by Jennifer Croft

In Sofia at least, you have to be blind to go without a good kebab and a Dunkin' doughnut

Jennifer Croft

During my twenties, most of which I spent in Manhattan, eating out was as much a part of my lifestyle as riding the subway or paying rent that I could barely afford. To live amongst such an embarrassment of culinary riches and not take advantage would have been, well, embarrassing. I happily joined my fellow New Yorkers in waiting two hours for a table at a favourite brunch spot or being snubbed by a snooty waiter at a chic Soho bistro. The meals I remember best were the simplest and cheapest: Cuban beans and rice on a cold winter day, a steaming slice of pizza late at night, a falafel sandwich dripping with tahini for a quick lunch.

My college boyfriend and I were such frequent customers at a Vietnamese place that we knew exactly how many shrimps to expect in an order of spicy-sweet coconut soup: three in the small bowl, six in the large. At the time I thought that life would always be one restaurant or take-out counter after another.

But eating out gets tiring after a while, and over time I grew to appreciate both the economic and spiritual value of preparing my own food. Then I married someone who is not a huge fan of restaurants and, luckily for me, cooks very well. When it's not part of a social gathering, eating out for us tends to take on a more utilitarian function: we're out someplace, we get hungry, we find a place to eat.

For example, walking around the centre of Sofia on a weekend, we are stricken with hunger and the need to rest our feet. The Middle Eastern fast-food place Baalbek, (4 Dyakon Ignatiy St) around the corner from the shops on Graf Ignatiev St, is well situated for such critical moments. Much of their business is take-out, but they also have a small seating area upstairs. A plate of hummus, some warm pita and a Fatoush salad make a quick and high-protein lunch to fuel your onward journey.

In general I don't crave American fast food one bit, but Dunkin Donuts (various locations throughout Sofi a) hits the spot when a blood sugar emergency strikes. Hot coffee in a paper cup and a soft, sinful donut make me nostalgic for my graduate school days in Massachusetts, the home of this franchise.

For healthier eating, I'm partial to the vegetarian Dream House, (50A Alabin St, phone: 980 81 63). Don't be put off by the sketchy second-floor entrance: the atmosphere is clean, bright and rather zenlike once you're inside. They offer a tasty and varied all-you-can-eat weekend buffet for only seven leva. Supposedly you'll be charged extra for what you don't finish, but I'm not sure how strictly this is enforced. In any case we had no trouble cleaning our plates and nobody in our group had to resort to hiding their leftovers in the plants.
On a recent visit we tried everything from sautéed tofu to a Middle Eastern-flavoured kidney bean dish to an unusual beet-and-beansprout salad.

For times when we don't feel like cooking or want to treat guests from out of town, we've found a few reliable gems within walking distance of our apartment on the edge of Lozenets. The KO Diner (35 Nikola Vaptsarov Blvd, phone: 962 24 72), with a panoramic view of both Vitosha Mountain and the city from the top of a glassy business centre, has not disappointed us yet. The presentation of the food is classy, the culinary combinations creative and the service reliably attentive. The design is spare and sleek, including the ultra-modern co-ed bathroom. It's a nice spot just for drinks as well.

Another handy neighbourhood place in the heart of Hladilnika is Krel (15-17 Rusaliyski Prohod, phone: 0888-835-872), which offers well prepared and fresh salads, pizza and grilled meat and fi sh. The waiters seem to actually enjoy their work and hustle to take care of you. Located on the bottom floors of a residential building, it can't compete with KO's views, but has a homey atmosphere.

Sofia has a decent choice of international cuisine, though a Thai restaurant would be a welcome addition. Meanwhile, I've had excellent Lebanese food at Tazka (48 Makedonia Blvd, phone: 951 50 86). The staff will even take the time to describe the various dishes.

The aptly named Turkish Restaurant near the Turkish Embassy (34 Yuri Venelin St, phone: 989 12 12), which has a difficult-to-read sign that claims the restaurant's actual name is TM, offers seating inside a warmly decorated house or a charming garden. I love choosing from the delectable array of salads that are brought out on a tray - you simply point and the dish is transferred to your table. Instant gratification!

Dessert may be my favourite part of a meal. I've even been known, on occasion, to make it a meal of its own. Dangerously close to our home is a sweet tooth's delight, the Valentino Chocolatier Chocolate House, or Shokoladena Kashta (27 Nikola Vaptsarov Blvd, phone: 962 20 82). Their delicate Belgian chocolates are almost too pretty to eat, and yet I manage! They'll mix up a lusciously thick hot chocolate for you to enjoy at one of the tables in their small café that doubles as a gift shop and gallery. Rather than a place to see and be seen, it offers a quiet spot to discreetly carry on a secret and decadent chocolate love affair.

Outside Sofia, in the fresh country air, there's nothing like relaxing over an unhurried meal made with local ingredients. What won me over at the Moravsko Selo Bio-hotel near Razlog (Predela area, phone: 0898-621-765) was the coffee served in heavy ceramic American-size mugs, the perfect accompaniment to a hearty farm-style omelette. I took my mug with me after breakfast and sipped coffee on the balcony of our room, alternating between reading my book and gazing at the spectacular peaks of the Pirin Mountains.

Another pleasure of visiting smaller places is that you just might find staff who are eager to please. This is certainly the case with the restaurant in the Astraea Spa Hotel in Hisar (68 Ivan Vazov Blvd, phone: 0337 633 11), where we have stayed a few times to partake of the mineral baths and spa treatments. Maybe I'm just not going to the right places in Sofia, but I've never had a manager come over to check whether we needed any help ordering and then stop by again to ask if everything was all right. I'll take earnestness over indifference any day.

Of course there are many stones yet unturned in my culinary adventures in Sofia; the good thing about not eating out very often is that it's not hard to find a new place to try. And while New York will probably always have more choices of Ethiopian, Malaysian and Ukrainian restaurants than Sofia, it will never have Vitosha Mountain, where you can enjoy the picnic of your choice with a bottle of Bulgarian wine and a stunning view.


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