Just GO: Hiša Franko

Some things in life are worth the splurge.

Living in Europe has afforded us countless opportunities to explore and experience things we would never have otherwise been able to in the states. Having already fallen in love with Slovenia from previous travels, it was a no-brainer to prioritize a world-renowned restaurant in our next itineraries. Lucky for this foodie, I had two visitors coming within a month of each other, each who had fallen in love with Ana Roš and who were dying to try her creations. In April I visited with my mother Anne, and in May I dined with my dear friend Hayley. Both of my dinner guests were a quick and enthusiastic “YES!” when I asked if I should make reservations. To be clear: this is a rare and exceptional delight!

Staro Selo, Slovenia

Soča River, Soča Valley, Slovenia
The road to Staro Selo and Hiša Franko

Hiša Franko is a small haute-cuisine restaurant and cozy inn run by the husband and wife team of chef Ana Roš and sommelier Valter Kramar. Situated in the Soča Valley in Slovenia, the restaurant’s energy and atmosphere perfectly reflect the natural alpine surroundings. Driving to Hiša Franko through Kobarid feels like something out of a fairy tale. We found ourselves navigating winding roads lined with trees…the turquoise rivers of the Soča River snaked along the valley at sunset, while jagged peaks of the Julian Alps saluted our journey. When arriving, it is easy to think, “is this it?” as the humble property is rustic, cozy, and frankly, easy to miss! As soon as we walked in, though, it was clear this wasn’t like other acclaimed restaurants. It was relaxed, warm, and welcoming – lacking even a hint of pretentiousness. The house itself is rumored to be the same building Ernest Hemingway wrote part of his book ‘Farewell to Arms’ while recovering from an injury in the war.

A most welcoming entrance to Hiša Franko

A Dynamic Duo

Ana was voted “World’s Best Female Chef” in 2017 and was recently featured on the Netflix special Chef’s Table, catapulting her story into the spotlight and making foodies drool over her innovative culinary combinations. She was entirely self-taught and single handedly put Slovenian gastronomy on the map. Like most chefs who acquire a following, Ana has managed to harness the fruits of the region, and she uses all aspects of the each ingredient to showcase its unique gifts. For example, Tolmin cheese is exclusive to the Soča Valley, and she uses its byproducts in many ways – from whey to fondue and foam. Other menu highlights are various seafood (crab, cuttlefish, indigenous marble trout, calamari and mussels), sheep, lamb and pork, and an impressive plethora of foraged wild greens. On both visits, Ana was bustling about the restaurant – in and out of the kitchen – greeting guests, serving meals, answering questions, and even cleaning bar ware! She was dressed “smart casual,” as was her staff. She was professional but approachable, and extremely hospitable. She is proud of what she does – the love is palpable.

My mom is one of Ana’s biggest fans!

It was evident she wants to give *everyone* the opportunity to enjoy her creations, as the whole restaurant operates in order to do so. This means that with the presentation of every plate, the bite is graciously explained and special instructions are given on how to savor it. “It’s totally unpretentious!” Hayley exclaimed after the very first dish. Ana has done well to create a relaxed, pleasant, and frankly, an entertaining atmosphere. Dining at Hiša Franko feels like something of a complete experience – from the various servers and chefs who deliver and explain courses – to Alen, the charming sommelier who glides about dining room sharing the most magical of (mostly organic) wine pairings with delicate detail.

Valter, Ana’s husband, is the head sommelier of the restaurant, and he was the first to greet Hayley and I upon arrival with a smile and a handshake. Valter has made cheeses he can call his own varieties – including fermented ricotta, pit cheese, and aged Tolminc cheese – all used in Ana’s dishes. He develops the impressive wine pairings with Alen – elevating the accompanying dish in just the right way. Valter and Ana are an inspired pair who aim to surprise and impress with their creative and innovative combinations.

Congratulations Team Hiša Franko! 38th Best Restaurant – Top 50 In the World!

Behind the scenes is the terrific team of kitchen staff we were able to meet, including Nataša the delightful bread maker, Leo the humble but lively Colombian sous-chef, and Manca, the friendly personal assistant to the chef. Miha, who we didn’t get to meet, is Ana’s darling of the foraging world.

