I enjoyed one of my meals of the year at Grič, a small, family-run restaurant in the hills of Šentjošt in Slovenia, around a 30-minute drive from the capital Ljubljana. It wasn’t planned and crept up on me unexpectedly because, as with all the best dining experiences, a local’s knowledge brought it to my attention. Actually, I’m enjoying more and more meals outside the claustrophobic strangulation of city capitals, where I can hand myself over to the crazed ambition of a provincial chef. I think the future of food and fine dining lies in the forests.
I’m reluctant to even tell you about Grič, wanting to keep this precious gem a secret all for myself
A rummage on the Internet and the restaurant looked to tick all the right boxes. I followed this with something that has become the norm of late and a curious scroll through the World of Mouth app for further expert council. There I found Ana Roš, the chef who has perhaps done more than anyone to plant a flag into the soil for Slovenian gastronomy, declaring in decisive prose that Grič restaurant is “the place to visit in Slovenia.”
Luka Košir is the local boy fronting it all, having taken over the reins of the restaurant in 2009. He keeps things tight, with his father supplying most of the vegetables and those unused or discarded composted. His sister also works the floor, keeping it in the family. Together they harness their neighbourhood surroundings, foraging, planting, harvesting. They also have a duck farm, the first eco-certified duck farm in Slovenia, rearing a profusion of clamorous, quacking breeds – Muscovy, Pekin, Cayuga, Swedish, Rouen.
I was taken on a tour of the farm, just a short drive from the restaurant, as the last light crept across the valleys. Luka and his nine, fifteen, twenty-seven children excitedly show me the coop where days-old baby ducks scuttle and force their first quack. Luka tells me of the constant challenge of sexual assault among the ducks – by male drakes, I should note, not local Slovenians; I don’t think? When Slovenians aren’t trying to grab and shag a duck, they’re threatened by hungry eagles. The life of a Slovenian duck truly is an ongoing battle.
Returning to the restaurant with my local, food writer friend Kaja, we drank stonking natural wines in the company of Luka and the terrifically-tached sommelier Nejc Farčnik, who’s a dead-ringer for the 1970s American miler, Steve Prefontaine. There’s a part fruity, part zesty, wholly smashable Modri Pinot Zweigelt and a bubbly Rose Gordia from Slovene Istria that’s a refošk, merlot and syrah blend. A mission statement here ululates with good intentions about small local suppliers and sustainable sourcing, beginning at home. This has, in turn, earned the restaurant both a Michelin star and a green star. But these accolades are beside the point; the focus here has always centred on wild, autochthonous produce.
This approach is a back-to-Eden alternative to the dull, financially-backed realities of those larger city restaurants
Such hyper-seasonal ingredients litter the menu in innovative and brilliant ways, Luka searching out the shy, forgotten and neglected edible bits of the forest floor, making use of leaves and sprigs and damp stuff – mushrooms, berries, wild nettles, herbs, little buds of bitter, medicinal thistle. This approach is a back-to-Eden alternative to the dull, financially-backed realities of those larger city restaurants. There’s a jiggly orange duck egg with fresh asparagus, buckwheat, yeast and an unravelling amino anchovy cream, for example, that bursts with summer colours and tastes pure and honest, like food made by happy, caring people. And a series of starter snacks, including a glass bottle of goat’s milk that’s cold and subtly grassy; a dainty duck liver parfait disguised as a wild cherry; a carrot fermented in rice bran in the traditional Japanese Nukazuke style; a deep-fried bread ring with goat’s milk crème fraîche, crowned with trout eggs; a small shrimp cigar wrapped in translucent celery; and a slice of frika with buttery, aged Emmental cheese and a wild salad bouquet, a hearty combination of starchy potatoes and dairy that had Kaja drooling and getting all nostalgic, declaring it the ultimate comfort food. So much of it passed in a happy blur.
For mains, there was a soft and supple pink trout with its salty eggs, sunflower seeds, nettles (which taste better than they sound) and pappy, erotic forest butter – just wonderful. The fish is brought to the table raw and steam-cooked over hot stones. Pine needles and butter are placed on top before a glass dome covers the whole thing for some table-side theatrics seen through a Nordic haute cuisine lens. Then roasted deer in hay with onions and deer garum – the buck hung for four weeks. It had that marvellous gamey forest taste of sweet iron and damp leaf, like meaty iodine, starting as one thing, then subtly changing down the throat as the garum forces its way in, like thick soy but made from native deer. And there was a duck thigh with root vegetables grown and harvested from down the hill. Whey was made in-house from strained goat’s milk with sweet orchard apples, grapeseed oil and a thumping black garlic paste, tangy like balsamic. It weakened me like a vampire chomping on a garlic bulb necklace. The evening’s only dud note.
Veal sweetbreads were lightly seared and served on a mushy hummus made from roasted almonds; then, a Swiss Alpen caviar was dolloped on a homemade sheep’s milk yoghurt – simple, straightforward, bold. You can tell that Luka loves this stuff; you can taste it. For him, there will always be new things to try, mushrooms to be picked, apples to be pressed, strawberries to be jammed.
More brilliant natural wines were consumed, something I know little about but was assured by Kaja – whose body functions not on blood and water but orange wine – that the choices were very fine indeed; fizzy, funky, frothing with farmyard whiffs. At €50 for the wine pairing, it’s an absolute steal. Much more than a mere sommelier, Nejc gave the sort of front-of-house service that doesn’t exist back home in London, time-giving and playful with a fervent passion for plonk and the environment in which he lives. Together with the rest of the family, the team are evangelical about the area. And that’s understandable.
If they weren’t in the Slovenian boondocks, they could be charging three times that
Everything is about Slovenian food and wine, and everything is a careful and considerate addition to the menu, generous but never flashy – a homage to heritage and simplicity. At €120 for the no-choice tasting menu, with its procession of rotary ingredients and courses, it’s an offence to the restaurant. If they weren’t in the Slovenian boondocks, they could be charging three times that. The puddings were hazelnut miso, a tea gummy with bee pollen and a roasted almond and honey cookie. There were also a couple of squishy marshmallows to finish – mint, dark chocolate and white chocolate with orange.
I’m reluctant to even tell you about Grič, wanting to keep this precious gem a secret all for myself. I am reminded of something I once read by the great AA Gill: “There are no secret fairy-tale places left.” I Googled, looking for the complete quote, only to find that Gill was writing about a visit to La Subida, a small trattoria less than an hour from Grič, across the Slovenia-Italian border. Perhaps there really is something magical about this tiny, jagged, puzzle-shaped nation? Luka certainly thinks so with everything rooted around parish produce and, even more significant, the feeling of home. I guess some secrets are worth sharing. C
Grič, Šentjošt nad Horjulom 24d, 1354 Horjul, Slovenia
+386 1 754 01 28; gric.si