MY OWN CHOICE: FOOD & DRINK IN SOFIA & BEYOND

by Michael Geier*

A German palate finds innumerable challenges across a country of non-dietarians

Michael Geier

Diplomats' culinary discoveries are often restricted by the profession. Either I'm the host – and my Bulgarian and foreign guests expect to be taken to grand hotels or to a rather limited selection of restaurants – or I'm invited and the same applies to me. Consequently, magical opportunities to discover the joys of Bulgarian scenery and food arise only during free time. This is particularly frustrating as my hobby is cookery and I'm a member of two societies – Slow Food and Chaîne des Rôtisseurs – which should motivate me to explore Bulgaria's culinary world more seriously.

I'm sure you'll forgive me if I point out that both a German and a German-Bulgarian chef are currently providing excellent food as well as stimulating conversation about recipes and wine. They are Daniel Kempf, from Kempinski's in Bansko (96 Pirin St, phone: 749 88888), who started out as a ship's cook in the East German People's Navy; and André Tokev from the Sofia Hilton's Four Seasons restaurant (1 Bulgaria St, phone: 933 5000), whose mother is German and who learned his trade where the Rhine and the Mosel meet in Koblenz. I'd also like to mention another of my country's attractions – the Bitburger (20 Stefan Karadzha St, phone: 981 9665), where excellent beer is served with equally tasty sausages. Try it also at Carnival time – it's a place to test your German! Finally, Checkpoint Charlie (12 Ivan Vazov St, phone: 988 0370) has a definite German flavour as well as a fine Bulgarian kitchen – especially at lunchtime.

We've now lived for a year at the highly touted Apartment House Bulgaria. After so many visits to its Bistro (16 Nevestina Skala, Borovo, phone: 818 4141) we know the menu by heart. But the cook provides regular weekly and seasonal specials with new additions, impeccably prepared and served by the smiling and attentive staff. My favourite “formal” choices are Balgari, or The Bulgarians (71 Knyaz Dondukov, phone: 843 5419), particularly lovely now with the summer garden; Krim (17 Slavyanska St, phone: 988 6950); Uno Enoteca (45 Vasil Levski St, phone: 981 4372); and the restaurant in the Crystal Palace Hotel (14 Shipka St, phone: 948 9499). Across the road from the German Embassy is Monterey (18 Curie St, phone: 971 2378) – noteworthy for its fish specialties. Near there is the elegant Moderato (6 Atanas Dalchev St, phone: 970 0111). Since we are close to the embassy and not strictly confined to Bulgarian food, we try to eat at the Korean House (34 Elemag St, phone: 963 0365). We lived in Seoul for three years and at this restaurant you'll often find you're the only European guest.

When German visitors come in search of “authentic Bulgaria,” we take them to Vodenitsata (Vitosha Park, Dragalevtsi, phone: 9671058). Purists may doubt both the authenticity of the kitchen and the shows, but how would foreigners know? The setting is perfect and the wine list impressive. With more intimate friends, we like to go to Beyond the Alley, Behind the Cupboard (31 Budapest St, phone: 980 9067). On lonely weekends in the city – the children are at university and the nest is empty – we enjoy lunch at the Cactus or Club Lavazza (13 Vitosha St, phone: 987 3433). Kibea (2a Valkovich St, phone: 980 3067) soothes not only your appetite, but also your guilty conscience by serving health food. Another delightful cosy evening place is The Pizza Twins, close to our hotel, but not easy to find among the Plattenbauten (prefab blocks) (8 Razgrad St, phone: 958 2744, 8583690).

Stepping out of the city is more difficult. A pleasant surprise is easy to get to: Le Chef, on the right hand side of the road after leaving Pancharevo on the way to Samokov. Farther afield, we recommend Dyado Liben in Koprivshtitsa (8 Dyado Liben St, phone: 7184 26 37) where we were served by two cheerful elderly gentlemen. We enjoyed several evenings last summer with our children in the Vyatarna Melnitsa in Sozopol. A first-class choice, both as restaurant and hotel, is Hebros in Plovdiv (51 Konstantin Stoilov Street, phone: 032 260 180). However, don't try to drive into the heart of the Old City without a guide.

How can I remember all the roadside places where I have stopped with my wife, worked through the menu – dictionary in hand – and emerged totally satisfied? The names of some of the cities: Melnik, Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo, Varna, Burgas, Ruse and many, many smaller ones. I particularly remember Vodolaza. This trout restaurant, located just before the entrance to the Bachkovo Monastery, is delightfully described in the Michelin Guide: “the summer garden of Vodolaza lies next to a waterfall which feeds a basin, where a few trout meditate on the vanity of things two steps away from the plates where they will end their days.”

A final word about Bulgarian cuisine: it is fresh (the salads!), delightful (kavarma) and very sociable, but it was born before calories were counted. Since my arrival from low fat East Asia, tight jackets and torn trouser seats have tormented me! I believe that this is a passing phase, because how else could you explain so many slim and fit young Bulgarian ladies? In the meantime, I'm reading Bulgarian cookery books. I have to decide which of the many tempting Bulgarian wines to offer friends on a cold winter's night in Germany, along with photos of our travels in this beautiful country.

* Dr Michael Geier is the German Ambassador to Bulgaria

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