Together they have built a restaurant experience that makes guests feel like they are witnessing a creative production of top chef proportions – with respect for the hard working culture of the region, the seasonal gifts of the land, and the innovative mind of its head chef. They have made “Top 50 Restaurants” list for several years now, and it is clear why. We understood that there has been a great deal of renovation and change in the Hiša Franko household in recent months and from what I gather, it just keeps getting better! They have created an environment I look forward to returning to in every changing season.

When you are seated in the dining room, you are given individual menus in letter form – a nifty souvenir to take home. If you have a bag, you’ll be given a cute little bench to place it on. As we sat down, our host turned the single rose vase towards us – all little touches didn’t go unnoticed! After drinks were ordered, the “show” began…

The Meal

Finger Bites

Green pea and wild plants salad, smoked bone marrow, strawberry seed oil: delivered on an artful chunk of bone, this delicate bite melts and pops in your mouth with just the right combination of crisp, fresh flavors. Green pea was the strongest of the flavors but the sweetness of the strawberry oil tickled me – I wanted more!

One bite of “Kalamari na žaru”, smoked pit cheese: The green pea bite was a tough act to follow, so this bite of cheesy calamari didn’t quite measure up to its counterpart *but* was enjoyable in a “new taste in my mouth” sort of way.

Crispy dandelion, yogurt and forest honey: This was served in April (pictured below left) and has a funny story attached to it. There are always new and interesting things to learn in the food world, but this particular delicacy was something our apartment host had clued us into beforehand. “See those dandelions? They’re delicious! Get a nice fluffy one.” The kids had been picking and eating dandelions the whole weekend in Tolmin and Kobarid and mom and I laughed on our way to Hiša Franko saying, “surely there will be something with dandelions in it!” Sure enough, Ana didn’t disappoint! This fried dandelion was light and tasty – and much better than what you pick and pop in your mouth in the fields!

Holly, black shallots, blue cheese: Instead of the dandelion, in May the menu changed to this tiny holly pocket (pictured below right, blue plate). Of the four dishes in this course I was able to taste, this was probably my least favorite, although it was a nice mix of flavors in my mouth. I was always able to say, “Wow! I’ve never had that combination before!” Which, of course, is fun and surprising.

Kale taco, wild plants, elder blossom and hazelnut miso: This. Was. Fantastic. I would go back and order an entire plate of this fancy tiny vegetarian taco. I have no idea how she made something wild and green taste like something completely different. It was unexpected, and made all parties say “OH MY GOD!” Delicious.

Trout skin and bergamot: Its always fun to see how Ana uses all parts of the animal. The skin was so light and airy – almost chip-like – and had a nice balanced flavor. It paired well with the other bites in this trio.

This is the pleasantly surprised and impressed face of one happy foodie!

Lamb brain and preserved berry bigné: This sweet little ball of brains made such an impression on me that I can still taste it if I close my eyes right now. I can’t describe it other than unexpectedly delicious – savory, sweet, salty, and crispy on the outside with a perfect fluffy center. It was certainly in my top three tastes of the evening! All delivered on an artistic wood round. All three of us agreed that it was the most unique and memorable creation we’d seen thus far. Bravo!

Table Bites

Spelt and whey sour bread, cultured butter with bee pollen: This was served in April. It was good – very dark – but too hearty and a bit tough for my taste. I think the whey may have overpowered the flavor.

Spelt sour bread with molasses, cultured butter with bee pollen: This was served in May. It was a big improvement from Nataša’s whey sour bread in April! The butter was even better – perhaps it had a bit more salt? Hayley and I finished every single piece with pleasure.

Silver mussel/ mussel, bitter orange, charcoal grilled green asparagus: This was a dish that pleased the eye as well as the tongue! The first time we tried it in April it was perhaps too smokey to appreciate the other flavors. However, this was corrected and in May it was a perfectly balanced dish. The varying textures really stand out!

