I recently ate at a new restaurant called Bencotto Italian Kitchen in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood. Along with the homemade pastas and sauces, I was delighted to see ricotta stuffed zucchini flowers under the starters section.
“I think that’s what my mom and I had at the castle restaurant in Ljubljana!” I exclaimed in delight. “It was one of my most favorite things I ate on the whole trip!”
So we ordered it and it was arrived. It was fried, which differed from my memories and which I didn’t like as much (and which it clearly stated on the menu, but in my excitement I overlooked that aspect), but it was still creamy yummy cheese, in this case ricotta, wrapped in zucchini blossoms. The differences could have been simply Bencotto’s twist, or the difference between Italy and Slovenia, or that the castle restaurant on top of the hill in Slovenia is simply AMAZING.
I’m going with the latter. The castle restaurant is Gostilna na Gradu, a Slovenian restaurant that boasts a pretty incredible piece of real estate as it’s located on the premises of Ljubljana Castle, which also has a great location high on a hill overlooking the tree-lined and riverside city below.
In the summer months or on other warm days and nights, Gostilna na Gradu’s patio is where you definitely want to sit as it opens onto a wide courtyard framed by leafy trees and the old, fortified stone walls of the castle.
That’s not to discount the inside of the restaurant, however, which has its own brick wall, luxury-castle-dungeon feel.
I had arranged the meal with Gostilna na Gradu to review for One Day in a City before arriving in Ljubljana and upon being seated at the restaurant, the friendly and competent manager, Leon, said they had courses of dishes they recommended if we were open to not choosing our own food. My mom and I aren’t picky eaters and enjoy trying what the locals recommend so we amiably agreed. It was a good decision.
Before I get into what each of those courses entailed, I first must mention one of my favorite details of Gostilna na Gradu, which was an apple sitting at each place setting when you’re led to the table.
We start out dinner with a deer tartar amouse bouche that is mixed with homemade horseradish mayo and olive oil. Next we had a delicious pork rattice with dried apple. To drink with our first few bites, we were poured a sparkling Pinot Noir. I’m not generally a fan of sparkling wine, finding it either too dry or too sweet, but this one using the Pinot Noir grape was an excellent balance of tartness with only the slightest hint of sweetness.
Following that comes the pumpkin flower with zucchini and cottage cheese course. (This is the starter that the Bencotto appetizer reminded me of. Upon examining my notes, there were more than a few differences between these two.) It was served warm with basil and oregano spices. It tasted a bit like a pastaless ravioli and the cottage cheese was more smooth than curdled. My mom and I were both moaning in pleasure over this dish and probably would have happily eaten ten more and passed on the future courses that were to come. Good thing we didn’t, though, because there was more tasty dishes yet to come.
While devouring the pumpkin flower dish, we were introduced to Goriska Brde, a white wine that has a very earthy taste to it and pairs well with the dish and the one that came up next, which was octopus served with – to my surprise – potatoes. The potatoes gave the octopus a hearty flavor while still providing a tangy lemon zing to my taste buds that was more reminiscent of a seafood dish.
Next up was the pasta course. The pasta was handmade and its shape wasn’t familiar to me, it looked like a mix between ravioli and tortellini. Inside, it was stuffed with cottage cheese (they seem to love cottage cheese in Slovenia!) and tossed with local mushrooms. It was very flavorful, yet mild – none of the ingredients overpowered each other. Mushrooms or cheese can sometimes be too intense in dishes, but neither of these were.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this course was the sauce it was mixed in. Upon asking the server, who spoke very good English, what the name of the sauce meant, he answered it simply translated to “green sauce.” I then asked if what that was like in an English word, as it wasn’t a pesto and I didn’t recognize the flavor. He cocked his head and looked puzzled. He went to get the manager who also spoke good English, but he didn’t know how to answer my question either.
“You don’t have it in America,” he said. In short, sometimes things overseas can’t be translated or comparable, so I can’t tell you how to find this sauce at home, but I can tell you it was very good. Staying true to the rest of the dish, it was mild with a sweet tang that complemented the other ingredients of the pasta dish without overwhelming them.
The culminating course was a sea bass served on a bed of spinach. Like every other course, it was perfectly cooked and spiced in a way to bring out the flavors of the fish without overpowering it.
Soon it was time for dessert. To prep us for the dessert course, we were poured a sweet cuvee from a small producer in Slovenia. As the server poured it into our glasses, he stressed the small producer aspect, saying this was very important as it meant higher quality.
As we sipped the refreshingly sweet cuvee, two bowls of melon sorbet were placed in front of us. The sorbet was handmade in Gostilna na Gradu’s kitchen and was the perfect end to what was a delightfully flavorful and fulfilling, yet light meal. After weeks of hearty multi-course dinners across Eastern Europe, it was a delight to be done with a meal and feel pleasantly full instead of like if I ate one more bite, my stomach may very well explode.
Though I could have perhaps fit in one more of those pumpkin flower cottage cheese wraps.