by Uri Resnick*

Sofia's international cuisine belies its insular image

Uri Resnick

My wife is probably the best cook in Sofia! However, since my own access to it almost certainly depends on not extending an open invitation to everyone, I'll merely confine myself to my personal experiences of dining out in the capital.

Overall, I'd say that you can find excellent fare at reasonable prices, catering to virtually all tastes and preferences. Here are some of my suggestions: For tasty, authentic local cuisine, somewhat off the tourist path (for now), I highly recommend Pod Lipite (Under the Linden Trees) (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053) and Kashtata, (The House) (4 Verila St, phone: 952 0830). The first is charmingly nestled under a grove of linden trees (hence the name), with a traditional atmosphere and an excellent selection of inexpensive Bulgarian dishes. The second, again as the name suggests, offers the unique opportunity to dine amid the nooks and crannies of a typical mid-20th Century Bulgarian house in a distinctively "local" atmosphere. Though the restaurant boasts a wide array of international dishes, the Bulgarian food is its real forte.

If you entertain guests who want to savour local cuisine surrounded by traditional decor, I would recommend either Vodenitsata (The Water Mill) (Dragalevtsi next to the Dragalevtsi ski lift, phone: 967 1058) or Pri Yafata (At Yafa's) (28 Solunska St, phone: 980 1727). Though a bit contrived for seasoned Sofianites, first-timers are sure to enjoy the musicians in Bulgarian garb and the rustic ambience. Vodenitsata, in the foothills of Mount Vitosha, is particularly suited to new visitors with its enduringly popular performances of walking on hot coals. You are advised to book a table in advance. It may also be a good idea to arrive in the early evening and enjoy an aperitif while you wait for the 9pm show to start.

Sofra (69 Oborishte St, phone: 944 5005) is an excellent venue for Turkish food and casual gatherings. You can also enjoy the lovely patio during fine weather. The lamb chops are perfect and the wide range of salads makes for a tasty assortment that everyone can enjoy together. For dessert, don't miss the knafe, a sweet, cheesy pastry covered with finely shredded filo pastry. Acre and Jerusalem are pretty hard to beat when it comes to knafe, but Sofra's definitely compares favourably to the Israeli variety.

The Taj Mahal (11 11th of August St, phone: 987 3632) serves an excellent assortment of Indian dishes, cooked to varying levels of spiciness, within a well decorated and relaxing atmosphere and you can also place telephone orders with them. If you prefer to try some Moroccan cuisine, Annette (27 Angel Kanchev St, phone: 980 4098) is very tempting, set against Casablanca-style white decor. For international and French cuisine, Da Vidi's (36 Khan Asparukh St, phone: 980 6746) is probably one of the best restaurants in town, either for a business lunch or elegant evening out. The decor is modern and stylish, reminiscent of the bars and cafes lining the Salonika pier. The menu offers a short - but wonderfully imaginative and delicious - assortment of appetizers and main courses. The beef fillet has no rivals anywhere in Sofia and if you are in a particularly indulgent mood, I would recommend the Rossini, a dish featuring beef fillet topped with goose liver. It may not be cheap but it's certainly worth the price!

If you order lunch from your office, I like Gringos (59 Vitosha Blvd, corner of 38 Neofit Rilski St, phone: 980 7709). The baked potatoes, topped by a mountain of salad and cheese, offer a tasty, wholesome and affordable snack. They have other dishes too, including pasta, but my personal favourite is the standard salad-smothered spud. Another winner is Dani's (18a Angel Kunchev St, phone: 987 4548). They offer delicious salads and sandwiches, a variety of flavoured chicken and individual loaves of straight-out-of-the-oven white or brown bread.

Several Irish pubs match the standard of any comparable American or European establishment, both in terms of food and decor. I prefer J.J. Murphy's (6 Karnigradska St, phone: 980 2870) and Dublin (54 Alabin St, phone: 943 4004). Both menus carry the full gamut of delicious "pub grub". Murphy's has one of the better steaks in town and the chicken wings at Dublin are excellent.

If you have young children and the weather permits, the outdoor patio of the Grand Cafe (Grand Hotel Sofia, 1 Gurko St, phone: 811 0800) is a delightful hangout. Situated on the edge of the park adjacent to the National Theatre, with a large sand-box and jungle-gym literally at arm's length, it offers a lovely, relaxed setting ideal for parents and kids alike.

No culinary review of Sofia would be complete without a reference to banitsa. Topla Sofiyska Banitsa (Hot Sofia Banitsa) in the NDK underground gallery (Podles Galeria) is as good as it gets. It's a small place within the pedestrian mall, just under the walking bridge between the NDK and the Hilton Hotel. They always have a fresh, loaf-shaped banitsa piping hot from the oven, from which they will gladly carve whatever portion takes your fancy. It's always fresh, warm and invariably delicious.

Whatever you choose, whether it's just a quick banitsa on the run, a coal-walking expedition to Vodenitsata, or indulging in pate de foi gras at DaVidi's, make sure to take the time to soak up the rhythm and pace of Sofia. Nazdrave!

* Uri Resnick is the Israeli Embassy's deputy chief of mission in Bulgaria


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