MY OWN CHOICE: WINING AND DINING IN AND OUT OF STYLE

by Geoffrey Keating*

Bulgaria presents a bewildering range of places to eat

Geoffrey Keating

After 18 months of serious research, I do not think I have even scratched the surface of Bulgarian cuisine, but I have had some memorable meals along the way. It's tough, but someone's got to do it.

When we first arrived and were staying in a city centre hotel, we spent many pleasant lunchtimes and evenings sitting outside the Art Museum Cafe (corner of Saborna Street and Lege Street) behind the Archaeological Museum, soaking up the culture of the city, both ancient and modern. Another good place on a summer evening is the terrace behind the Military Club, where Pizza Victoria (7 Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard; phone: 986 3200) offers Italian and Bulgarian food at reasonable prices with friendly and efficient service.

When we have visitors, we usually bring them to Pri Yafata (28 Solunska Street; phone: 980 1727) for a Bulgarian experience. The atmosphere may be contrived, but the food and the service are good, there is a great wine list, and the number of Bulgarian guests always outnumbers the tourists. My two favourite Bulgarian restaurants in Sofia, however, are both on Dondukov Boulevard. Bay Gencho (15 Knyaz Dondukov Boulevard; phone: 986 6550) is cosy and intimate, particularly in winter with its open fire, and the food is superb. I particularly recommend the sarmi and also the chicken cooked with orange and raisins. Unlike many restaurants in Sofia, it is mercifully quiet and smoke-free. I also like Balgari (71 Knyaz Dondukov Boulevard; phone: 843 5419, 0887 455 050) set in an old house with a fascinating collection of photographs from the past. In the summer, it has a lovely courtyard.

There are many stylish places in Sofia and for me Opera (113 Rakovski Street; phone: 988 2141) beats them all, with its dark, glittering interior and trendy clientele. On a warm day, the low sofas outside are also a great place to lounge, if the traffic on Rakovski is not too busy. The menu is interesting - Bulgaria meets Fusion - and I have not yet been disappointed by a meal there.

In the "cheap and cheerful" category, I recommend Krivoto and O!Shipka of which there are several around Sofia. These are good for a quick lunch or an informal evening with friends. They offer tasty, unpretentious food at low prices: fast food with fl air and integrity.

For formal dining, I recommend the restaurant in the Crystal Palace Hotel (14 Shipka Street: 948 9488). The dining room is quiet, elegant and spacious. The food is not pretentious, but its presentation is sophisticated, and the service is pleasant and discreet. For foreign food, try the Armenian Egur, Egur (18 Sheynovo Street; phone: 946 1765, 089 666 8302 and 10 Dobrudzha Street; phone: 989 3383, 089 666 8301). There are also some excellent Italian restaurants in town. My favourite is Uno (121 Rakovski Street; phone: 986 3807, 980 5958) which has some of best Italian food I have eaten since I lived in Rome in the 1980s. Only don't try the tiramisu here; for the real thing, go instead to the Spaghetti Company (TsUM, 1st floor; phone: 926 0427).

One of my sons is a vegetarian and the best restaurant we have found so far is Vegetarianskata Kashta, The Veggie Home (10 Patriarh Evtimiy Boulevard; phone: 981 5677, 981 5679). It has an extensive and imaginative menu, clearly influenced by diverse vegetarian cultures from around the world. Spread over several floors of an old house, it has a really quirky and laidback atmosphere.

I suspect it could become a lifetime quest to map your favourite restaurants outside Sofia, to find the sweetest lyutenitsa, to identify the most pungent kyopoolu and to taste the purest rakiya. So far, my travels have only brought me to a handful of places, but I can recommend some good spots.

In Plovdiv, the Hebros Hotel (51 Konstantin Stoilov Street; phone 032 260 180) has an excellent restaurant with a nice combination of Bulgarian and international cuisine. Try the homemade fig rakiya with your salad or the fi g compote for dessert. Also in Plovdiv, on Rayko Daskalov Street, try the Aladin (www.alaeddin-bg.com) for the most delicious doner. It is hard to miss as there is always a queue outside and with dva dyunera costing only 1.50 leva, it is impossible to beat for value.

I know it has been recommended in this column before, but on your way back from Plovdiv, you must stop at the Istanbul (phone: 0899 255 595). It is 70 kilometres from the centre of Plovdiv, just off the motorway to Sofia and just before you reach the tunnel. The mixed salad is out of this world, with a complex range of flavours - mint, onion, parsley and spices. The kebabs are cooked over wood embers on an open grill. My favourite is lamb, but the spicy minced meat is also delicious. The bread comes baked to order straight out of the oven and if you can manage it after such a feast, the baklava is also very good.

If you have not been to Dryanovo, make an immediate resolution to visit one of the most interesting places in Bulgaria as soon as possible. The monastery lies outside the town and behind it, across a crystalclear stream, lies Andaka, a mehana with a great atmosphere and really good food.

Equally, everyone who visits Bulgaria should visit Veliko Tarnovo. Shtastlivetsa (79 Stefan Stambulov Street) attracts a young crowd and is popular with natives and visitors alike. I think I prefer Mehana Gurko (33 Gurko Street; phone 627 838) with its traditional decor and Bulgarian cuisine.

Last March, I spent some days in the Rhodope mountains. The cuisine of the region is superb and deserves a whole article of its own. I still carry with me a legacy of that visit about my waist, which I privately refer to as my Smolyan kilo.

Last year, returning from a pilgrimage to the grave of the Irish journalist James Bourchier at Rila Monastery, our party stopped at the Pchelina restaurant (0888 393058, 0889 405401), a couple of miles from the monastery on the way back to Sofia. We sat there all afternoon eating our salatki and sipping our rakiyki. This was honest food: fresh salads and grilled meats, simply prepared perhaps, but the expression of a long culinary tradition.

Speaking of tradition, I should say that my favourite Irish pub in Sofia is J.J. Murphy's (6 Karnigradska Street; phone: 980 2870). The interior has an authentic feel to it - except we have now banished smoking from pubs in Ireland - and, in the summer, the walled garden is a great place to spend an hour or two with a pint. The food's not bad either. I recommend the leprechaun burger, but only in spring or autumn when the Balkans are wreathed in rainbows and you can be sure of a good supply of fresh ingredients. I am told that the little creatures are easily trapped and that they do not suffer in any way, although I have noticed that their pots of gold are removed before they reach the table.

Finally, for a taste of globalisation and a really good cup of coffee, try the Onda chain. If you follow the Bulgarian economy, it is also a good place to track the rate of inflation in services. (My regular brew has just jumped from 1.25 to 1.50 leva.) It is also where you can pick up a copy of your favourite English-language monthly.

*Geoffrey Keating is the Irish ambassador to Bulgaria

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