A restaurant that truly defied the odds, ranked among the world's top 50, and just awarded three Michelin stars: with Hiša Franko, Ana Roš has made her country a player in a remarkable culinary revolution.
I struggle with changes. Especially with places I love. Sometimes I want them to be almost locked in time. Hiša Franko has been a place close to my heart for years - I experienced it before the Netflix’ 2016 Chef's Table craze, before Ana Roš' 2017 best female chef title, before the Michelin came to Slovenia back in the pandemic year of 2020 and before the recently awarded three stars.
I sat and ate there back when they were still serving meals outside, by the stream, under the treetops, exposed to the, well, sun and rain to quote the title of Ana’s book. Back when she was serving that unforgettable squid with lamb sweetbreads and fava beans, back when the dishes were kind of rough around the edges, less restrained as they are now, but always original, personal, playful, exploding with punching flavors and unusual combinations.
Feminine cuisine? I don't know. I kind of associate this term with more subtle, delicate creations and with Ana Roš there has always been this kick, a rebel act of a woman trying to prove herself in not just the male-dominated profession, but in a country where fine dining was still in its infancy when she entered the scene – and in a country where fine dining still, to this day it’s not quite understood.
Hiša Franko was a restaurant that broke the rules. The pairings were done boldly, with strictly Slovenian natural wines, there were offals at the center of many dishes, the "poor" ingredients, cocina povera upgraded, sardines instead of lobster, trout roe instead of caviar, local goat kid instead of filet mignon.
Fast forward to today. A 50 Best restaurant, a newly minted 3-star restaurant, restaurant with juice and cocktail pairings (the head of beverage program Anja Skrbinek is a revelation, really outdoing herself with the non-alcoholic pairing), with refined dishes, with staff dressed in fancy organic uniforms made of apple fibers and wood pulp. Evolve or die, right? Evolution it is.
But take a closer look and the core of the old Hiša Franko is still there - greens from the mountain farm, the punch of Tolmin cheese aged in Emilia-Romagna pits, the seafood-meat combinations that Ana always excelled at - this time it’s roebuck with oyster, kiwi and bergamot -, the creaminess of the cheese and beeswax, the scent of surrounding meadows and woods with wild plants, the whiff of August hay in her potato dish, the perfection of simplicity, the 1-euro potato that poses the question why do we value caviar more than a caringly grown tuber?
She called the menu “50 Shades of Life – It is a celebration time” and invited guests to celebrate with her Hiša Franko’s 50th anniversary, her turning 50 years old, and also her wedding – the last two both happened on New Year’s eve. You know, because why not multiply the festivities. At that time the three stars were still just an ambitious goal and a dream of someone who climbed all the way to the top of gastronomic world with zero kitchen experience and zero professional training.
So how exactly Hiša Franko’s winning menu looks like and what were those tiny details and tweaks that might have made the difference? If I was very technical, I might give credits to raising their service level, finding a way back to pairings that have always defined Hiša Franko (there's champagne, but there’s also the wonderful crazy hazy assortment of the best Slovenian natural wines) and incorporating a luxurious item here and there like truffles and caviar, without betraying its philosophy.
If I was corny, I might say love as some food writers have implied – I mean, even she said it, in Chef’s Table: “Love is crucial. If we don’t have love, it’s difficult to work well. Because of love, we do nice things, and because of love, sometimes we create catastrophes.” But then again, I am not corny. The latest Hiša Franko menu still reflects events, people and travels that have left a mark on Roš and her cooking in all these years. But it’s more homogenous and a bit more focused back to the Soča Valley.
You start your 16-course journey with a light easy bite of peach, almond and marigold, followed by a nutty seed taco with black sunchoke puree, pears and silene vulgaris.
After a 2022 season completely devoid of seafood, the latter is back – well, at least with mollusks. The first encounter with Adriatic comes in shape of a mussel bathing in seaweed & lacto fermented tomato water. A beautiful light bite to clean the palate before the two crowd favorites – now Hiša Franko signatures, even though Roš herself absolutely hates having a signature dish and has always full-heartedly resisted the idea. But here we are.
