EXOTIC SOFIA

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Cuisines of all corners of the world are now present in the Bulgarian capital

Two Chinese restaurants, an authentic Italian pizzeria, a fine dine French restaurant, a Turkish bakery and an Indian establishement: these are only the first non-Bulgarian food places around the Vagabond offices that pop in mind, and we don't even include the universe of Middle Eastern places in the nearby Ladies' Market area.

Until not that long ago, eating out in Sofia was a pretty monotonous affair. The variety of establishments counted the ubiquitous Bulgarian traditional cuisine restaurants and taverns, a bunch of classy and expensive restaurants, and the pizza oriented chains far from the Italian original. There was the odd Chinese, Armenian, Russian restaurant, plus several remains from the olden times, like the Czechoslovakian[sic] Club. When a Serbian grilled meat place opened in the 1990s, it was a sensation. And that was it.

Sofia's restaurant scene, however, is rapidly changing. Boosted by increasingly mobile inhabitants who travel abroad and fall in love with foreign cuisine, and by an influx of foreigners opening dining establishments in the city, the variety of food styles and traditions in Sofia is expanding.

These new dishes, tastes and aromas come from all over the world. The authentic Italian cuisine is all the craze. Greek and Turkish restaruants are big, too, and after the initial hype was tamed, sushi places are now a fixture in the restaurant scene. Sofia is not short on French and German food places. Serbian grill is everywhere in the centre, and the area around the Ladies Market, with its thick immigrant population, is heaven for lovers of Middle Eastern food, with small family run eateries and restaurants serving Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese cuisine. Indian and Pakistani food have also taken root, and gourmet American burgers are enjoying popularity. More exotic culinary traditions include Thai, Nepalese and Peruvian kitchen.

Many of these places have loyal clients, others are new and are still building up their following. What unites them is the eagerness to prepare and serve the most authentic cuisine possible, widening the horizons of the Sofia's culinary scene.

DIE ALTE LAMPE: German food, Bulgarian ease

Draft beer, wonderful sausages and the best pretzels in Bulgaria: the tastes and aromas of genuine German food combine impeccably with the Bulgarian ease in Die Alte Lampe Bierhalle (Sofia, 2 Kotel St, near South Park, phones: 02 964 0386, 0885 63 5323; www.fenerite.com). The menu is packed with dishes to ruin your diet and boost your mood: from green salad with Roquefort cheese, apples and blueberry sauce to starters like the traditional Bavarian obatzta-cheese spread served with hot pretzel; and from mains like the emblematic roasted pork knuckle with Bavarian sauerkraut, and German goulash, to tempting desserts like apple strudel. The food tastes like home cooked, and this is hardly a coincidence – the chef has specialised in Germany, and one of the owners, a German, has brought all his family's tried and tested recipes on Bulgarian soil. Prosit!

TALENTS RESTAURANT: Young ambition, top results

When you are looking for something more than marvellous food, Talents Restaurant (Sofia, 9 Petar Beron Str, next to NDK, phone: 02 421 9068, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., www.restauranttalents.bg) is the place for you. The only restaurant in Eastern Europe staffed by students in culinary arts is a brave travel in the land of excellent taste and an opportunity to help future chefs to refine their skills. Since the Talents opening, over 100 students of the HRC Culinary Academy from 16 countries have prepared in its kitchen classical and innovative dishes from a constantly refreshed menu, under the guidance of the chef instructors Robin Villarreal, Georgi Partenov and Henri Donneaux. For even more interesting experience, you can watch in real time how the students create their culinary masterpieces.

LEBED RESTAURANT: Tasty, romantic, authentic
The pristine waters of the Pancharevsko Lake, the romantic garden and the impeccable, Feng shui interior make Lebed Restaurant (Sofia, Pancharevo, 241 Samokovsko Shose St, phone: +359 2 992 1111, www.restaurantlebed.com) one of the favoured places for the Sofia elite and those for whom great food is always important. The restaurant doesn't focus on a single culinary tradition - it has devoted itself to European and Mediterranean food, without forgetting the Bulgarian classics. Lebed Restaurant is one of the places to go for a variety of fresh fish and sea food which ranges from salmon with fettuccine and stuffed bass to grilled octopus and turbot. The foie gras with blueberry sauce and the grilled Ribler cheese are a nod to the French cuisine, and the appetisers include suggestions like classic Spanish sausages like Salchichón and Chorizo.

KOHINOOR: To taste India
Exotic and romantic, the Indian restaurant with garden Kohinoor (7 Knyaz Boris I St, phone: 088 253 2541; www.kohinoor.bg) awaits you in the Sofia centre. The rich menu contains the best of the diverse cuisine of India from the salads and soups to the diverse tandoori and curry dishes, to the classical desserts as kulfi ice cream and Indian halva. Vegetarians are more than welcome – the variety of meat-free dishes is impressive.

PIZZARELLA: More than a pizzeria
When you crave for an excellent pizza, book a table at Pizzarela Diner (1 Bulgaria Sq, NDK, opposite the Lumiere Cinema and BTV, phone: 0888 66 04 04; www.pizzarela.bg). On the menu you will find thick American style pizzas and thin crust Italian style, plus a selection of the best of the North-American cuisine such as original American beef burgers and beef steaks. If you are on a diet, then go for the wide selection of salads available.

BOOM! BURGER: Where burgers are gourmet
Genuine American burgers are guilty pleasure, but not in Boom! Burgers (Sofia, 15 Karnigradska St, www.facebook.com/BoomBurgersAndSteaks, www.boomburgers.com). Dedicated to this great American staple, Boom! Burgers have taken it to a next, gourmet level, with burgers of the finest Prime Irish Beef, extra marbled and deliciously mature, prepared in the right way. Everything in Boom! Burgers is prepared of fresh ingredients, from the Classic Burger and the BBQ Ribs Burger to the Boomsalad, the french fries and the cheesecake. If you are concerned for your diet, chose the Skinny Burger, where instead of bun you are served green salad. The drinks include Trappist beer and White Stork craft beer.

COCO CAFE: True French taste
French sweets and pastries are universally loved, but difficult for proper recreation outside their country of origin – but when you sit at a table in the elegant Coco Cafe (58 Bigla St, www.cococafe.eu), you will quickly forget that you are in Sofia. The café offers to the connoisseurs of quality food a genuine experience of French taste and mood – fine exquisite sweets and cakes, croissants and ice cream prepared after French recipes with very little sugar, and from natural and quality ingredients. All of this is accompanied by the wonderful Richard coffee and a variety of excellent cocktails, alcoholic and healthy drinks.

PASTORANT: Where pasta is a passion
If well made pasta is something you are particular about, you may have already discovered Pastorant (16 Tsar Asen St, phone 981 4482; www.pastorant.eu). The peaceful romantic ambiance of the Italian restaurant, which is situated in a tucked away street in central Sofia, matches the refined dishes with delicate spices and the well-conceived wine list. In summer, the restaurant has also a great garden.

An easy way to have some oversight at the variety of ethnic cusine in Sofia, is to grab the culinary map of Sofia made by Multi Kulti Collective, or visit www.multikulti.bg.

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