"This is the craziest thing I've ever done," I said aloud to myself as I turned the steering wheel around yet another hairpin turn. "But I guess if I recognize that it's crazy, that means I'm not insane, right? Yeah. Right. Good.”
I had rented a tiny Volkswagen that was somehow supposed to make it up and down a mountain, through a valley, and into a city I wasn't sure I was pronouncing correctly. My hands were shaking and my abs had been flexed for over an hour as I leaned as far as possible forward for optimum vision of the road ahead. Problem was that there was barely any road ahead - it was road around, road up, road down, road unknown. Every once in a while, a motorcycle whizzed by and made me squeak. I love to drive, so this should have been pure fun, but I wasn't sure I was going to survive the journey. At no point could I see more than 100 feet of the road before me. There were surprise cars, motorcycles, animals, makeshift wooden barriers where the railing was in need of repairs. Then it started to rain. The best word to describe my heart rate was exhilarated.
In Slovenia, there are so few signs leading you to your destination that you can drive for over an hour without knowing if you're pointed in the right direction. And if you go the wrong way, God help you, because it may be 30 minutes before you're able to pull off the highway and rectify your mistake. GPS stops tracking you once your drive becomes a twisting series of hills, and maps aren't helpful if there are no signs to guide you. So, when I pulled over to run inside of a B&B, I almost cried to find out that I was just 40 minutes away. A straight shot into Kobarid.
The city center is so small that you can drive through it in under a minute. I only saw one gas station and two markets, one selling farming equipment and home repair goods to beauty products, groceries, and everything in between. The people still haven't gotten used to the recent increase in tourism, so they stared at me from the moment I arrived until the moment I left late last night.
With two hours to kill before my reservation, I explored as much as I could. Mostly grazing animals in lush fields and some of the most beautiful landscape I've seen in my 28 years. Everything is so vibrantly colored that it looks like someone has placed a highly saturated photography filter in front of your eyes. The rivers run turquoise.
It was still raining at 4:30, so I drove to Hiša Franko early and parked the rental car under a grape trellis. Yes, the parking lot is a series of grape trellises. The building is pink. Goats graze placidly in the field to the left. I can't believe I'm there.
When you walk inside, you know immediately that you're about to experience something special. It's the perfect temperature, littered carefully with leather bound books and art. The quirk of the owners is alive in every inch of the space. It feels like a home.
I chose a corner table with a single rose in a dramatically lit room. Rain tapped a peaceful rhythm on the roof and windows, dulling any chance of me hearing the quiet chatter of waitstaff or the clinking of wine glasses as they received a final polish before service. I did not for a moment worry that I would be disappointed by my experience, and I certainly was not. It was the best meal I've ever eaten. It literally and figuratively became a part of me.
The choice was either 6 or 8 courses with different menus for each option. Of course, I chose the 8 and asked for half portions of the wine since I have the alcohol tolerance of a 12 year old and I had to drive back through the mountains after I ate. The sommelier with piercing Slovenian eyes nodded and promised to take care of me before slipping away into the next room.
Moments later, heartbreakingly delicious bread was placed on my table with sweet cream butter courtesy of the cows outside. The very hands that made the bread delivered it to me with an explanation that the house has its own version of a sourdough starter made with fermented local apple peels. The crust was crispy and brown, the inside lush, warm, and slowly releasing curls of steam that were barely visible as they climbed up the floral wallpaper. I would have paid 95 euros to sit in this atmosphere with only the bread and butter, but of course, there was more to come. Eight courses ended up being something to the effect of 12.
Next was a cheese lollipop, a signature of Chef Ana Roš, made with a local cave cheese called Tolmin. Then followed 3 amuse-bouche on 3 plates. Each one astounded me. Once the third had been consumed, all thought left my mind and I went into a state of pure sensuality. My eyes were closed for half the meal.
The sardine appeared to be raw and came to the table wrapped in silver leaf, accompanied by fresh fennel, candied lemon, and a milk mousse. A little wary, I took the first bite. It was magical. I cried. The sommelier silently took the empty plate as I sat with two fingers pressed to my lips and stared wide eyed at the wall. I felt like I didn't know anything about food and never had. Each course that followed reinforced that feeling.
A crispy piece of fried sweetbread snuggled under a roasted plum with smoked mascarpone, ginger, and a pink soup underneath spiced with cardamom. I was instructed to try and eat the entire course in one bite. It was perfection, the most impressive part being that the sweetbread was fried, rested, and timed to arrive at the table still crunchy even though it was under a juicy plum and resting on top of liquid. The attention to detail at this restaurant is immaculate.