Cuttlefish lard/ fried bread soaked in white asparagus milk, pine nuts, ransom sprouts: This was, again, a brand new flavor profile in my mouth. I was truly impressed with the combination of textures and tastes. Memorable indeed!

Baby veal consommé/ celeriac, mountain baby veal, lovage oil, holly leaves (or morels): This was done in nearly the same way in April and May, but in May instead of morel mushrooms, they substituted holly leaves. This was tasty – a quality consommé, but the celeriac and holly leaves weren’t my favorite. Between the two dishes, of course April’s morel wins for a more tantalizing flavor combination!

Čompe s skuto/ potato cooked in August hay, fermented cottage cheese, smoked chocolate: In April, Game of Thrones finale season was debuting and the servers joked with us as they delivered this dish. “This is the dragon’s egg!” The little perfect potato was cooked in a shell of black salt that we cracked open. “Don’t eat the shell!” Then we added the creamy sour cheese and sweet chocolate – a perfect and unexpected combination that was very pleasing! For mom and me, hailing from Maine (former potato capital of America), where we ate potatoes with nearly every meal growing up, this was a flavor first and a real treat to behold. A risk that reaped big rewards, Ana!

Lamb and crab/ pulled Drežnica lamb and crab wrap, lamb broth, egg yolk filled with sunchoke broth: In April this dish came with an actual crab – tiny, crispy and delicate that you eat whole. Mom and I crunched down on it (a little sqeamishly!) and found it to be quite tasty! The egg yolk was such a treat. It breaks open as it enters your mouth and the delicious flavors of lamb broth and creamy yolk swirl around the tongue in a wonderful warm moment that made me close my eyes to savor it. The lamb and crab wrap was interesting…mom really enjoyed it, and kept referring back to it, as did Hayley, but it wasn’t my favorite. “Its just such a unique and daring combination of flavors!” Hayley commented. Certainly a creative umami experience.

Two times trout/ trout belly glazed with pear and tonka butter, buttermilk, bitter chicory, pumpkin oil (served only in April): This was a lovely and delightful – as @23wendell says, “rich and bitter contrasted with light and sweet.” Another winning combination! I only wish it were served in a bowl so it was easier to clean my plate… Mom said this was her favorite of all the savory dishes.

Trout, whey, poppy seeds, beetroot, salad of Fallopia Japonica, sorrel and wild watercress (or ground ivy and watercress): This dish didn’t stand out in comparison to what came before and after. The poppy seeds in whey were yummy and the varying greens paired well with the trout. But overall I would say this was a safe dish. Delicious for sure, but not as memorable.

Dry aged mountain veal/ sole in its own pil pil, oyster emulsion, tomato almond and rice foam (served only in May): WOW! This was a terrific dish. At this point in the evening my brain was exploding from all the new and exciting flavor combinations and this was no exception. I loved the veal/sole combo – rich and savory – and the poppy little tomatoes. I scraped my plate clean!

Tripe/ pit cheese fondue, salad of white asparagus, magnolia flowers (or fried nettles) and fava beans: This dish was a regular treat to the taste buds! Although I preferred the magnolia flowers to the fried nettles, and May’s bowl was heaping compared to April’s, I thoroughly enjoyed the tripe (something I’d never tasted before) with the unique pit cheese fondue. The textures of the asparagus and fava beans paired surprisingly well with the creamy fondue and tripe. By this time in the dinner, mom was feeling warm and pretty tipsy thanks to Alen’s wonderful wine pairings. She was at a loss for words over this dish. We savored every bite!

Bovec sheep cheese/ and chestnut honey emulsion, red cabbage chutney, cinnamon puff: This was served only in April, and it was a welcome sweet bite after the rich tripe fondue dish. The cinnamon crisp was beautiful and also tasty – not too sweet. Some may have thought, “too much cheese,” but not us! All the cheese, all the time. But, as much as I enjoyed this unique little puff, the next sweet dish flipped my lid…

Beewax/ peaches and elderblossom (served in May): Just look at this beautiful plate! Again, my brain was overflowing at this point and I was running out of description words to do this experience justice. The plates just kept coming and my mouth just kept watering! This was a sweet and tart, lightly floral and creamy bowl of heaven. I could have stopped right here and been perfectly content, but Ana wasn’t yet done with her surprises…

