Hiša Franko, Slovenia: Tasting the Soča Valley Through the Language of Food

I remember the moment when I realized I wanted to eat at Hisa Franko.

As we were binge watching Chef’s Table on Netflix, Slovenia was the furthest thing from my mind. If you haven’t seen the series, please watch it soon. For foodies who appreciate the creation of beautiful and inspired food, well, I can’t imagine you haven’t yet seen it.

We were about five shows in when Slovenian Chef Ana Rôs began setting the stage for the inspiring story of her journey to become one of the top chefs in the world. Her story is moving, and familiar — a story about love and following your heart.

Risk. Reinvention.

She knows a lot about the subject. Having walked away from a promising career as a diplomat in the former Yugoslavia when she fell in love with her husband Valter Kramar and settled into the home and restaurant he took over from his family, her passion drove her to learn. And then to excel. Cooking was never in her plans, and today this self-taught Chef is considered the best chef in Slovenia.

Thanks to Hisa Franko, Slovenia and Slovenian food has a new appreciation among food travelers.

Flavors of Istrian Summer salad ©Lori Sorrentino, Travlinmad

Flavors of Istrian Summer salad ©Lori Sorrentino, Travlinmad

Romance and self-determination aside, what really sets Hiša Franko apart as not just one of the best restaurants in Slovenia, but one of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World? Is the food that good? Of course.

But what made me fall for her was also what she describes as the turning point in her culinary education — her commitment to not just highlight the food of Slovenia, but to interpret the regional ingredients of her native Soča Valley in every dish.

This philosophy was evident in each bite of our meal. And when you can taste the flavors of a place without ever leaving your chair, that’s a Chef who understands the language of food.

If you don’t have love and passion for something, you’ll always do things halfway.
— Chef Ana Rôs

Our first trip to Slovenia a few years ago was enough for us to realize we wanted to see more. This year our travel plans already included a week in South Styria, Austria, another place we recently discovered and wanted to spend more time in.

From there we’d rent a car and drive to South Tyrol in northern Italy to hike the Dolomites, a place high on our Italy bucket list. But one look at Google Maps on my phone to find Soca Valley, Slovenia and I knew we had to go. Road trips are just made for such diversions, aren’t they? I turned my phone to my husband at the other end of the couch.

“It’s right there. We’ll be driving right by. We have to go!”

The look on his face said he knew it too. It’s amazing the good travel decisions you can make from the comfort of your couch when you’re truly inspired. You can imagine how excited we were to have the chance to have dinner at Hiša Franko and — as luck and timing would have it — on my birthday no less. I couldn’t wait to go!

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Food of The Soca Valley, Slovenia

I remembered enough about the Soča Valley and our trip to Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park to know it was close to southern Austria. In fact, we’ve often driven along roads in Slovenia while we’re driving around South Styria. Small blue signs with yellow stars signal you’re now crossing into another country in the European Union.

The Soča Valley is also just 3 kilometers from Italy and just an hour to the Italian city of Trieste and the Mediterranean Sea. To Americans, planning a road trip through Austria, Slovenia and Italy might sound a bit daunting, but it’s only around 300 miles from start to finish.

When it comes to food in the Soča Valley, the Austrian influence on Slovenian cuisine can be seen in foods like ravioli, dumplings, and hearty Alpine cheeses.

The foods of Istria, a small peninsula in northern Croatia near Trieste, also influences Slovenia with olive oil, truffles, and fresh Mediterranean seafood, a nice addition to the fresh mountain trout abundant in the cold waters that flow from the mountains through the Soca Valley.

In a sense, this part of Slovenia is another reminder that all food is regional and knows no geographic boundary.

The incredible beauty of the Soča Valley in Slovenia

The incredible beauty of the Soča Valley in Slovenia

Kobarid, Slovenia



Hisa Franko (pronounced Hee-sha Franko) is located in Kobarid, Slovenia, a charming little town in the stunning Soča Valley. The region here is something out of a dream with dramatic mountains that tower above lush green pastures below and rocky river gorges with turquoise waters roaring through.

It took us some time to drive to the Soča Valley since we took the scenic route — over the Vrsic Mountain pass (5,285 ft/1611 mt) with its 50 (count ‘em, 50!) hair pin turns along precarious cliffside roads, some with no guardrails or even trees to break any unlucky roll.

Add to that hundreds of cyclists and motorcyclists careening around oncoming turns at full speed. So it took a little time. But wow, was it worth it!



HiSa Franko, Slovenia’s Most Famous Restaurant

We arrived at Hiša Franko in the late afternoon, with enough time to relax before dinner. At the stroke of 8:00pm we went downstairs to the dining room, and a team of servers and hostesses welcomed us to our table.

I hate to admit I was going to bring my dSLR camera with my favorite low-light lens but opted not to for fear of looking too eager or irritating the Chef by spending more time photographing rather than eating the food. And I was glad I didn’t.

The tables are very well lit by halogen lights suspended over each table and your cell phone works fine.

