“ Address: Vodnikov Trg 5 „
In the almost nine years I have been visiting Ljubljana, the restaurant scene of Slovenia's capital city has changed immensely and even amidst the economic woes, which have hit Slovenia worse than many of its neighbours, new restaurants - some of them at the top end of the scale - have continued to open with some frequency.
'Valentin' was recommended to us by an ex-pat living in the city; we didn't decide to go there until about 9.00pm on a Saturday night at the beginning of February, at which time Ljubljana was being hit by heavy snow, the watery kind that settles as slush and finds a way into your boots no matter how well you think you'd Scotchguard-ed them. An hour before I'd Googled the name and found out that bookings are recommended for evening dining at weekends but we decided to take a chance anyway thinking that the terrible weather might have put people off.
The restaurant is named after Valentin Vodnik, the Slovene poet and priest who is commemorated with a statue close to the restauarant on the square that also bears his name (Vodnikov trg). The restaurant is situated just opposite the central market, that wonderful colonnaded Plecnik designed building that stands on the southern bank of the Ljubljanica, just beside the Triple Bridge, the very heart of the city. There's a side door that leads to the restaurant, but we entered through the front door which takes you first through a fresh fish shop and delicatessen, and then into the restaurant proper.
Our first impression of the interior was very positive; it's a pleasing mixture of old and new with old brick vaulting that appears to have been sand blasted to clean it up, and low hanging copper lamps that give a nautical feel to the place. An old bread oven built into the bricks (I think genuinely old) has either been retained, or else brought in, though I'm not sure whether it's still used today. A few well chosen contemporary prints add to the fishy theme without losing another of the contemporary stylishness.
Only a few tables were occupied so we were able to immediately install ourselves at an empty one without waiting for the waiter to come to attend to us. The waiter was busy at another table but acknowledged us and came over as soon as he was done. In Slovenia waiting staff work incredibly hard: only the very biggest, busiest places have more than one member of waiting staff and you will absolutely never see a waiter or waitress twiddling his or her thumbs. Ours was charming, a young Serbian moved to Slovenia who was delighted to hear how much we loved his home city, Belgrade.
I was a little shocked by the prices at first; you can expect to pay a premium in any capital city but I was still surprised how much some of these dishes were. However, the menu is arranged in a rather incoherent way and a closer look revealed that the prices range from very reasonable to pretty hefty. Valentin is a specialist fish restaurant, not a restaurant that focuses on fish but offers a few non-fish dishes; the menu includes simply cooked fillets of fish and whole fish, through soups and stews and salads, to shellfish of all shapes and sizes.
We skipped starters due to the lateness of the hour and ordered only mains. A fish stew with polenta for me and fillet of sea bream with roasted potatoes for Himself. At less than Euro10 for my dish I was a little concerned that it might be a small portion but my fears proved unfounded; this delicious hearty stew came in a deep bowl and had two slices of rich buttery polenta sitting on top of it. All the fish and sea food was beautifully cooked; there was salmon fillet, a couple of kinds of white fish, crevettes, squid and mussels in their shells. It was very like a Provencal bouillabaisse with the tomatoes and garlic, but without that aniseed hint that comes from the addition of pastis to the French dish. I couldn't fault this dish in any way.
The sea bream was served very simply which was ideal because it was such a lovely piece of fish it really didn't need any enhancement. There were three decent sized fillets of fish and the firm flesh had been cooked perfectly so that it was still moist but not underdone. My only issue with this dish was that the fillet could have been trimmed a little better to remove a few small but tough little bones around the edges. The roasted potatoes were golden with crispy edges but fluffy inside. I took a few to soak up the sauce of my stew and they were just the thing to absorb the rich flavour of the stew. A small dish of freshly made parsely and garlic salsa came with the fish. I strongly suggest that couples make sure they both eat some of this as it tends to be very heavy on the garlic.
By the time we'd finished eating we were the only diners left in the restaurant so we skipped dessert and coffee but the waiter said we need not hurry to leave. We were able to leisurely drain the bottle of excellent Croatian malvazija we'd chosen to go with our meal. Valentin has a varied little wine list that includes some excellent sparkling Slovenian wines, but I'm a fan of malvazija and will just as happily order a Croatian malvazija as a Slovenian one.
Two mains and a bottle of excellent wine came in at exactly Euro40 which I think is reasonable considering that this is quality dining in a capital city. Assuming that all of your party like fish or seafood, Valentin would be a great venue for a special occasion but a special lunchtime menu also makes it perfect for a bargain lunch.
Vodnikov Trg 5
Opening hours: 10:00-22:00, Sun 12:00-22:00