First is the after a few seasons really perfected corn beignet, hearty, yet fluffy and light at the same time, with deliciously decadent runny filling of wild chives, smoked trout roe and fermented cottage cheese. There’s no way you are in Hiša Franko without that fermented ricotta from high mountain shepherds, used heavily throughout the years, both in Hiša Franko and its casual sister restaurant in town, Hiša Polonka, run by Ana’s former partner Valter Kramar.
The other classic is potato cooked in summer hay crust, almost primal in its shape and form, a poetic homage to Soča Valley and the farmers, to the rustic life in these parts of Slovenia. A dish that serves instead of the bread course and is in its current iteration served with cultured cream with caviar. Breaking the crust of that potato does very much feel like breaking bread, in a way. As you do it the whiff of August hay really comes through, like the last gasp of Summer.
Why do we value caviar more than a potato, asks Roš who gets hers from another farmer not far away from Kobarid. The farmer sells it for 1 euro a kilo, something that even Roš at first thought it was a bit pricey, but she learned the lesson and is now trying to educate the guests on the importance of valuing our farmers, something that she has advocated throughout her work at Hiša Franko, but especially during pandemic when she started a supermarket line partly also for that reason.
The structure of the menu feels like it’s been crafted to come in pairs - the next dish comes in as a delicate silky hug, tomatillos with beans in almond and bay leaf milk followed by another plant-forward creation, “autumn harvest”, a broad beans salad with roasted yeast cream that already paves the way for the next more deep-flavored savory dish. Hand cut tagliolini with mountain rabbit, cacao nibs and black truffle is pasta perfection, with tagliolini as thin as they get so they really melt in with the delicious mountain rabbit ragout.
In Hiša Franko, rather than talking about signature dishes, we should be talking about signature ingredients. And if fermented cottage cheese is one, trout is definitely the second one. There hasn’t been a menu I recall without the Soča river trout on the menu. And it’s always one of the highlights, including this menu’s standout plate with two days dry aged trout cooked on Hibachi BBQ, served with brown butter fish sauce and a generous topping of freshly grated horseradish to give it a nice kick.
The third signature ingredient would be roebuck, perhaps a nod to Ana’s father who is a hunter himself so game is something she was raised with. As mentioned before this is one of her surf-and-turf combinations, paired with oyster, kiwi and beetroot and some greens from the mountain farm. On paper sounds like an odd coupling, but Roš has always been the master of making unexpected combinations work.
The last few years Roš has been experimenting a lot with venturing overseas when it comes to her “main” dish (I put main in parentheses because Hiša Franko menu really isn’t built classically, but it’s more a series of dishes that together weave a coherent story). There was the taco, reflecting her love for Mexico and Mexican street food, there was injera, the Ethiopian pancake-like flatbread she tried in Zanzibar and loved it so much she immediately sent her team a Whatsapp message with instructions, and now it’s dosa, fermented lentil pancake originating from South India. It’s filled with goat kid from nearby Drežnica village famed for its untamed black goats, and topped with salty yoghurt, curry leaves and wild water cress.
The savory part of the menu closes “pasta Ana”, pasta that she cooks the most at home for the kids or for herself, pasta that marked and still marks her Istrian summers, pasta she even cooked for the Slovenian president when he came to Hiša Franko but opted out of the tasting menu (gasp!).
The desserts at Hiša Franko have never really ventured heavily into decadent part, they have often flirted with savory and work as a sort of a continuation of the menu rather than something really sweet and pastry-oriented. Fig leaf granita is a beautiful, very crisp and aromatic palate cleanser, but the “I ♡ bees” is already a more indulgent story, with honey brioche, virgin beeswax fondue, pear and chamomile.
Ice cream is one of Ana’s latest obsessions (she has a whole line of it) and for the fall menu it’s made with seasonal berries, Zemljanka pit cheese and malted barley. Don’t expect a box full of petit fours either – you finish with a delicate piece of melon and some buckwheat and cottage cheese candy to take home. But chances are you will probably munch on them there, perhaps with a sip of Tuta, a local bitter herb concoction the locals swear cures everything but cancer. And in the magical place that Hiša Franko really is, at that moment, you will believe them.
*Kaja Sajovic is the co-author of Ana Roš "Sun and Rain" book.
Photo credits: @Suzan Gabrijan
Staro selo 1, 5222 Kobarid, Slovenia
Tel: 386 5 389 41 20