One Last Bulgaria Post

19 08 2008

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…)

Bulgarian Rosé at Pod Lipite

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.

Salt and pepper are for wimps.

But unlike Manastirska Magernitsa, the bread wasn’t brought out immediately.  We ordered two servings of bread, and out this came:

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Manastirska Magernitsa

14 08 2008

Upon arrival at our hotel, we immediately asked the guy at the front desk where to go for a good, traditional Bulgarian meal.  He recommended two places and showed us where they were on a map.  One of these, just down the street from the hotel, was noted as being particularly good.  He started to write the name of it and gave up about halfway through, telling us “It doesn’t matter what the name is.”  And he was kind of right, as it turned out to be the only restaurant (other than the rather characterless one attached to the Hotel Diter next door) on the block.  But mainly, I think he didn’t feel like saying or writing the name, which is the title of this post.  It’s a mouthful.  “Manastirska Magernitsa” translates to “The Monastery Kitchen,” and the place is known for its in-depth coverage of obscure Bulgarian dishes.

When we showed up the next evening, sans reservation, we nearly didn’t get seated.  Luckily for us, there was a last-minute cancellation and we got a great table on the patio.  The restaurant was absolutely charming, and the patio was a prime location with its candlelight and lush foliage adding to the bucolic coziness.  We were handed massive menus – seriously, these things had at least 50 pages – and almost immediately we were greeted by a server bearing a wooden stand with bread and spices.

Bread and spices

The bread was soft and airy, not unlike challah, and we dipped it in the salt-spice mixture in the top level of the stand.  The waiter explained that this was the traditional way to begin a Bulgarian meal.  Most importantly, it gave us the quick energy we needed to get through the menu.

Nick quickly found a dish he’d been looking for: a sort of Bulgarian chile relleno, if you will.

Cheese-stuffed peppers, deep fried

Chushki byurek, as they call in in those parts, consists of a roasted pepper stuffed with the ever-present sireneh cheese, battered and deep fried.  It was served with a garlicky yogurt sauce and was every bit as delicious as you might imagine.  We also got a salad, piled high with fresh vegetables, olives, and cured meats.  Yum.

When offered the wine list, we deferred to the waiter.  We explained that we wanted to try some Bulgarian wine, but that we didn’t know much about it and would really appreciate his opinion.  He suggested a couple of different red wines, and we ended up selecting a bottle of the “reserve.”  It cost a little more than we expected, but could by no means be considered expensive.

You know you are in Bulgaria when the wine has an icon on it!

The bottle came out, complete with religious icon, and I was offered a taste.  It wasn’t bad, but I guess living in France is starting to spoil me.

Choosing our main courses was a little more difficult. 

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A Traditional Bulgarian Lunch

13 08 2008

Or, to be more specific, a lunch composed of traditional Bulgarian dishes.  But let’s not get caught up in semantics.  That first morning, after ogling beers and changing money, Nick and I took a walk up Boulevard Vitosha, Sofia’s most upscale shopping street.  (I was disappointed that things weren’t ridiculously cheap, but I did get a cool pair of Diefel [sic] sunglasses, upside-down logo and all.)  We wandered through the older part of town, stopping in a couple of churches along the way.  The highlight of the morning was definitely the St. George Rotunda.

Roman ruins, Rotunda, posh hotel...

Originally built in the 4th century, this is the oldest building in Sofia.  Inside the Rotunda (which has been, over the course of history, a church, a mosque, and a museum, among other things) you can see three layers of frescoes.  The Roman ruins surrounding it date from the 2nd century.  Around this historic site sits a large, modern building housing a fancy hotel and the Presidency.  Bulgaria seems to be very industrious that way.  They manage to preserve their history while at the same time progressing with the modern world.  In the corner of this courtyard (behind the tree in the photo) there is a cozy little cafe where Nick and I spent one afternoon writing postcards.  Outside the Presidency, there are two guards who do a ritual march every hour, and across the square there’s a guy pontificating over the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries.”  All day long.  (Nick pointed out that no moderate political group has ever adopted that song as their theme.)

Moving on, andtrying to get away from the loudspeakers, we found ourselves walking through a park.  We came out in front of the National Theater.  By this time we were getting pretty hungry, so when we saw a shady patio and a sign that said “PECTOPAHT” (that’s what “restaurant” looks like in Cyrillic), we walked right in.  This was the first of several restaurants we visited that had no menu in English.  Feeling like children learning to read, we managed to decipher “water,” “beer,” and “salads,” as well as a couple of traditional dishes that were listed in our phrasebook.  And we were even successful in communicating our desires to the waitress!  (Of course, she spoke some English, which made it easier.)

Bulgarian mineral water

First we got a couple of large, unpronounceable beers and a bottle of mineral water.  Bulgaria is quite mountainous and is full of natural springs, so mineral water is as popular there as it is in France.  And it’s good, too.  Better than most French waters (except Volvic) in my opinion.  Soon our first courses arrived.  I had a bowl of TAPATOP (tarator), a chilled soup made of yogurt, cucumber, and dill.

One of the only ways I will eat cucumber.

It was very refreshing in the afternoon heat.  Like a thin tzatziki, I believe this dish is made in many countries around the Mediterranean Sea.  This one, too:

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A Few Little Bites…

12 08 2008

…to whet your appetite.

Yes, those really are 2 liter bottles of beer.

On our very first morning in Sofia, Nick and I walked out to the main road to find a bank where we could change our money.  But first we ran into a cooler, standing on the sidewalk, filled with cold beer.  I think we both did a double take – is that 2 LITERS of beer for 3 leva?  (A lev is worth 51 euro cents, or about 75-80 US cents.  Do the math.)  We knew we would be returning later when we required refreshment.

* * *

And what goes better with beer than pizza?

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