead of a good balance of fig. That said, the more I mixed everything together, the better the dish became, my final bite gave the union I was looking for and it ended with a bang.
My favorite dish was next. The sommelier poured a glass of red Pinot Grigio- I had never had that before! I listened intently when he said that the Pink Grigio grapes were left with skin contact for 8 days before they were removed. It went perfectly with the dish called “ Garden cucumber, emulsion of chocolate, plum usmeboshi and salted lemon” This tiny, seemingly simple show-stopper was everything I ever wanted in a salty-sweet-savory fruit dish. Compressed and fermented cucumbers paired with green strawberries, compressed watermelon, bits of salted lemon peel, over a bed of salted chocolate emulsion with vanilla oil and olive oil. In my very uneducated opinion, the salt in this dish is what made these flavors go boom! Every little bite was like a burst from a very grown up bag of Skittles.
A close contender for best dish was next, “Green bean scogliera II/sea snails, clams, mussels, razor clams in black garlic”. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw this on the menu, but it certainly wasn’t the little swirl of a birds nest of green beans that I was presented. It appeared to be a pasta dish, but the green beans acted like pasta, julienne strips, thin like vermicelli. Then they were tossed with/soaked in a sea broth of the sea snails, clams, mussels and razor clams which gave a massive “I’m in the ocean” punch when you bit into it. The black garlic beautifully balanced out the saltiness. I was surprised with the addition of a crispy chicken skin on top of the dish, but after eating the chip first (as I was instructed to do), I think it prepped my mouth for the saltiness of the dish while providing a coating of fat on my tongue too. Whatever the reason, it was fabulous!!!! The sommelier paired a Sauvignon Blanc that was perfect for the salty/sea taste of this dish. Well, at least according to the sommelier. I tried to keep up 🙂
Next was a dish with a fun name: “Black Cod Bob Marley/Pink Floyd Style”- pick your favorite band. It was a piece of cod that was lightly grilled and served with a “Bob Marley” green sauce (I know what you’re thinking and no, there was no marijuana in this dish) the green sauce was mellow and smooth and then a splat of pink sauce that was raspberry sour and bolder. It had a small forest raspberry salad that played with the savory and sweetness of the two sauces. Mixed together there was an infusion of flavors that made me want to lick the plate. The sommelier paired a Pinot Blanc that had been aged in Chardonnay barrels, which was perfection!
“Lick your fingers/Goat Kid & Crab” was the next dish and every single person who knows me should be so proud of me that I ate this ENTIRE dish. This was a tad beyond my comfort zone… but I did it. And although it wasn’t my favorite dish to eat, it was very pretty in its presentation. Two little rolls, not unlike sushi, of a mixture of goat and crabmeat were presented on a slice of a tree, surrounded by pine and leaves. The goat and crabmeat were wrapped in chard from their garden, and beside it was a small dish of a very delicious broth, accented with a dumpling of…. kid goat organs… gulp. But, yep. I ate it all. It wasn’t bad- just a very strong flavor. I feel like the goat and crab was such a powerful combination- for some I bet was incredible, but for me, just was very strong. Again, not bad, just not my cup of tea.
Since I don’t eat beef, I lucked out and didn’t have to force myself to eat the tripe… they served me an alternate which was. “Trout, whey, roasted poppy seeds, beets in Tonka vinegar” And if I could order a single dish again from this menu, this would be it. I wanted seconds after I took my first bite. I wanted this to be a typical 6oz main dish portion. I wanted to swim in the whey sauce. It was a beautiful expression of this indigenous Soca River fish, and the additions of toasted poppy seeds, and pickled beetroot and tonka vinegar provided the acidity this dish needed with the creaminess of the whey. Listening to the scraping of forks and spoons on the dishes makes me realize that I’m not the only one who wants this dish to last just a little bit longer.
The next course made me question why I was a vegetarian for 11 years. Admittedly, staring at a medium-rare piece of meat had me learning to control my gag-reflex, but once I told myself to suck it up and enjoy it, this roebuck just melted in my mouth. The dish was called “Roebuck, anchovy, spruce, wild mushrooms” These two, little, perfect pieces of meat were topped with anchovy butter, sprinkles of spruce powder, crispy wild mushrooms and it all just WORKED. This dish and the next was paired with a great merlot that I wish I had paid attention to more, but all I know is that it was perfect.
