A City Tasting Tour: Ljubljana, Slovenia, Food Guide
The city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, has been called “a hidden gem” so many times, and by so many major publications, that one wonders how much longer it can remain “hidden.” It is safe, surprisingly upscale, incredibly clean, and full of very nice locals (often much nicer to foreigners than to fellow Slovenes) who speak excellent English.
It makes for easy traveling, an ideal weekend trip from anywhere else in Europe, or a great base of operations for a one-week tour of Slovenia, a country that looks like the backdrop to a Grimm’s fairytale. To top it all off, Ljubljana has a fabulous food scene, one with impressive diversity beyond the staples of its alpine cuisine.
Zvezda is a small string of three stylish cake shops in a city full of great bread and pastry. They have a wide array of cakes to choose from, and every one that I’ve tried (even the gluten free or diabetic cakes, which often sacrifice flavor for health) are astounding. Sure, they make the Slovenian standards (gibanica, which is a warm apple, curd cheese, and poppy cake, and kremna rezina, a mille-feuilles layer cake of two types of cream), but try some of their unique slices for a slice of heaven. I recommend Čokoladne Sanje (chocolate hazelnut mousse cake), Čokolatina (dense fudgy cake that is like eating a block of chocolate with a fork—in a good way), Hruškina Krostata (a pear and caramel tart), Raffaelo (almond, vanilla, coconut cake), Slivova Pita (Plum pie that is super-injected with butter in its crust), or any others, for that matter. Zvezda recently opened a takeout shop, with windows full of gem-colored macaroons, and you can even get a mean truffle grilled cheese sandwich, if you’ve temporarily lost your sweet tooth.
Ljubljana is a cosmopolitan city in miniature, and that includes the restaurant scene. For a city of only about 300,000, it has an impressive array of exotic restaurants (including Nepalese). But one of the most popular foods among Slovenes seems to be one that is not actually Slovene at all. Are the Balkan equivalent of burgers—a ubiquitous, quick, delicious street food that you can get all over the place. A descendant from Turkish food, Čevapčiči are a blend of minced meats rolled into mini-sausages (or long meatballs, depending on how you prefer to describe them). They are cooked on a grill and served with warm lepinje (flatbread, like pita), raw sliced onions, and kajmak (a cross between butter and cream cheese), and often nothing else. They are incredibly satisfying. There are Bosnian Čevapčiči (which contain no pork) and Serbian versions (which often do), and you can find them throughout Ljubljana. I actually like to do a “ Čevapčiči crawl,” sampling among the best in the city. My favorites are at Ajda, which may be the least-atmospheric restaurant in the city (it’s in a nook of an unappealing underground shopping center), or at the hugely-atmospheric Harambaša, which feels like a visit to your Bosnian grandmother’s farmhouse (if only we all had Bosnian grandmothers who cooked this well). At Harambaša, they serve nothing but Čevapii with the aforementioned accompaniments (whereas most places, like Ajda, will happily serve you a roasted red pepper spread called ajvar or mayo, ketchup, or anything else you like on the side). For dessert, all they have is honey-drenched baklava (which is all you’ll need), and Turkish coffee served with a slice of Turkish Delight and a single Bosnian-brand Drina cigarette. For a more elaborate Serbian or Bosnian meal, you can’t go wrong at Dubočica or Sofra. The former, a Serbian restaurant (and part of a small local chain), offers elegant, elaborate meals that focus on enormous plates of roasted and grilled meats that will make your head spin. The latter, a Bosnian restaurant, likewise features wonderful atmosphere (both have live folk music on weekends) and offers up specialties like lamb slow-roasted in a clay pot and table-top wooden serving tables (called sofra) piled with cheese, roast vegetables, savory donuts, and much more.
MUSHROOM SOUP AND GIBANICA
Proper Slovenian food is similar to proper Austrian country food: the hearty pork and potato and cream sauce fare of the Julian Alps. This is food to keep farmers and mountaineers full, warm, with energy to spare, and it is decidedly not diet-friendly. Not long ago it was hard to find a vegetarian restaurant in Slovenia, though that has changed (but you’d be shocked at how many rural Slovenes still believe that vegetarians can’t possibly do manual labor or sports). Expect heavy, delicious, wintery, unpretentious food, and enormous portions of it. Perhaps the best place to try proper Slovene fare is at Sokol, right in the center of Ljubljana. It looks slightly Disneyland, in that the waiters dress in traditional ethnic costume, and the menus are available in many languages (which is usually a very bad sign that you are in a tourist trap). The food is excellent and they feature all the core dishes that you’d want to try. It is hugely popular with both locals and tourists, and for good reason. Try their mushroom soup, rich with porcini mushroom and served in an edible bowl made of homemade bread. Follow that (if you have room) with a farmer’s platter with various sausages, sauerkraut and sour turnip (which tastes much better than it sounds), cutlets and stuffing, or a venison goulash. When I go, I usually start with soup and skip to dessert, with an oversized slice of gibanica.
Ljubljana has a rich array of upscale restaurants, most of which do inventive things with traditional ingredients. While the most traditional Slovene meal is probably sausage with potatoes and sauerkraut, you might find yourself with a plate of “deconstructed” sauerkraut or fanciful cubes of sausage with a roasted potato foam. The scene includes restaurants Valvas’or, Cubo, and the recently-opened Strelec, which occupies an impressive setting in a tower of Ljubljana Castle, with seating on the ramparts with a killer view of the city below.
SCHNAPPS AND WINES
The Slovenian tipple of choice is schnapps (šnopec in Slovene), and it is almost always homemade. You’d be surprised how many people make small batches at home, so if you’re invited to someone’s home, you might very well be offered some homebrew. At its core, schnapps is a transparent, very strong alcohol made of fermented apples and flavored with everything under the sun, from the popular Williams pears (viljamovka) to blueberries (borovni evec) to walnuts (orehovec) and more. It has medicinal properties (take a few shots and you’ll feel better about just about anything) and is a traditional aperitif or welcome drink offered when you are hosted in someone’s home. There are many award-winning Slovenian wines which have justly received praise. The only one to avoid (if you are a wine lover) is cviek, which tastes like sour watered-down rosé. It’s very much an acquired taste, and not one that people who like traditional dry wines will probably enjoy, though it’s of course worth trying, as it is hugely popular. The wines from vineyards Simi, Movia, Goriška Brda, Slomšek, and a particularly fine red called Amfora are all rightly praised. Be sure to try teran, a local red from the karstic region of the country that is robust, hearty, and a treat with roast meats.
Enjoy your visit and, as the locals say before they tuck into a meal, dober tek!