MY OWN CHOICE: PASSION FOOD

by Koos Jan Schouten; photography by Dragomir Ushev, Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria is at its very best with no websites, no reservations, you just show up

When I was asked to write about my 10 favourite restaurants I felt a little uneasy. The main reason was that I would much rather have written a column about how the media in Bulgaria gets bullied by politicians on all levels, as we have just experienced with the sacking of one of Bulgaria's most respected and capable journalists, Ivo Indzhev, by Rupert Murdoch's bTV. Bulgaria's current president, the reformed former communist Georgi Parvanov put pressure on the management of the private TV channel to fire Ivo Indzhev, for having the nerve to ask questions about his financial affairs.

Besides this, I also had some reservations since lately I seem to be eating too much junk food and could easily put McDonalds, Pizza Ugo and KFC in my top 10. Anyway, here we go.

At the very top of my list is brunch at the Hilton on Sunday, price 42 leva (including unlimited orange juice and champagne). This buffet is second to none in this town or, for that matter, in most European cities. Since smokers are a minority in the Seasons Restaurant you will find that the main floor is reserved for sweet smelling people and the stinkies get put in a segregated area. Executive Chef Andre Tokev is never short of culinary surprises and offers many gourmet temptations (www.hilton.bg; phone: 933 5000).

The much smaller Hotel Niky, located at 16 Neofi t Rilski Street, has a great beer-garden-style grill restaurant in its back garden. The garden is covered and well heated. My favourite dish is the Mixed Sach for two people which costs 18 leva. The menu is enormous and so is the beer and wine list. (www.hotel-niky.com; phone: 851 1915).

Since I am a worshipper of the Indian god of Curry, I have to mention the Taj Mahal located at 11, August 11 Street. The food and service are always interesting, but never boring or disappointing - you never know what to expect. My friend Joost came up with a great idea when eating at the Taj; he orders twice as much as he really wants and takes a doggy bag for the fridge at home. Okay, I'll admit that I do the same (www.zavedenia.gbg.bg; phone: 987 3632).

Next is Annette, the relatively new Moroccan restaurant at 27 Angel Kanchev St. I cannot describe this place any better than they do on their website: "Here you can relax on the soft pillows, and savour masterfully prepared authentic Moroccan cuisine. The music awakens in you the passion for new experiences, and the soft and warm light of hundreds of candles, which like stars teasingly twinkle all around you takes you to a miraculous world. Try the specialties of a mysterious land in the company of select wines from around the world. Don't forget our deserts and the Moroccan tea, which will awaken your senses. Make the experience whole by smoking a waterpipe, either by yourself, or together with friends (www.annette.bg; phone: 980 4098).

On behalf of my lovely wife Lilly I will also mention the Sushi Bar at 18 Denkoglu Street. I like this modern style Japanese restaurant because all the important women in my life go crazy over the food. I like sushi once in a while, but actually prefer the cooked meals which are also very good. I should also mention that their service is excellent. (phone: 981 8442).

Then there is the Tseluvkata (The Kiss) at 15 Hristo Botev Boulevard. In the summer it is my local late breakfast/lunch hangout. The service is excellent, the food is more than ok and the crowd is interesting.

The place I frequent most is JJ Murphy's, the Irish Pub at 6 Karnigradska Street. The Murphy's slogan is "Where Good Friends Meet". The food and the staff are excellent, the crowd is the best in town and sometimes there is great music on Friday nights. Murphy's celebrates all possible occasions from Christmas to Halloween. A large screen plus three support TVs show all football, rugby, NFL, F1 and golf events. When the garden is closed non-smokers should bring a gasmask as the law on smoking in public places is totally ignored. As a non-smoker I have got used to this peculiarity while still hoping that the future will be brighter (www.jjmurphys.net; phone: 980 2870)

It would be bad of me not to mention the other Irish place, Flanagan's Pub at the Radisson Hotel. I love the terrace in summer, but the interior lacks the cosiness required for a real Irish pub. The food is usually excellent and the service efficient (www.sofia.radissonsas.com; phone: 933 4334).

A few months ago we went to Bansko for a romantic building-site weekend. As soon as we left the car we put on our hard hats and bright yellow emergency jackets. While Bansko's famous old town has been invaded by renovators, all other areas as far as the eye could see were truly conquered by builders. Diggers and bulldozers ruled the roads. Luckily, we had booked ourselves into the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena, where we had a wonderful stay. What made the stay even more special was their excellent Italian restaurant. Come Prima is as good as any you can find on any via in Bella Italia! The head chef Holger Lang has created a world class menu suitable for the most demanding palates (www.kempinski-bansko.com; phone: 0749 88888).

Last but by no means least, there is a tiny harbour-front restaurant we discovered a few years ago in the northeast of Bulgaria on the Black Sea coast north of Kavarna. The Dalboka restaurant offers seafood and mussels from the nearby mussel farm, which you can see from the shore. The restaurant is located on the sea shore between Kavarna and the small village of Balgarevo. We have been there many times to feast on the delicious mussels and other fi sh dishes they serve there. Bulgarian blue mussels are extremely tasty, especially when cultivated in the crystal clear waters of Dalboka. Dalboka means deep in Bulgarian and within a few hundred metres of the shore the water reaches a depth of more than a hundred metres. Just like the food, the sunsets are amazing. Please note that there are two restaurants to choose from after you have descended the steep road to the harbour. Dalboka is the one on the right. People drive from as far as Albena, Golden Sands and even Varna to enjoy a meal at this special place.

Bulgaria at its very best; no website, no reservations, just show up.

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