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Fresh Wind and Youthful Energy of the Ljubljana Bistro Scene

 

On a Friday afternoon, Breg, the latest Ljubljana bistro and 'younger brother' to Atelje, is packed. Although the mercury rose well over 30 degrees on that summer day, diners could not help but order its signature dish – cutlet of Krškopolje pig fried in matured lard, tartar with rhubarb and potato salad.

“I like my food greasy, what can I do?” grins 34-year-old Jorg Zupan, the youngest Slovenian chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant. In 2020, in the premiere edition of the guide, he won it with Atelje, Ljubljana’s only star restaurant, where he cooks with Slovenian ingredients using international techniques, approaches and inspirations that he mastered during his internships in world restaurants, from Norwegian Maaemo (3 stars) and Australian Quay to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck (3 stars).

Jorg Zupan, Atelje
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Breg is really not like Atelje in any way. Zupan says that this is not a place to live out his chef’s ambitions for the author’s cuisine; instead, he wanted to open a place where people could find unpretentious but delicious plates, popular folk classics collected from the wider surroundings (in the case of bao steamed buns, also beyond that), but prepared a little differently.

The summer menu thus features tomato salad made from five types of Lušt tomatoes and feta cream. And beef tongue marinated ‘in saor’, with pumpkin seed pesto, fennel and fresh cheese. The creamy burrata is accompanied by red beet molasses, almonds and red pepper, which brings a nice tickle, while the mussels are not done in the ‘alla buzara’ style, but in a rich spicy salsa made of ‘nduja salami, crispy roasted guanciale (pork jowl), saltwort and samphire.

The fact that Zupan is really a fan of full, rich, hearty food is also proven by osso bucco with saffron risotto, beef loin with ‘hasselback’ potatoes in beef tallow and anchovy butter and Carp Kyiev with butter fish sauce with trout roe and creamy mashed potatoes made in the Robuchon style.

Breg dishes
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Atelje’s menu, on the other hand, is more refined, adapted to guests with sophisticated palate and those seeking gourmet experience. The star came as a little bit of a surprise for the young team as well as for some connoisseurs, as everyone was convinced that an institution like Michelin would sooner award some more classic Ljubljana restaurants.

Atelje is different. Instead of solemn silence, you are greeted by a striking soundtrack of a mix of alternative music and 80s hits and a series of modern amuse-bouches such as fish beignet with plankton and wild garlic, compressed cucumber with Sansho pepper and a modern version of beef salad.

Atelje
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Zupan is not afraid to use more exotic ingredients and forms, be it vadouvan, which he adds to lamb thymus wrapped in iceberg lettuce, hot sauce that accompanies venison tartare, or cashew nuts, which give texture to the pumpkin flower with pumpkin seed puree. The basis, however, is strictly Slovenian, coming from verified farms, with meat of Slovenian origin (Krškopolje pigs are bred at the Žgajner farm), its own fishermen and now with a garden at the foothil of the Golovec hill that, as the team hope, will make them self-sufficient at some point, at least when it comes to vegetables.

The plates are accompanied by mostly sustainably produced Slovenian wines, and instead of chocolate pralines, the meal ends with gummy bears from Williams pear.

Jorg Zupan in the garden
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Concepts such as Atelje and Breg are relatively new to Ljubljana. When Atelje opened in 2016, it practically broke new ground. Zupan was not even 30 when he tried to convince the eaters in the renovated Smrekarjev hram, once a Ljubljana dining institution, with a completely new approach.

He replaced beef fillets with dried venison heart on gruel, large white fish with garums and XO sauces, white tablecloths with bare wood.

Despite being a European capital, a rising culinary destination, Ljubljana is still catching up with global trends. Burgermania, craft beer, natural wine, sourdough bread, places modelled on Parisian bistros – everything comes in a little late. So the boys who first started setting up the new scene were viewed with a little skepticism on the one hand, while on the other there was almost a sigh of relief as they brought in fresh wind, fresh energy, and cosmopolitan practices.

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Tabar – elaborate plates in a relaxed ambience

One of these boys was Jakob Pintar, now a 32-year-old chef who, just like Jorg, honed his skills abroad – with Gordon Ramsay in London, Joël Robuchon in Paris and Heinz Reitbauer in Vienna. It was Steirereck that perhaps defined him the most, shaped him into a chef and gave him a basis for creating in a socio-cultural-gastronomic environment similar to Ljubljana.

Pintar became the head chef of Tabar in 2017, and with his ambitions and experience in haute cuisine uprooted the concept of “Slovenian tapas”, which was the original idea of Tabar. The days of small, simple snacks, ‘something to nibble on’ accompanying an excellently selected wine list are long gone.

Jakob Pintar. Tabar
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Today, Tabar aims high and strikes the balance between a wine bar/bistro and fine dining. It still serves exceptional charcuterie, cheeses, pâtés and jams from the best Slovenian small producers, with the outstanding lard of Krškopolje pig, which the chef makes himself at the house of his brother-in-law Luka Košir in Grič restaurant outside Ljubljana, merely flavouring it with red pepper, fresh herbs and chives, but the emphasis now is certainly on Pintar’s signature dishes.

