MY OWN CHOICE: EATERIES THAT STAND THE TEST OF TIME DESERVE FAITHFULNESS

by Ivan Garelov

Ivan Garelov's favourite places to eat

Ivan Garelov

Restaurants are like women: I remain loyal to them unless they start cheating on me. There have been but a few restaurants that have. My first impressions may be excellent and I begin going there regularly, but after they catch on and have enough patrons, they change. The food is prepared with less and less care, portions shrink, waiters become either too offhand or too lazy. However, my love for the eateries I'm going to tell you about has stood the test of time, sometimes for decades.

The Grozd (Bunch of Grapes) restaurant has been standing for dozens of years in the song-honoured Ruski Boulevard (at No. 21; phone: 944 3915). With time, it has undergone changes. From a classic pub, the haunt of poets, artists and students who fl ocked to enjoy its fresh green salad, grape rakiya and grilled lamb, it has become a refined and cosy restaurant. Besides screen stars from the nearby National Television headquarters, you can see a number of familiar faces from the world of politics, as well as the less-known mugs of captains of industry. The cuisine is always good, the selection of wines excellent and the service classy and refined. There is a separate list of vegetable dishes, which during Lent becomes the main menu.

When in Varna, I always rush to Penka Mikhova's restaurant Paraklisa (The Chapel), as if for a long-awaited meeting with a dear friend (8 Ekzarh Yosif Street; phone: 052 639 735). So many famous people have expressed their admiration in its guest book that all I can add is that, in my view, Penka Mihova is to Bulgarian cuisine what Filip Kutev is to Bulgarian folklore. Having collected old recipes from across Bulgaria, this kindly woman creates dishes with such love that visitors feel not like customers, but dear guests with whom she shares her discoveries. The first few times I was there, I tried to taste everything, but after going through the salads and vegetable dishes, I had to stop because I was full. So the next time I began with the meat dishes straight away. And then there was the visit I devoted entirely to her desserts: bean cake, carrot sweets and similar dainties. Words fail me to describe Penka Mikhova's works of art. I've tried to persuade her to come to Sofia several times, I even found her a room for her restaurant, but she decided to stay in Varna. So I go there. Once I even took a plane - with the sole purpose of having dinner at Penka's.

Roadside restaurants are now familiar to the travelling Bulgarian. When I am driving to or from Greece, I always stop by the smoking gridirons in Gradeshtnitsa (no phone), the last village before or after the border, depending on which way you are travelling. They make the best grilled meat there: meatballs, kebapche, homemade sausages, fillet wrapped in intestines, and so on - all locally prepared. For garnish they add lyutenitsa with leeks, grilled peppers and succulent tomatoes. The bread is soft and tasty, like a homemade loaf ought to be. For perfect bliss, they offer their delicate homemade wine. It all began with a mere brazier by the road, but now they have cosy wooden diners. The food has remained unchanged, however, and so have the prices, it is as cheap as it would have been 20 years ago. Though these are ordinary roadside eateries, you will see Maybachs, Bentleys, and Mercedes stopping in front of them too. Many affl uent people, having spent a gastronomic weekend in Thessaloniki, show a marked preference for our native grill on their way back.

Another roadside establishment is the Turkish restaurant, Istanbul, on the motorway to Plovdiv, shortly before Ihtiman (phone: 0899 255 595). With its unassuming interior, it was built to cater for Turkish truck drivers. The food is, however, so tasty that well-informed Sofianites will gladly splash out on petrol and time to go there for lunch at the weekend. While arranging the skewered lamb, veal, chicken or mince over the charcoal fire in the modest room, the chef is also baking incredibly delicious bread in the wood-fired oven. Each loaf, about three feet long and sprinkled with sesame seeds, is baked fresh especially for you. You could hardly find better Turkish cuisine in Turkey itself and this is not just my opinion; the Turkish drivers eating at the next table will tell you the same.

If you continue on along the motorway, just before Plovdiv you will reach the exit for Pamporovo. One of my favourite places in this winter resort is Petyo Kavarov's eatery (you have to ask). It is situated in the hollow right where the so-called Women's Piste ends. There are two or three benches outside where tourists bask in the sun and, inside, there are a few tables. Dried sausages hang from the ceiling and a fire blazes in the red-hot stove. The company is the same every winter. There is the Dutchman who doesn't leave the pub all winter, he has been there for years on end. He sings Bulgarian songs and welcomes the patrons. You feel completely at home there and the food is homemade too: sausage, pickles, lyutenitsa, blueberry or wild strawberry jam. It's open all year round.

But let's get back to Sofia. The Russian Club Krim (Crimea) is the restaurant of my youth, my love and even my wedding party (17 Slavyanska Street; phone: 981 0666). Years ago, the pick of the artistic world made it their meeting place. The most beautiful girls would go there too. They walked slowly, very slowly down the stairs to the garden and we watched them eagerly, as though they were on the catwalk. The Russian Club has undergone many changes since then, but its menu still features Chicken Kiev, Moscow Cutlet, vodka and caviar. The unique atmosphere in the inner hall has been preserved. The people have changed, however, and you now come across entrepreneurs and politicians - though the beautiful models remain. But the new patrons do still reflect the spirit of the old Russian Club, the atmosphere remains artistic and bohemian, though they've made some more changes recently. I'll check them out soon, because the day when I'm going take my wife to the place where we got married, the Russian Club, is nigh.

My mouth is watering - it's time to finish. If you enjoyed this, you'll get more next time. Just like in my favourite eateries.

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