On our last night in Sofia, Nick and I had two restaurants picked out, in case of summer closures or difficulty with reservations. One was a traditional Bulgarian place, the other was what I would call “New Bulgarian,” (like New American, but with a different set of traditions to build on and different local foodstuffs to choose from). To be honest, I was leaning toward the latter. Since we weren’t about to attempt a phone call in Bulgarian (a phrasebook only gets you so far), we brought our list down to the lobby of our hotel and asked the woman at the desk if she could make reservations for us, which she was more than happy to do. When she saw the first place on the list (Pod Lipite – the traditional Bulgarian one), her face lit up. “This is a Bulgarian place!” She exclaimed, excited and a little surprised. We took that as a good sign, so when she was able to get us reservations, we eagerly accepted.
Pod Lipite, it turns out, is something of an institution in Sofia. Founded in the 1920′s, it used to be a haunt for the city’s journalists and writers. These days it plays host to Bulgarians young and old, usually when they have something to celebrate.
(A short aside – as I write this, I’ve got a batch of rhubarb-Reine Claude jam going, so I’ve been getting up every couple of minutes to stir it and check the temperature. Now it’s done, but I find those jars of jam cooling on the counter very distracting. My mouth is watering just imagining how good it’s going to be on buttered pain de céréales in the morning, baked into a jam tart, stirred into yogurt, or, hell, spooned over ice cream. Of course we don’t have any ice cream at the moment, and there’s no room in the freezer anyway, or you know what I’d be eating right now. But back to Bulgaria…)
That helps. We started out by ordering a bottle of Bulgarian rosé, which we definitely preferred to the red. The table was set with an array of spices, we assumed for both bread-dipping and seasoning purposes.
But unlike Manastirska Magernitsa, the bread wasn’t brought out immediately. We ordered two servings of bread, and out this came:
Warm and focaccia-like, the bread was great on its own. We knew we would be eating well that night, so we tried not to fill up on it. Soon our appetizers arrived. I got my long sought-after sarmi, the Bulgarian version of dolmas. My pictures didn’t come out, but they looked like dolmas. They were served warm, which was new to me, with a creamy yogurt sauce. I devoured them. Nick couldn’t help but to order the stuffed peppers.
Unlike the last batch of peppers, these were not battered and fried. They were still tasty, but it was a little disappointing.
For the main course, I got another stewed dish, this time with chicken, peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms. It was quite good, with a surprising sweet-and-sour aspect to the sauce. Again, my pictures were too dark. The light must have been better where Nick was sitting. (Or maybe he’s a better photographer. Ok, he is. No maybe about it.)
The mixed grill, as you can see, was enormous. Pork chops, curled sausage, kyufteta, and another ground meat concoction were flanked by a heap of beans and slices of fresh tomato and cucumber. The beans were a little dry, but that was easily remedied by a drizzle of olive oil from the bottle on the table. (Oil and vinegar are used in Bulgaria the way ketchup and mustard are used in the States.) The tomatoes and cucumbers provided a necessary foil to all the rich meat. Our favorite was probably the curly sausage, but it was all deliciously smoky and charred from the grill – not something we get every day in France!
Naturally, we ate way too much to even consider dessert. Still, it was a fitting wrap-up for our final night in Bulgaria.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.