MY OWN CHOICE: NERDE YAMBOL, NERDE STAMBOUL*

by Mehmet Gucuk**

Bulgarian and Turkish cuisine are essentially one and the same thing. The devil, however, is in the details, explains Mehmet Gucuk, the Turkish Ambassador to Bulgaria

Mehmet Gucuk

I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to understand many restaurant menus in Sofia without knowing much Bulgarian. Kyufte, kavarma, sarmi, shkembe and baklava were among the dishes familiar to me, coming from Turkey. But discovering new tastes in delightful Bulgarian cuisine proved to be equally pleasant. I knew from the very beginning that I was going to enjoy Bulgaria's food and so far I haven't been disappointed.

Recommending restaurants in Bulgaria is not an easy task, since there are so many good places. They are very satisfying in terms of quality and cost-effective compared to their counterparts in other European countries.

Starting near the Embassy, the Mahaloto Restaurant (51 Vasil Levski Blvd, phone: 0887 61 79 72), has an attractive ambience, particularly in the summer, with a simple and welcoming atmosphere in its rear courtyard. The interior is like a wine cellar transformed into three halls and decorated with old knick-knacks and furniture. Unlike so many other places, the menu is only about four pages long, but the content is very satisfying. The Caprese salad is particularly appetising – topped with pesto sauce – as are the steaks and chicken dishes. The chocolate mousse is also worth trying. There is a separate menu of the day and the staff are very friendly.

The TM Turkish Restaurant (34 Yuri Venelin St, phone: 989 12 12), just behind the Turkish Embassy, offers a wide range of tastes from our own national cuisine. I would recommend the pide, (Turkish pizza with minced or diced meat) which is brought fresh from the oven, with freshly prepared meze (cold appetisers) – you can ask the waiter Adem which ones he would suggest – and grilled meat or kebabs for the main course. Don't forget to save room for baklava for dessert.

Olive's, a TGI Friday's style restaurant (12 Graf Ignatiev St, phone: 986 09 02) has interesting decor. Unusual details include the sink in the cloakroom with a pedal-operated tap and a menu in newspaper format. The food is also very good. Try the “Olive's Cream” – a refreshing and light dessert. Boasting a pleasing atmosphere, Olive's is an intimate place to go with friends.

One of the oldest Bulgarian restaurants in Sofia, Pod Lipite (Under the Linden Trees) (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053) is decorated like a Bulgarian country house and offers a good variety of homemade food. Chevermeto (31 Cherni Vrah Blvd, phone: 963 03 08), another of the city's famous restaurants – mostly frequented by tourists – has live music and a traditional dance show that never fails to entertain.

The Pri Orlite restaurant (11 Dyakon Ignatiy St, phone: 981 50 00), which boasts a panoramic view of Sofia, is a favourite of mine to visit with official delegations and friends. It also has live music in the evenings.

Another Turkish restaurant, Sofra (69 Oborishte St, phone: 944 20 05), has tasty kebabs, lahmacun or pide and a nice garden. A Turkish fast food restaurant chain Tantuni (44 Maria Louisa Blvd, phone: 983 16 44), which has shops across Bulgaria, brought the taste of Tantuni kebap (thinly sliced meat with spice and salad) rolled in yufka (pittalike bread) from the Mediterranean city of Mersin, Turkey. Ayran is the drink that best complements the taste.

As to fish restaurants, I prefer Captain Cook (12-14 Slaveykov St, phone: 954 90 98) and Tambuktu (10 Aksakov St, phone: 988 12 34), both very well known and in no need of further praise.

If you are keen on Italian food and pasta, I have not had better fetuccini and tiramisu in Sofia than in Alfredo's Gallery at the Kempinski Hotel Zografski (100 James Bouchier Blvd, phone: 969 24 50). The service and food are both excellent. The Italian chef serves the fetuccini himself, after he mixes almost half a kilogram of Parmesan cheese with the pasta. Another Italian restaurant I would recommend, especially if you're looking for something other than fast food after a shopping expedition at the City Centre Sofia, is Pastarito, on the top floor of the mall (on the corner of Cherni Vrah and Arsenalski Blvds, phone: 866 7780). They serve fresh pasta that you can combine with different sauces from the menu.

One of the stylish café-restaurant-bars on Vitosha Boulevard, Upstairs (18 Vitosha Blvd, phone: 989 96 96) has become even more attractive to me since the boulevard closed to traffic. Upstairs has an extensive menu, chosen from European cuisine and exquisitely served. Another one of my favourites is the Opera Restaurant (113 Rakovski St, phone: 988 21 41).

When I visit Plovdiv my number one place is the Hebros Restaurant (51a Konstantin Stoilov St, phone: 032 260180). It occupies a restored Ottoman merchant home with a small garden in the middle of old Plovdiv. Book your seats in the garden in summertime. In winter, the more elegant formal dining room is a very comfortable place – with a fireplace and a grand piano. After 9pm the jazz trio accompanies your dinner with quiet, nostalgic music. The staff of the restaurant are very efficient and friendly. For a starter I recommend avocado salad. The salmon fillet makes for a delicious main course and the chocolate mousse is unbeatable for dessert.

Another superb restaurant in Plovdiv is Puldin (3 Knyaz Tzeretelev St, phone: 032 631 720). It is excellent not only for the tasty Bulgarian food and excellent service but also – of special significance to me – because the building itself is a renovated 19th Century Mevlevihane. (A Mevlevihane was a training house for dervishes of Sufism in the past centuries, and the centre of Sufism is Konya, Central Anatolia in Turkey). The painstakingly restored building is a very elegant place for dinner in a mystic atmosphere. They also have violin or guitar soloists during dinner. Located in old Plovdiv, the Puldin is the right place for tourist groups after a cultural tour in the city's historical part.

The Brasilia Restaurant (1 Filipova St, phone: 032 966 050) is the best choice for Turkish cuisine in Plovdiv. The name of the restaurant should not confuse you, it is not a Latin place but a real Turkish restaurant where you can taste all kind of mezes, kebabs and other traditional Turkish dishes. The favourite main dish is the Edirne-style ciger kavarma (fried thin liver slices). The owner of the restaurant, Ilyas, has a very special recipe of his own for this dish and when there is an order for ciger kavarma, he cooks it himself. He is from Edirne (a Turkish city on the Turkish-Bulgarian border) and he inherited this recipe from his father. In Edirne, this dish is very well-known, but now you need not venture that far to taste it! For dessert, I recommend kabak tatlisi (pumpkin dessert), which is delicious. The restaurant is located at Karshiyaka in Plovdiv and is very well known by taxi drivers. It has an authentic atmosphere, decorated with antique household goods such as radios, gramophones, and sewing machines.

*A Bulgarian paraphrase of an old Ottoman saying, “Nerde Sham, nerde Baghdad,” or literally “Where is Sham, where is Baghdad.” It refers to two things that are very similar, yet worlds apart. Mehmet Gucuk is the Turkish Ambassador to Bulgaria

** Mehmet Gucuk is the Turkish Ambassador to Bulgaria

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