My final main dish (that should have been beef tongue, again, saved by my aversion to beef) was Slovenian wild bear. Yep, you read that right… BEAR. And it was delicious. It was prepared so it just fell apart when I put my fork into it… similar to a pulled pork. The sauce that surrounded the tender meat had honey and berries in it, and it was accentuated with trout roe, crispy trout skin and trout foam. It was like she brought the forest to this plate and truly gave a dish I could only find here in Slovenia.
After finishing the main courses, the frenzy of the service swirled around me once again. It all happened so fluidly though, it was like someone had waved a magic wand and my table was cleared of all unnecessary things. I had a blank slate to begin the dessert courses. I was poured a deliciously sweet, but not too sweet, muscat that was just apricots all over the place, it was perfect. Floral but not too floral, fruity, and perfect.
Placed in front of me was a dish that, visually, I liked immediately. It was garnished with popcorn, my FAVORITE snack, and I didn’t care what it was, I just knew it would be great. However, to my excitement I found out that this was actually a cheese cream with walnuts & white chocolate. In the bottom were crunchy bits of caramelized local beer and a beer gelee. Whatever they did to bring out the yeasty-ness of the beer and the sweetness of the cheese balanced with the bitter of the walnuts and foamy crunch of the popcorn was like I was watching football in my living room- if my living room was a mansion on the French Riviera. It was familiar, but elevated and it was so, so great.
Next was a very pretty peach dish, with peaches sliced so thinly they were translucent. It was served with an ice cream made from the sheep and cow milk they had, accented with sweet woodruff (a plant) and local saffron. The crumbles made this dessert like a peach cobbler, reinvented. The coolness of the ice cream and the sweetness of the peaches was the perfect ending to the meal.
I ordered my cappuccino to reflect on what I had just experienced and was then presented with a final end to my “story”. It was a “Sweet Tarragon Story” to book end the first “Salty Tarragon Story” This was a little dish of sweet tarragon cream with another recycled bread chip, but also with two tiny cookies: one of tarragon and one of gingerbread (my FAVORITE). Also with a little piece of fried bread dusted with sugar. To finish it off there was a little kefir lime juice cocktail with it. The acidity of that drink helped to balance out the sweetness of the cookies, cream and bread. But that tarragon – such a unique isolated flavor, brought the whole meal full circle. That little spice brought me back to the beginning of the meal and had me reflect on the three and a half hour performance with such clarity. .
This truly was a performance for the senses. No where else, besides a meal, can all the senses be stimulated at the same time. The stage where the scene is set begins the visual journey with the additions of perfectly placed items on the tables, tiny works of art lovingly created just to be destroyed. The aromas wafting from dishes, creating a reflexive action of salivation makes you experience the dishes sometimes nose first, even before your eyes. The external auditory stimuli that turns your head as you experience your dish- the music so perfectly subtle in the background, the scraping of cutlery on dishes, telling you that the dish was so delicious that people don’t want to leave any morsels on their plate, to the internal sounds as food crunches, pops, melts, tears in your mouth. Actually feeling the items around you, from the perfect chair you sit in, to the softness of the linen napkin in your lap, to the smooth stone plates, the bumps of the sourdough bread, and the delicate stems of various wine glasses. And still yet, feeling the food in your mouth- not the taste— that comes last. But the actual texture of the foods. The balance of chewy and crunchy, smooth and sticky, soft and hard creates an experience with every bite. These dishes come with some instructions at times, and it’s for the diner’s benefit. Finally, taste. Anyone can make great tasting food. However, to create tastes that dance together, that play off each other in such a subtle way takes such skill and knowledge of how we taste food. When you have an experience with a skilled chef, you simply say “of course that works” because it’s perfection.
My experience took three and a half hours, roughly the same running time as when I went to see Hamilton. And I left equally as breathless. Passion in creativity stirs my soul. Passion for caring for a guest, passion for “leaving it all out there”. I don’t know Ana, I didn’t get to meet her, but, she is the real deal. Ana creates dishes that aren’t aggressive. She caresses and encourages the unions of flavors and textures and truly creates a symphony of flavor. She is proud of the region in which she lives which is evident in her food. The whole dining experience fires up every reflex, stirs your senses and evokes strong emotions firmly solidifying this experience in the your memory. Course after course, the experience leaves the diner wanting to throw their head back saying, “Yes! More! More! More!” (Think: Meg Ryan in that classic scene from “When Harry Met Sally”) Instead you silently squirm in your seat, palms a tiny bit sweaty, smiling, not wanting it to be over. But when it is, you’re left glowing, a little breathless and satisfied- at least if they do it right. And Ana and her team, they know what they’re doing