Na Gradu - the Restaurant where the aroma of homemade chicken soup fills the air

Photo: Iztok Dimc

March 2012

When you arrive in the courtyard of Ljubljana Castle, you are welcomed by a pleasant aroma of home-cooked food filling the air within the safe confines of the castle's walls. If you decide to visit the Na Gradu Restaurant at this time of year, your search for mushroom soup, asparagus or aubergine on the menu will be in vain. Instead, you will be offered seasonal, Slovenian and local delights, including fresh homemade chicken soup, which is on the menu every day and is made from the same recipe as that used by our mothers and grandmothers.

The restaurant mirrors the spirit and philosophy of its owners: Svetozar Raspopović-Pope, the owner of the As Restaurant, who will go down in history as the man who changed the tastes of Ljubljana diners forever, and Ana Roš and Valter Kramar from Hiša Franko, who are an inexhaustible source of gastronomic creativity. When such exceptional culinary talents join forces, the end result is nothing short of excellence.

A restaurant that Ljubljana needed

Photo: Iztok Dimc

It just so happened that Ljubljana needed a restaurant within the walls of the Ljubljana Castle. But not just any restaurant – the idea was to have a restaurant that would offer traditional Slovenian dishes, given that the castle was also where the castle's lords once had their taste buds pampered. This was precisely Svetozar Raspopović and Valter Kramar's line of thinking, and when the idea also garnered support from the Mayor of Ljubljana, the time was right to bring it to life. Owing to a variety of cultural influences, from Mediterranean, Alpine, Balkan to Hungarian, there were numerous possibilities for a modern take on traditional Slovenian cuisine.

"When I was learning the secrets of traditional dishes, I sensed the value and magnificence of these dishes. Just look at bograč (a stew made out of at least three types of meat), bujta repa (sour or pickled turnip hotpot with pork), kobariški štruklji (dumplings with nut filling), and the like," Mr Raspopović explains. "It was amazing to learn how the recipe for jota (bean and pickled turnip soup) used in the Vipava Valley differs from that used in the Karst Region, although the two regions are only several tens of kilometres apart." In any event, the restaurant's owners swear by natural and local ingredients. The offer is based on dishes from Slovenia's culinary regions, and the restaurant's dedicated team strives to ensure maximum quality, while respecting tradition.

They offer simple dishes with a touch of modern cuisine, preserving and bringing out the natural flavour of the food they prepare. They always use local and seasonal ingredients of certified origin, which have a fuller taste. "Cooking offers endless possibilities and we are convinced that we will never get bored. Our cuisine is based on what we have learnt from our mothers and grandmothers," adds Mr Raspopović. They understand how precious home-grown vegetables and fruit are (their ice cream is also made from local and seasonal fruit).

Valter Kramar adds that the idea to have this kind of a restaurant is not new, although they are all very proud to have put it into practice. "Typical Slovenian cuisine is rich and has a certain character. We do not want to change that. We accept and embrace all the influences that have shaped Slovenian traditional cuisine. You will find that it has been inspired by an extraordinary mixture of cultures – Balkan, Mediterranean, Alpine, and Pannonian. People here knew how to use the best of what their garden had to offer."

Local and seasonal

They aim to offer top quality dishes at a competitive price. Accordingly, they prepare and serve their food with great care. The restaurant chef, Damjan Fink, says that they swear by the use of exclusively Slovenian, preferably organic, produce. They buy food directly from farmers, taking care that the meat used is traceable and of certified origin.

One of the house specialties is a bowl of chicken soup. It is cooked slowly and requires time to prepare, explains Damjan Fink. "The soup must be homemade – 'the real thing'." Everything on the menu is based on seasonal, local produce. They do not offer dishes with ingredients that could only be bought in a supermarket. In an effort to preserve pure and natural flavours, they do not use additives or artificial flavours, or thicken their sauces with flour. They use low-fat cooking methods and let the fresh and high-quality ingredients used develop and release their full flavour.

The menu is changed regularly to reflect seasonal produce. They select their recipes carefully. Dishes are always served with as little added fat as possible. Instead of traditional roast crackling, you will be served crackling with apple slices, which is really incredible. I have tried it and I can assure you it is a real treat!

What else can guests look forward to?

Photo: Iztok Dimc

Excellent Slovenian fish, veal and lamb of certified origin, for sure. A dish very popular among guests is zabeljena polenta (corn porridge served with cottage cheese and bacon), which is somewhat surprising, explains the head of the restaurant, Leon Furman. He believes that the presentation of a dish plays a very important role in shaping guests' preferences. 

Foreign visitors who decide to spice up their visit to Ljubljana Castle and tickle their taste buds with excellent cuisine are also among the restaurant's most frequent guests. They enjoy trying Slovenian food. But that does not mean that the restaurant is aimed primarily at foreign visitors. In fact, many Slovenians are very keen on traditional Slovenian cuisine prepared with the finest ingredients. Our culinary culture has leapt forward as more and more people tend to embrace the finest, top quality food of certified origin.

Fried chicken wings, Piran sea bass, and kranjska klobasa (Carniolan sausage) – the queen of sausages – are a permanent fixture on the menu. In order to offer their guests the very best kranjska klobasa, they prepare the dish with less fat and in a different way, enhancing its flavour. Since the sausage is much tastier if freshly cooked, they have decided to serve it in a cooper bowl. Such sophisticated approaches allow the restaurant to always be one step ahead of the competition. They also have a range of delicious desserts on offer, with the castle cream cake and the delicious grandma's apple pie, made with home-grown apples, everyday items on the menu.

Having received very positive feedback from their guests, they will continue to strive for excellence. They still have plenty of ideas. "We are wedded to tradition, and there are still so many recipes we want to cook.  We have taken this as a challenge and have the will to make it a reality," concludes Svetozar Raspopović. 

Text by Polona Prešeren, M.Sc, Sinfo, February 2012  

Photo: Iztok Dimc