IMG_2588.jpg

But I did heed Chef Ana’s suggestion posted on the menu and kept my snaps quick:

“There is hard work of the kitchen and service team to get you my dishes with the right temperatures and consistencies. What is cold is really cold, what is warm is really warm. Every moment you spend doing pictures, stories, or posting is time directly stolen to the quality and beauty of the food.”

Our waiter welcomed us and explained a little about the Tasting Menu. He gave us the option of including a wine tasting with every course (75€ per person) or half that amount (for half the cost) which sounded like a much better option. We wanted to savor the meal, not end up drunk and not appreciating the food (as has happened before in some nice restaurants where too much wine killed the experience).

He also gave us the option of tasting a selection of Tolmanc cheeses with dinner or tomorrow with breakfast — another good option which we appreciated. Ana’s husband Valter, who is the Sommelier at Hiša Franko ages some of the cheese served here and we were excited to try them at breakfast.

Our first amuse bouche — Finger Bites, as the menu described them — arrived almost immediately and for the next two hours, the well-orchestrated service delivered plate after plate of their Late Summer Tasting Menu: first 5 Finger Bites, followed by 12 Table Bites, and finally 2 Sweet Bites.

And with every one, I remembered what she said about her food, how she wanted the main ingredient in each dish to be local. Slovenian. Locally sourced from the Soča Valley.


The Late Summer Tasting Menu

Hiša Franko has an ever-changing seasonal menu. Depending on what foods and produce they pick themselves from their bountiful garden out back or in the local mountains, and what’s available from local suppliers, menus can evolve to something new entirely from year to year. When you visit, your menu will be fresh from what season it is when you arrive. Here is a glimpse of ours:



Finger Bites

Table Bites



Breakfast at Hiša Franko

Breakfast the next morning was equally good, like a warm hug from the kitchen. There was a basket of warm fresh baked rolls and the rye bread we loved so much.

Tiny jars of local honey, creamy butter, and jams waited to be slathered on the breads. Platters of fresh fruit brightened the table, and we ordered the Tolmanc Cheese selection we didn’t have room for last night. 4 progressively-aged cheeses were presented, and savored! Cheese, like wine, is one of those foods that reveal so much about the animal, their diet, and surroundings.

These were heavenly.

Overall

We’ve had some amazing meals in some pretty amazing places around the world. Some are made better by what surrounds you at the time — the people, the place, or all the stars aligning with the perfect combo of time and place.

Hiša Franko was different.

Dinner was relaxed. There was no pretense, no velvet rope attitude. The wait staff was friendly and chatty, if you were so inclined. It was refreshing, and fun.

And as we sat in this quiet country restaurant in a remote corner of Slovenia, I realized that I’ve never truly experienced a place through the food as I did that night. We tasted the Soča Valley through each delicious course at Hisa Franko. Slovenia proved to us it’s one of the world’s best countries for food and epitomizes what we love most about slow travel and tasting the local culture.

Dinner at Hisa Franko was a skillful work of art, and one of the finest culinary experiences we’ve had anywhere. Dishes were expertly prepared, balanced and inspired. Ingredients were seasonal and fresh, and every foam, flower, and drizzle added never tried too hard or crossed the line of being overdone (though I hardly expected that from the best female Chef in the world).

Chef Ana and her team expertly craft beautiful seasonal menus that speak to the heart of Slovenia.

As I peeked into the kitchen on my way to the restroom, the staff invited me in — they didn’t have to ask twice. I met their bread baker, creator of that amazing and crusty spelt bread, and chatted with sous chefs in between plating dishes.

Then Chef Ana appeared behind me like the Maestro conducting her performance, asking me how our dinner was. She couldn’t have been more gracious in the middle of service, and paused to snap a pic with us. The perfect ending to an amazing meal!

The next time you’re binging the top travel shows on Netflix, pull up Chefs Table — and be prepared to book flights. The food will make you drool and inspire you to go, to hear the stories and learn the journeys behind the food.

The Details

Hiša Franko Price and Tasting Menu

Our Late Summer Tasting Menu included 18 “bite” courses — for 150€ per person. As I mentioned above, the menu is always fresh and new, and will be every bit as beautiful. Hiša Franko does a good job at confirming your dinner and stay via email, asking you for information on any dietary restrictions or food allergies you may have, and gives you the chance to alter your menu a bit up to a week ahead of your reservation.

Hisa Franko Casa

Hisa Franko is not only one of the best restaurants in Slovenia, it’s also home to Ana, Valter and their children. The property setting therefore has a relaxed feel to it, as if you’re staying at their home. The grounds are beautiful and fun to walk around, especially the back garden. I was green with envy at all the fresh veggies, colorful (and edible) flowers, and her tomatoes.

Oh my. So many colors, shapes, and sizes!

If You Go:

When you book dinner at Hisa Franko, you’re required to book an overnight guest room as well. The rooms are spacious, modern, and perfect for an overnight stay, and a delicious breakfast is included.

Our double room with queen bed was 130€/per room + Tourist tax of 2€/per person.


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