(R)evolution of Kobariški Štrukelj/ Parsnip, apple, walnut and pork crackling dumpling glazed with pork fat. Smoked pork crème brûlée, sun dried plums, horseradish: Take a peek at this lovely trio. Each had a sweet and umami combination that was daring and delightful. I appreciated the apple brandy (?) with smoked ice cube (I can still taste it!) and savored the tasty little dumpling. I was hesitant to try the meat crème brûlée as horseradish intimidates me, but although it was strong it was absolutely delicious. I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it! Mom and Hayley were less enthusiastic about the horseradish (it was strong!) but I found it to be a great way to end the Table Bites portion of the menu.

Sweet Bites

Whey and hazelnuts, whey and cardamom, red currant pâte de fruit with green juniper salt, confited kumquat, Kumparička goat cheese, goat caramel: Served in April.

Whey and walnuts, whey and cardamom, hazelnuts, rosehip bonbon, confited kumquat, Kumparička goat cheese, goat caramel: Served in May.

Both dessert spreads were light, creative, and just the right combination of salty, sweet, rich and tart. I love chocolate and the whey melts were delicious…but I think my favorite little bite was the kumquat! Ana explained to us that many of her most unusual ideas come to her late at night or in dreams. Well, I can say for sure that these little kumquats are a thing of my dreams!

Wine

Mom and Hayley both got the wine pairing and were both so pleased with what was presented. Mom leaned more towards the reds as her favorites and Hayley (surprisingly!) fell in love with the whites, which is way out of character for her. One wine in particular stood out – the Batič Sivi Pinot – a biodynamic Slovenian wine maker who creates magic. In speaking with Alen about this wine he agreed it was special and gave us the vintner’s phone number so we could go taste and bring home more beautiful bottles of Batič before leaving Slovenia! And you can bet we did! Thanks to the perfect wine pairing at Hiša Franko by the wonderful Alen, we are now well-stocked with our favorite “go-to” wine label, and we have made new friends with the Batič family! Besides Batič Sivi Pinot, the Zaria, Pinela, Rose, Cab Franc and Angel Cuvees are uniquely fabulous!

Distinctions Well-Deserved

After our dinner, Ana herself gave my mother and me an unexpected and very generous private tour of the kitchen, wine cellar and cheese cellars, introducing all of her staff and answering our questions with enthusiasm and love. Manca gave Hayley and me a tour of the kitchen, wine and cheese cellars as well, giving us a bit more restaurant history and detail. We were so grateful to have this added window into the whole experience as it made us appreciate it even more.

The 7PM dinner seating lasted around five hours, while the 5PM dinner seating lasted around three hours. Both felt neither rushed nor lagging. The 11-course tasting menu is €150/pp, and optional wine pairing is €75/pp. As you can see, there are many more than 11 plates! We left pleasantly full. The servers were all friendly, professional and polite and answered our questions with enthusiasm. In May, several servers even commented that they remembered me from a month before – a testament to their attention to detail and care for their guests. I’m so impressed that Ana and many of her staff speak multiple languages and can accommodate the ever increasing diversity of clientele. Ana may not have ended up a diplomat (as is widely known) but she certainly is an ambassador of her country and she showcases the best in Slovenian gastronomy! I give this my highest recommendation; we can’t wait to return someday in another delicious season.

Immaculate kitchen, preparing for the late seating of dinner.
The cheese cellar! Where all the magic happens…
THAT CHEESE!

Information

Address: Hiša Franko Staro Selo 1, 5222 Kobarid, Slovenia

Reservations: info@hisafranko.com

A note on reservations: The first reservation I made 2 months in advance and had no problem. The second reservation I made one month in advance and felt very lucky to sneak into an early dinner seating. The third reservation I attempted was four months in advance and they were already booked for the small window my friends were hoping for when they came to visit. The best advice is to book as early as you can, and consider staying at the inn as well, as it sometimes gives you a leg up on the reservation priority list.

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