When I found out that I was going to Ljubljana with work, besides its initially unpronounceable name, I didn't give it much else thought. Ignorantly, I'd put it down to be a grey Eastern Bloc kind of city, a bit drab and dreary. I imagined meaty stews and dumplings.
I couldn't have been further from the truth. After our 2 hour plane journey, I was taken aback by how picturesque Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, is. The city is split by a canal running through the middle of it and cobbled streets are lined with cafes and pretty peach facades of churches, topped with turquoise-green domes. Dragon Bridge, crossing the river is one of Europe's earliest reinforced bridges, decorated by four dragons on plinths (top picture); the legend is that Jason and the Argonauts founded the town, and they killed a dragon here.
It's not a large place; we did most of our exploring by foot, and we could traverse the town in around 15 to 20 minutes. The city is divided into old and new towns, the old radiating out from the castle perched atop a steep hill, dating back to the eleventh century. A slog up a gravel path rewards you with an impressive view of the city; higgledy piggledy architecture of sandwich-shaped buildings, an abundance of churches, and strange grey blocks on top of buildings, telling the time. We discovered the funicular to descend in.
I was, for the most part, wrong about the food too. What with its proximity to Italy, many menus featured pastas and risottos, and there was a lot of pizza around. At the time of our visit (October), what was most prevalent was the abundance of truffles. Truffles topped steaks, dressed pastas and were grated over fish. We were given a jar of truffle paste in our welcome bags from our hosts. I've eaten more truffle in my week there than combined, in my lifetime.
Restaurant Julija presented our first truffle-laden meal. Their signature dish, the Steak Julija was a fillet, smothered in a creamy truffled sauce and accompanied by a chargrilled half-endive. Seven out of our party of eight ordered this, and each were cooked perfectly. It was no trifling portion - which was something we'd soon learn about Ljubljana - especially with hefty sides.
Less popular with the group were the cheese dumplings, a speciality of Ljubljana, called 'sirovi knedeljni'. Actually, I was the only person that liked them. They were very thin, papery crepes rolled up and interspersed with a curd-like cheese, mild in flavour. Seemingly boiled or steamed, they're soft and yielding to the fork. They reminded me very much of the Turkish borek, and later I found that 'burek' are indeed a popular fast food snack there.
Horse was also common on the menus of the more traditional restaurants. Restaurant Spajza was firmly ensconsed in the old town, down a pretty street. The restaurant is split off into several sections, each holding one or two tables, candlelight struggling to brighten the wooden-panelled rooms. The menu was, as far as I could tell, as traditional as one might get - deer tartare, young horse carpaccio and smoked goose breast with truffles all appealed on the starters. We were given amuses of shredded horse meat topped with parmesan - smoked and dried, the flavour was much like beef.
Having had a rather meaty time so far, I opted for the 'žlikrofi' with shrimp tails and morels. žlikrofi are delicate dumplings filled with potato, and in this instance they were dressed with a light cream sauce, the earthy morels dominating the flavour. I had thought they were a type of stuffed pasta, an influence from nearby-Italy, but actually these are so traditionally Slovenian that in 2010 they were awarded with protected geographical status.
The Mediterranean-style octopus main course came in a huge cast iron pan in a puttanesca-style sauce, and the spicy tomato held chunks of new potatoes, olives, courgettes and capers; it was only a shame that I had to stuff it all in, having waited an hour for our mains and being pretty late for a meeting. I put that down to the sudden influx of diners, all suspiciously male, probably because of a certain US model dining at the table next to us. Otherwise, I'd strongly recommend Spajza - the food was well prepared, the menu was captivating and the waiting staff knowledgeable.
Karst is a region in Slovenia well known for its caves and underground lakes - seemingly for their sausages too, as this dish was billed. The snappy skin of a frankfurter was evident here, and it was served with a smear of mustard that had the flavour, if not the colour, of French's. This one in particular from Zlata Ribica, a pretty canal-side cafe under sun umbrellas, came with the added bonus of palette-awakening grated horseradish on top, although the triangles of baked polenta were a touch dry. I'd seen it at other restaurants, also served in pairs, served with potatoes and a cabbage and apple slaw.
I can't be that long away without rice, and a trip to Sushimama made me wonder what Slovenian sushi would be like. It was very good. We eschewed the a la carte section of sushi and nigiri (some with truffle, obvs) for an easier sushi and sashimi section, all nicely made and well plated. Wagyu beef was served on a platter, raw, with a scorching hot stone to sear our own meat on, and a ponzu dip for swooshing in. My favourite was the eel (unagi), brushed with a smoky glaze. I'm never unhappy with this dish, it's just got the best combination of firm fish, savoury depth and sweet sauce, all soaking into rice. it wasn't the cheapest meal we had at around £45 / head but Japanese food rarely is.
The cremeschnitte ('cream slice') itself is not to be missed - I don't think you could if you tried. It's a speciality of Bled, and it consists of flaky pastry, and a surprisingly light cream and custard mousse-like centres.
We didn't eat in many restaurants in Bled since we weren't there for long, but the 'eco-lodge' feel of Garden Village was certainly impressive. The restaurant was made up of light wood with grassy squares and herb boxes built into the centre of the tables. They were kind enough to open up for our large group especially, and while a broccoli soup hit the spot, the buckwheat roulade with cream cheese that accompanied our mains was quite... weird. This was no cheese dumpling. Still, the unusual surroundings of the glass-sided building made for a sun-soaked early autumn setting. That evening, a cream of mushroom soup followed by the Autumn risotto with chestnuts, beef fillet and truffles at the Best Western was pretty damn tasty, much to my surprise (as I usually cynically am about hotel chains). A week of expectations smashed to smithereens.