Perched over this relaxed capital city, an imposing medieval castle houses one of Ljubljana’s great restaurants. Devoid of any of the kitsch one might expect from an eatery in a Balkan castle, Gostilna Na Gradu is stylish and down-to-earth with unfailingly delicious food, fascinating and surprising offerings, and a robust domestic wine selection. And while the castle is accessible by funicular, the railway that goes up the hill, meals taste even better after the alternative mode of transport: a short, picturesque hike.
Nestled between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, Slovenia — until 1991 part of the former Yugoslavia — is home to an intriguing cuisine incorporating aspects of northeastern Italian and Eastern European traditions. With Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah) situated more or less right in the middle, the capital enjoys a diverse representation of the country’s regional culinary specialties. Gostilna Na Gradu ( “Inn at the Castle”) opened in 2009 under the direction of three of Slovenia’s most notable chefs, who seek to showcase the best of these specialties, using local ingredients whenever possible.
The chefs — Ana Ros, Valter Kramar, and Svetozar “Pope” Raspopovic — own two of the most highly lauded restaurants in the country. Husband-wife team Kramar and Ros preside over internationally recognized Hisa Franko in the mountains near the Italian border, while Pope runs Gostilna As in Ljubljana. The three originally envisioned this restaurant primarily serving tourists, but quickly realized, as Ros puts it, “people from Ljubljana [also] need a place like [this].”
The menu is divided into two sections: “classics from Gostilna Na Gradu,” year-round favorites that may alter slightly with the seasons, and “walk across Slovenia,” showcasing more creative interpretations of ingredients and ideas.
A recent meal begins with complimentary chicken liver mousse, pork cracklings, and light herb-infused cream cheese served with bread: good omens for things to come. A delicious starter of slow-cooked beef tongue is topped with a nutty pumpkin seed-based mayonnaise, fresh green beans, and grated smoked cottage cheese. The tongue is accompanied by a cabernet sauvignon from the winery Klen’Art in coastal Slovenian Istria. The concise wine list includes whites and reds from around Slovenia — and this is a country that takes its viticulture seriously. “The wine-growing area is a part of the meal,” Ros says. “It can’t be otherwise.” She adds, “If you ask connoisseurs, you will find out that . . . [Slovenian] white wines are very much appreciated.” The reds are notable too; this one in particular complements the nuanced flavors of recurring ingredients, such as pumpkin-seed oil.
A lean and garlicky local sausage, called kranjska klobasa, comes in the copper pot in which it simmered with peppercorn-infused water. With roast potatoes, freshly grated horseradish, and invigorating mustard, it’s immeasurable comfort. A simple salad of shredded young cabbage and tender beans is enlivened by that outstanding pumpkin-seed oil, which stains the salad a deep, saturated green. Ros explains that while western Slovenia (the area closer to Italy) favors olive oil, eastern Slovenia prefers pumpkin-seed oil. She says that for a married couple where one is from the west and the other from the east, “the biggest fight is about who has the best salad [dressing].” Pumpkin-seed oil certainly works wonders on the cabbage and beans, elevating what is, at its core, a very unassuming plate to something compelling.
The star of the meal is a dish known as zlikrofi, from the western Slovenian town of Idrija. Idrijski zlikrofi are intricately shaped pasta pouches filled with pureed potato enriched with fatty pork, here served in herbaceous and meaty lamb ragu. The pasta is part pierogi (the Polish potato dumplings), and part cappelletti (little Italian hat-shaped pasta). According to Ros, wives of coal miners in Idrija would pass the time waiting for their husbands to come home by preparing these hearty filled pastas for dinner. The staff at Gostilna Na Gradu, overseen by chef Damjan Fink, cuts no corners with the zlikrofi, hand-shaping each one.
Since other restaurant concepts in this space have failed, many wondered about Gostilna Na Gradu’s chances at success going in to this project. Luckily, Ros, Kramar, and Raspopovic moved forward believing in the strength of their take on the food traditions and native products of Slovenia.
“Everyone kept on saying, ‘Oh, you will have trouble, it’s a lost project, nobody is going to the castle,’ ” Ros says. “But [from the beginning], we saw that was all wrong, that the idea was very good.”
And the food is every bit as good as the idea.
GOSTILNA NA GRADU Grajska
planota 1, Ljubljana, Slovenia,
Luke Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.