Bratislava is a popular stag-do destination, famous for its cheap booze and party atmosphere. While the allure of strip bars and gaggles of drunk British males is debatable, bargainous beer and the attraction of an entirely new country is not. Looking for a change of scenery, Bratislava seemed like the perfect destination for a weekend away with my mum and sister.
We arrived in the city shortly after lunch and headed off in search of a menu del día, Slovak style. Following a Lonely Planet recommendation we tracked down Gastro u Jakuba in the city centre for a spot of lunch.
A little rusty on our Slovak, it was a challenge to work out what was on offer. While one woman enthusiastically shouted ‘chicken!’ while pointing at each dish, we were able to decipher the difference between pork meatballs, beef stew, sausages and roast chicken. The overall conclusion? Slovak food is big on meat, and seemingly little else.
While my mum opted for the huge pork meatball, my sister was less enthused with her veggie dish, a sort-of vegetable risotto in which the rice had condensed into one large starchy mass. Understanding that any hopes of great veggie mains where perhaps better pushed aside, she was able to eat the filling and flavorsome caraway spiced potato soup, which came included in the lunch.
The pork meatball was like a large chunk of meatloaf, sauteed with vegetables and served with some incomprehensibly buttery and soft potatoes. Arriving hungry and on a rainy day, this was just the kind of meal we needed to perk us up and fuel us for some sight-seeing. Gastro U Jakuba is a good stop for anyone (vegetarians, you not so much) looking for a proper local lunch, for less than the price of a pint (£3.90 for the soup and meal).
From low-cost canteen lunches to fancy five o’clock high tea, we paid a visit to Cafe Meyer, one of Bratislava’s classiest cafes. Lavishly decorated with dark wood and red and gold colors, the cakes are beautiful creations with intricate chocolate decorations and fancy fondant icing.
A popular cake in Slovakia and its surroundings is the Esterházy torte; layers of nutty meringue sponge filled with a hazelnut buttercream. A proper British bake off technical challenge and super complex and fiddly to make, I would never dream of making this at home, but out in a cake shop it’s my first choice. The layers of nutty sponge added just a tiny bit of crunch to the cake, with the buttercream filling merging the whole thing together beautifully.
While Cafe Mayer earned top patisserie points, it was on a day trip to Vienna that we’d really find our cakey nirvana. Just an hour away from Bratislava by train, our first stop in the city was Cafe Central, where we would sample the height of Viennese patisserie.
Cafe central opened in 1876 and is steeped in history. The famous Viennese journalist Alfred Pogar once said “Central is not a coffeehouse like any other – it’s a philosophy”. A philosophy based on coffee and cakes? Now there’s a subject I’d like to study.
I choose a rhubarb and cream cake in which layers of flaky pastry served as construction shelves for lashings of patisserie creme streaked with rhubarb coulis. My mum chose the cheese strudel and my sister the pear cheesecake – together it was a veritable sweet creamy cheese fiesta.
After much sight-seeing and museum visiting, we stopped off at Naschmarkt, a food-cum-flea market where you can browse for second hand furniture and then dine on anything you fancy, from Schnitzels to salads and everything in between. There’s a clear middle eastern influence at this market, with the majority of food stalls offering up mezze style bites to nibble as you go.
For a modern middle eastern meal with a twist, in a trendy spot with seats and table service, head to Neni right on the main strip of the market. The restaurant was swarming with a mix of locals and tourists with an attractive menu made up mainly of small plates to share. We ate homemade pillowy pitta bread accompanied by silky smooth hummus (some of the best I have ever eaten), marinated artichoke and muhamarra, a red pepper dip I had tried previously using an Ottolenghi recipe. Neni’s muhamarra was made with red peppers grown in their very own farm, blended up with walnuts to create a sweet, smoky and nutty dip.
Back in Brat for dinner, it felt time to try some more typically Slovak food. Following the number 2 top rated restaurant in Bratislava we chose to go to Zeleny Rodrigez, which despite sounding like some kind of Slovak-Spanish hybrid, turned out to be a very nice restaurant serving modern Slovakian meals (some of which even turned out to be vegetarian, hurrah!).
While my mum kind of copped out of the Slovakian dining and just went for the steak, I chose a typical dish – beef with sautéed paprika vegetables served in a potato pancake. I liked it; the beef had a soft texture due to its slow cooking, and although the pancake was a nice accompaniment after having been sat on top of the stew for some time it disintegrated into a sludge, which was less delicious.
My sister’s vegetarian dish was essentially made of up pasta, cream and cheese; sheep’s cheese dumplings topped with a creamy dill sauce. The sweet licorice flavor of the dill complimented the salty sheep’s cheese very well, and it was this combo of sweet and savory that added depth to what could potentially have been an overly rich dish.
I’ve not written about how cheap the beer was in order to swerve the conclusion that all we did was drink beer for three days, but…it really is very, very cheap. The craft beer scene is gaining popularity, with a couple of really cool breweries in the city centre.
Bratislava is a long way from winning any culinary capital awards, but I enjoyed everything I tried during my time there. The old city centre is filled with beautiful buildings and it makes for a lovely weekend away, while the cities proximity to Vienna makes it a great base for exploring into Austria, where perhaps for a keen sight-seer there is a little more on offer. In short, as mini-breaks go, don’t come to Bratislava expecting the buzz of Berlin or museums and art galleries of New York. But do visit, enjoy the relaxed vibe all around the city, eat a lot of meat, get drunk on one pound pints and tick another country off your bucket list.