Next came tiny handmade ravioli with lovage, bone marrow, and a prosciutto broth. Yes, for the sake of fuck, a broth made with prosciutto. It was so, so good that I refused to waste a drop, using bread to sneakily soak up every bit. I returned a clean bowl to the kitchen. The sommelier saw me use my bread like an animal. I felt like an animal.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from the fourth course, but it wasn't what I received, which was a bowl full of miso broth and shaved celery root manipulated into ribbons. Creamy beige on brown in a brown bowl. The smell was intoxicating. Underneath was tender beef tongue light as air with black garlic powder, seaweed, and smoked mayonnaise. Over the top. Ridiculously delicious. Sexy as a dish can be. The wine, which was gold in color, was sweet to play with the salty punch of the dish, and the result was a complete amplification of the umami bomb. I purred a little.
I got to hear the quiet sommelier describe the Slovenian wines in three different languages as he moved from table to table within the room. I think I probably gave him some bedroom eyes when he came to collect my glass and dish. I don't remember. I wasn't in control of myself anymore. The stuffy woman across the way had stopped arguing with his wine selections and had begun to sink a bit in her chair. Newly loosened strands of hair waved invitingly around her face in the breeze from the window. Her shawl had fallen to the crooks of her arms and little patches of rose had appeared on her cheeks.
Perfectly timed, the trout appeared, which was my favorite dish. The chef had an important hand in helping to stop the extinction of a local species of lake trout. The fish is now thriving and graces her tables regularly. On this particular evening, it was a flawless example of what food can become in the hands of a passionate chef. Perfectly cooked and topped with zucchini and black currants, it swam in a sauce made of whey and was sprinkled with a light, nutty crunch from toasted buckwheat. The wine, of course expertly paired, was so perfect with the dish that it blended into the flavor. When I say that, I do not mean that it complimented or amplified or cut through the taste; I truly mean that it became part of the dish. Again, I almost drank the sauce but used a piece of bread to finish the job instead.
Courses 6 and 7 played a game with the same wine to wildly different results. The first was a tripe, duck, and mushroom dish with Tolmin cheese. It was so rich that it coated my mouth and almost was too much flavor. However, the wine performed a magic trick I had never seen: once past your lips, it erased the flavor of the dish. Poof. Cleansed. When the richness became too much, by the design of the sommelier, a simple sip of wine made it disappear. Eat, drink, eat, drink, eat, drink. My spoon hit the bottom of the empty clay bowl. The entrée was a complex rabbit dish with Mexican influences. If you assembled the perfect bite, ate, then immediately drank your wine, you could taste every single ingredient. The food brought out the acid in the wine, which in turn clarified the flavors that were muddled without it. I locked eyes with the magician. I was a little in love with him by that point. So was everyone else in the room.
Dessert was my least favorite course, which is not an insult. It was paired with a wine named after the Russian word for sunrise (he told me sunset), and that made sense with the coloring of the course. It was odd, especially the carrot ice cream, which was actually an icy sorbet that was unsweetened. It tasted like a carrot. I didn't understand until I ate the last two bites, which had every component together. The result was refreshing and it brought the brightness and the honey out of the wine. I don't ever want to eat it again, but I'm glad I got to experience it. Ana Roš' calling card is assembling ingredients that have no business together and surprising her diners course after course.
The waiter brought my "goodbye" from the house: 2 buttery biscuit cookies, a cardamom truffle, and a wild blueberry sorbet. They foraged for the berries. They foraged for everything. It was all local. I didn't understand how any of the dishes came to be. My head was swimming, and you couldn't have smacked the smile off my face.
Sommelier appeared and asked if I wanted some coffee or an espresso. "Yes," I whispered. "That's probably a good idea - I think I'm a little drunk." I wasn't, of course, since I'd only had the equivalent of about a cup and a half of wine, but it felt a bit like I was. Euphoria. The couple from New Zealand wanted to know if I was a food critic. We had a nice chat about the current state of the culinary world. They want to dine at Fond when they visit the states next. I hope I can give them a quarter of the experience we shared at Hiša Franko.
It was still raining when we finished dinner. Buckets. The sommelier ushered me to a warm lounge where I was literally wrapped into a blanket and ordered to sit while I was served hot tea and cookies. This is perfectly normal treatment for their guests. A happy tear slid down my cheek as I realized I hadn't relaxed in two years. Never have I felt more welcome anywhere. I wished I had booked a room upstairs. Leaving was almost impossible.
The meal, the service, the wine, and the location are flawless. This restaurant embodies the height of what fine dining and, more importantly, what hospitality should be. Slovenian wine, with heavy influences from Italy and Austria, is the best I've had the pleasure of drinking. It rarely leaves Slovenia, so you must come here to partake.
Truly, I would plan an entire vacation around staying and dining at Hiša Franko. I survived the trip. I'm alive. I can't wait to lose my mind and return someday. Don't tell my mom I drove up and down a mountain in a rickety rental car.