â€ś Address: Govinda's, ÂŽibertova 23, 1000 Ljubljana â€ž
While a vegetarian will never starve in Slovenia, neither will he or she come away thinking that the country has a great culinary tradition. There are a number of celebrated dishes that are Slovenian in origin but more generally the cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring countries and that means that there's a lot of meat going on.
When we first started visiting Slovenia my partner did not meat but he didn't struggle too much because he did eat fish and seafood which Slovenians love so you can always find a good fish restaurant or else at least one or two fish options on any restaurant menu. At that time if you didn't eat fish then you'd either have to cobble together a meal from side dishes and starters or resign yourself to eating cheese burek (a flaky pastry beloved of the Balkan countries) or a veggie pizza. You could manage for a couple of days but it would soon become really boring.
Govinda is quite unusual in Slovenia in that it is an entirely vegetarian restaurant; that fact that much of the food it serves is vaguely Indian makes it even more noteworthy. (I must point out, though, that even out in Maribor, Slovenia's second city, we now have a wholly vegetarian Indian restaurant). This uniqueness must account for the steady stream of customers into Govinda on the Saturday lunchtime we visited; I'm sorry to say that it can't be for the quality of the food.
We'd been meaning to visit Govinda for ages but various things kept getting in the way, not least the fact that it's not open in the evenings. It's not in the city centre but it's very easy to find. Walk to the end of Slovenska cesta, the main traffic street in town, so that the train and bus stations are across the road and just over to your right. Cross the road and turn left so you're walking away from the station and you'll pass a petrol station on your right. Just after that take a right onto a very busy road and keep walking past the enormous Union brewery. Govinda is on Zibertova which is the third street on the right. The restaurant is situated about 100 metres down this street and the faĂ§ade is an unmissable sunny yellow.
I find Govinda a bit confusing. A female staff member was wearing a beautiful sari and there were lots of colourful depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses on the walls but only a small proportion of the food is Indian. Although many Slovenians I know tell me they've eaten and enjoyed Indian food while in the UK, there are only two dedicated Indian restaurants in the whole country (plus Govinda and the now very expensive Ocarina in Bled, a restaurant that does a number of Indian dishes as well as Slovenian game specialities), and I would guess that the owner of Govinda knows that Ljubljana doesn't have enough people that would come out to eat meat free Indian food to justify only offering that type of cuisine. Still, you might be forgiven for thinking, on first appearances, that this is an Indian restaurant and for wondering, then, why the food is not very authentic.
Govinda is a self-service buffet. The dishes were labelled with vague descriptions (and those that are vegan are marked too) but I checked with the staff member on the till whether any of the dishes contained nuts. She spoke excellent English, reassuring me that none of the savoury dishes contained nuts, and explaining how the pricing structure works. There are 'tray plates' with separate little sections for different types of food, conventional plates and differently sized bowls. It seemed quite expensive given the choices available and as I would be able to sample neither puddings nor starters, we decided to share one full plate of food from the main course buffet section between us and the staff didn't appear to mind.
The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol but there was a machine for freshly squeezed orange juice, though neither of us could be bothered to faff around with it. There are two sinks where you can wash your hands and/or get drinking water and we were happy enough to do that. Little metal beakers were provided for this purpose and these kept the water cold even if they were a bit too small to be practical. Hot drinks are available and there are lots of different varieties of Yogi teas available.
Faced with the dilemma of what to choose from the buffet we found that most things were stew like concoctions with no stuffed items or well considered substantial vegetarian items like pies or tray baked dishes like moussaka. I insisted on trying the dahl which was rich and creamy but lacking in either heat or spiciness; what I did like about it, though, was that it had a good texture, with some of the lentils remaining whole which I really like. I might have been tempted by the broccoli and lemon dish but whether from being stuck on a warm buffet for a while or the broccoli being overcooked in the first place, ithad bled most of its original greennness and looked a bit limp.
We also tried a vegetable stew which was very tomato-ey and tangy. With hefty chunks of courgette in it the dish was best described as a slightly spicy ratatouille with vaguely Indian flavours. This was a rich and flavoursome dish but it really didn't work with the dahl. This is one of the issues I have with Govinda. It's all very well having a buffet if the flavours work well together but when the dishes are quite different you either have a mixture of jarring tastes on your plate, or else you have to pick one item and stick with it. There is an implicit idea here that any vegetable dishes work together but that's not a notion I share. I know 'fusion' buffets are cropping up all over the UK but in their defence there is more to choose from, and there's not enough variety at Govinda to make it a true 'buffet'.
We filled up on boiled basmati rice which was notable only in the sense that there was nothing to say about it, and chapattis which had, whilst sitting on the buffet, become very, very dry, even when you dipped them into the sauces on the plate. We also spooned on a ladleful full of what was described as a spicy curry sauce but this proved only to fleetingly nudge the tastebuds.
Although people can be seen buying vegetables in supermarkets and markets and most people witha garden grow something edible, vegetables don't crop up much on the menu in Slovenian restaurants other than in salads and you will always be asked if you want a salad when you order a main course. All set lunches include a salad and the content of said salad is always seasonal. Perhaps because of the time we were dining there (after 2.00pm) there wasn't much available on the salad bar and we reluctantly filled a good part of our bowl what was meant (I think) to be a Greek salad. Usually I'd have Greek salad and stick to that but as there wasn't enough to fill the bowl we added some other items though they really were getting to the end of the containers and there appeared to be no prospect of a refill.
We didn't have a dessert but the selection appeared to consist of small chunks of typically creamy, nut-filled Slovenian specialities like potica and gibnica and nothing that appeared remotely Indian.
I do like the idea of Govinda's but it's a shame that they food isn't more imaginative. I found it mostly 'sloppy' as far as the main courses were concerned but that is perhaps the stuff that can best stand being kept warm (and only just warm I hasten to add) on a buffet counter. I'd also like to see more Indian dishes on the menu and for them to taste a bit more authentic. There are plenty of ex-pats and foreign students in Slovenia now that would love to be able to get decent veggie curries and I think Govinda is missing that market.
I don't know why the restaurant closes at 7.00pm. Maybe they make enough money during the day and don't need to open in the evening. I would love to see Govinda open in the evening, even if just at weekends, and for them to have an a la carte menu at that time.
At Euro7 for a small main course plate and Euro2 for a small salad bowl this place won't break the bank but I do feel there should be more choice. If you're a vegetarian looking for something more than a cheese burek then I would recommend a visit to Govinda but don't expect really great things; Govinda is OK but could do so much better.
Note - Govinda is closed on Sundays