There is still a concept of food being shared around the table, which means that a whole range of colorful, imaginative creations is brought, from dry-ripened sea bass wrapped in zucchini, chia seed chips and turmeric paste, to a variation of tomatoes with tomato water gel and melon sauce with monarda.

There is also a gorgeous blini with flame-charred matured beef, anchovy mayonnaise and Swiss chard, brioche with kimchi mayonnaise, mussels and a generous layer of summer truffles, and a pheasant with leeks and amaranth paste. Like Zupan, Pintar is not limited to Slovenia and looks across its borders – after all, he creates in the capital.

Tabar dishes
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

The wines are a story unto themselves. No place in the capital has such an ambitious wine list when it comes to wines of sustainable and biodynamic production. It includes small growers, rare vintages, indigenous varieties, Slovenian growers from neighbouring countries and some pearls from across the Austrian and Italian borders that may be difficult to call our own, but give a good broader insight into the terroir.

Pintar is not a natural born celebrity chef; rather than among guests he feels at ease in the kitchen, creating and conceiving new and new plates. When he is not in the kitchen, you will often find him in Šentjošt nad Horjulom, at Košir’s, with whom, despite the fact that in some other situation they would be the fiercest competitors, they make an exceptional team. The kimchi, served as an amuse-bouche, is Luka’s, spicy, umami, fermented in one of those barrels in the Grič cellar.

They also cooperate in maturing and drying meat, and, of course, in the garden – Košir lives on a spacious idyllic estate, where, without the use of pesticides and herbicides, with organic preparations, he grows a whole range of exceptional and interesting vegetables.

In Jakob’s hands, Tabar became more than just a bistro; it has grown into a training ground for young creativity, as well as a temple of natural wines. This is a place where you can get the best of both worlds – haute cuisine and a simple wine bistro modelled after Paris.

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Monstera - how to shake off the reputation of a TV chef

And speaking of bistros inspired by those of Paris … When Bine Volčič opened Monstera in Gosposka ulica in 2016, the interest was exceptional. But not so much in the bistro itself, one of the first in Ljubljana. No, everything revolved around Volčič.

The chef from Kranj, now 40 year old, was a big star at the time. And despite his rich culinary pedigree – he went from a protocol chef to the head chef at Promenada restaurant in Bled – he was crowned a star by the cooking TV show Gostilna išče šefa (Restaurant Seeks Chef).

The young, tattooed, untamed and telegenic chef, who was just as natural in front of the camera as behind the stove, was probably the perfect choice for the first real Slovenian cooking show. He did not have Gordon Ramsay’s temper, but that was probably for the better. At that time, years ago, Volčič and Gostilna išče šefa did a lot to popularise the profession – and to establish chefs as stars. Rock stars.

When Volčič then opened Monstera, on the wings of this fame, with a base of ardent fans ranging from elementary school kids to grandmothers, many of them entered the bistro with certain expectations – and, frankly speaking, misconceptions about Volčič’s cooking.

The master trained at Cordon Bleu in Paris combined his classic knowledge with an eclectic personal taste, which always drew him a little towards Asia, while trying to really apply the ‘zero waste’ approach in his bistro, which he also adhered to in choosing meat dishes.

Some would say that he tried to provoke and shock when he served what has remained one of Monstera’s most notorious dishes, pork snout in all its naturalistic image, with whipped brain cream on the side. The image of the snout flooded the social networks and Volčič finally lost the image of a TV chef playing it ‘safe’. Glazed dormouse was not safe at all, either, but for Volčič such dishes represent the real Slovenia – Slovenia with the tradition of pig slaughter, Slovenia with dormouse hunting, Slovenia that has always been a rural country.

Dishes at Monstera
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Although he later made his style a bit more approachable and adapted the plates to the general taste, he still remains faithful to the original idea of Monstera – a place that aims to make the offer as sustainable as possible, be it serving only Ljubljana tap water and organic wines (they were one of the few where you could get Gravner by the glass in the beginning), or using ‘second-rate’ pieces of meat. It is no coincidence that Monstera was recognized as an environmentally conscious gastro-destination by Michelin and awarded the green star in 2020.

So beef cheek is regularly on the menu, as well as, clearly, the Slovenian indigenous Krškopolje pig, which Bine gets from his own farmer, complete with liver and tongue. In fish, he also opts for smaller species, such as sardines, with an increasing emphasis on vegetable plates and the use of various Slovenian regional specialties, be it mohant (semi-soft cheese from Bohinj with extremely pungent smell), saltwort from Istria or pumpkin seed oil from Prekmurje as well as organically grown vegetables and chickens from the idyllic farm of Nina Vratarič, where Bine even got married. After a two year stint in Moravske Toplice, Prekmurje really captured his heart and is now developing a new boutique story on the foundations of an old farm in the village of Motovilci.

Bine Volčič in the countryside
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

In short, we should not worry about the future of Slovenian cuisine – the young guns show enough openness to introduce the best foreign trends while following the axioms of locality, seasonality and revival of traditions.

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