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A bistro that connects Istria to the world

 

Ivo Tomšič is far from a newcomer to the Slovenian gastronomic scene – for some time he worked as a meat expert in Ljubljana's Sorbara Steak House, and then he ventured to the coast, first to Džungla, where he showed some more of his style, which is a combination of refined street food, Asian and Latin American influences and modern Nordic cuisine.

But it seems that he really found himself in his own project, Kulinarični Študio (Culinary Studio), an intimate little bistro that he and his wife Špela run in the centre of Koper, on the Slovenian coast (their daughter Zoja occasionally helps grind the meat and roll the pasta).

The project was launched last February, during the coronavirus pandemic. At first as a bakery, where the Tomšičs baked bread, cinnamon rolls, pizzas and paninis, all with sourdough and with an emphasis on truly high-quality ingredients. This is how they survived all the closures and openings during the pandemic before they started to actually cook. “Ivo runs Studio idea-wise, while I control things,” Špela said, smiling.

Špela and Ivo
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

And Ivo took the project seriously. The shelves bend under giant jars, some of which look like they come from a sci-fi movie: pickled green tomatoes in the first one, pickled corn for corn mayonnaise in the second, black walnuts in the third, kimchi in the fourth and grapes in honey and water, which Ivo throws on the grill to caramelise and serves with stracciatella di bufala for dessert, in the fifth.

“This is where I can do what I like, I know what I’m going to do, I have nobody above me – well, except the boss,” Tomšič laughs and points at Špela. She just waves her hand and grabs a bottle of Gordie pét-nat from nearby Ankaran and starts pouring the contents. “Yes, actually the biggest challenge of working here is that we see each other 24 hours a day,” Ivo remarked playfully.

homemade pasta
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Bubbles, bubbles …

It was one of those warm early autumn days when bubbles really went into circulation – Gordia, Rojac’s Royaz, Štembergar, Fedora … Kulinarični Studio mostly swears by natural wines, possibly from the surroundings (this philosophy is also followed in the kitchen), but they will also happily open a bottle of unfiltered Prosecco for you. When they run out of supplies, they just walk a few metres up to the Okusi Istre wine bar, which specialises in Istrian wines from Momjan to Črni Kal.

It seems that the Tomšičs have created a nice network of suppliers and small businesses in this part of Koper with whom they are writing a new story from the coast. After they finish serving guests, they often go to Miramar, one of those bistros with a soul that are hard to find today – malvasia in a mug, older locals playing Tarot card games, the boss sorting big, juicy red Istrian tomatoes on one of the tables, crates and crates of tomatoes being sliced for salads. There, across the arcades and across the avenue of palm trees, sailing and fishing boats moored at the piers reflect on the calm sea surface as the sun sets.

They keep it simple in Miramar – they serve from 6 p.m., and when you sit down at 5:59 p.m., they ignore you, and then hurriedly put a mug of light golden wine, white bread, home-made salt cod, olives and a plate of seafood in front of you. They don’t cook, but they don’t really need to – Miramar is full, lively, with that hedonistic, nonchalant Italian soul.

Miramar
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Tables full of colours and flavours

Kulinarični Študio follows the same concept, only they certainly cook there. And they cook ambitiously. Although the concept is a bistro with a limited number of tables, a short menu created to be shared between tables, Tomšič’s cooking certainly could not be described as simple.

It’s impressive how many different creations can be produced by a two-member team – the plates just keep flying to the table until it’s laden with neat, colourful creations that pay homage to the nature and abundance of Istria, while also carrying that cosmopolitan touch that places Tomšič in a slightly higher league.

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Raw tuna in tomato water with herb oil made of scallion, basil and fennel, with bottarga grated over it. And tuna with burrata and ‘nduja. Matured cow’s milk cheeses made by the Butuls from nearby Manžan and goat cheeses made by Irena Orešnik. Raw marinated scampi with olive oil and a rice cracker, fish liver pâté. They serve white bread, milk bread, spelt bread and sour rye bread, depending on what Špela kneaded that day. Next to that is whipped butter with flower butter and a taco with chickpea miso.

Then “tonnato contra”, which has become Tomšić’s signature plate, arrives on the table. It is vitello tonnato turned upside down – with tuna tartare and veal gravy, where the veal is salted for three days and then cooked in water and wine for six hours.

a dish
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

What the fishermen catch, what grows in the gardens

He creates the menu on the fly, depending on what he gets from the fishermen that day or at the market. But there are some mainstays. In addition to the tonnato signature plate, these are stracciatella di bufala or burrata, tuna in one form or another and beef tartare, which is served in Kulinarični Študio with bone marrow fried on fat.

As for fish, he particularly likes to work with pilchards and red mullets, and that day he got an excellent John Dory, which in the first incarnation he used for ceviche with chili oil, herb oil, spring onions and citrus fruits, and in the second he skewered with scampi and grilled on a yakitori grill in front of the bistro.

fish
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

As a backup, if someone is still hungry, he throws some beautiful shiny beef steaks on the grill, which are usually supplied by either the local butcher or Marko Butalič, the favourite among chefs when it comes to extremely matured meat.

But the feast is not over yet. There is a truly beautiful, hedonistic parmigiana made from eggplant and tomatoes which Špela picked just a few hours earlier from the urban garden behind the restaurant and Mediterranean scallops with seaweed and algae pesto, peanut miso, hazelnuts and sesame.

Organic mussels on a plate

When it comes to mussels, Tomšič cooperates exclusively with Prosub from Sečovlje, the largest grower and supplier of mussels in Slovenia. While it is the only company with a license to pick wild mussels, they grow Mediterranean mussels under their own brand Okus Morja in the Strunjan Landscape Park, the fishing reserve of the Piran Bay in Sečovlje and in the Debeli Rtič farming area.

Prosub is ecologically oriented and the mussels in their farms are fed exclusively naturally (with plankton filtered from the water), without the addition of feed. This is why all molluscs farmed by the company have an organic certificate.

seafood
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Kulinarični Študio has brought a breath of fresh air and a touch of cosmopolitan trends and bistronomy not only to Koper, but also to the entire coast, while it is firmly anchored in its environment. While it is not always easy to convince the locals with such a concept, the Tomšičs say that they work a lot on attracting the people of Koper to their bistro and that the response is excellent. The plan was to become closer to the locals and the local environment. The key to this, as they say, is sincerity and homeliness. Being close to people, while not deviating from your vision.

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