My dear Ambar and Kumkum,
Greetings from Sofia: a place you have been to, briefly and only once, 24 years ago, during your extensive travels around the world! As for me, I am here for the second time in my career on my eighth assignment abroad. The first time was as a first secretary in 1988-1990, a time of crucial political and socio-economic changes in Europe and particularly in this region. The effects of those changes are still continuing today.
To better explain my relationship with food and gastronomy, I should briefly describe my life. For the first 24 years of it I lived in the country then called Czechoslovakia. For a young man the terror of Communism was unbearable. The regime definitely did not support anything so unproductive and "bourgeois" as fine dining. At the time everyone was happy to find anything at all in the shops, so it was impossible to plan meals.
Sofia is a town to discover. I like that. There is not just one shopping street, only one quarter with clubs and bars, and one area with fancy restaurants. Most of Sofia's good places to go to are hidden in tiny streets and in slightly shattered-looking houses.
Whether you're a newcomer or a veteran expat in Bulgaria, you'd have noticed it already – the local wining and dining scene, in the cities at least, is anything but short of places. Perhaps Bulgarians' die-hard habit of unwinding among friends, salads and rakiya has a lot to do with it. It also explains the huge numbers in restaurants on week nights. What Vagabond's group of diners outlined in 2008 was the diversity of choices on offer despite any expectations to the contrary.
I came to Bulgaria as a hospitality industry expert, and gastronomy is an important aspect of my work. People hire me to open their hotels, provide consultation for their tourism projects or simply for my opinion on various matters. Clients rely on my professional help, which is based on the international experience that I have gained working on many different projects and at my own restaurant in Switzerland (www.restaurantpalace.ch).
I believe professional chefs like myself have a different eye to your average punter when we go to a place to eat. We watch the hygiene levels, the presentation, the value for money and, crucially, the service, to judge if this is a safe place to go to. Having trained in one of the top training colleges in England, and having worked in top hotels and restaurants in Dublin, one thing I can say about restaurants in Bulgaria is that standards can slip, as service levels and particularly presentation are often poor.
My two years here have taught me you can have a very good time in Sofia – because time in Bulgaria runs smoothly. The size of Sofia is manageable and all the urban problems like traffic, noise, pollution and so on, are under control.
The first time I came to Bulgaria, I entered via the dusty no-man's land between Giurgiu and Ruse. Standing all alone on the edge of Romania, I watched as shifty-eyed travellers shoved contraband cigarettes into their luggage and trekked down an unpaved road towards the border. From my vantage point, Bulgaria did not look terribly inviting.
Since then, my view of this country has changed dramatically. I've spent so much time here over the past three years that I now consider it my second home. And for me, feeling truly comfortable in a place involves eating like a local.
One of the nice surprises after moving to Sofia was discovering it as a vibrant city, where finding a nice, affordable place to eat or drink was never a problem. I was expecting to find the cuisine was heavy and high in fat, like the food in most Central European countries, yet Bulgarian food is quite different. It is always made from the freshest seasonal ingredients. Like most great gastronomy, Bulgarian food is influenced by the neighbours.
Lunching, dining out or having coffee in Sofia is an absolute thrill and challenges your decisions due to the multitude of restaurants available. I never thought, when coming here, that I would be confronted by such a variety of places, which seem to multiply by the month.
In contemporary terms, it mainly describes business conferences and meetings. Few are aware today that the word's original meaning was “drinking in company”. For my ancestors, the almost ceremonial way of associating food and drink with the exchange of opinions and lively philosophical discussions among peers made the symposium a vital and indispensable means of communication. It was considered not a personal, but a social process aiming at bringing together and unifying family, friends or colleagues.
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.
It's embarrassing now, but I, a Greek, confess that before coming here I enquired if Soﬁa had any “real” restaurants or “real” bars. Now, when visitors ask, I am appalled at their prejudice. But soon they realise there are plenty and all at good value for money.
Choosing a restaurant in a foreign country is not always an easy job, and personal experience is often the best way to go about it. However, if you would rather not experiment, but follow the recommended path of our group of diners, note the recurring places in their individual lists - they are definitely worth a visit.
Having now been an ambassador to Sofia for a couple of years, I am still surprised at the large and utterly varied choice of restaurants that you can find in this capital city. It is also continuously increasing. There are very nice places to be found for all tastes and budgets.
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.
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 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.
The fact that I have a rather large appetite and don't cook at home means that after 18 months in Sofia I have numerous dining spots and bars to share with you. I'll try to cover the best of the expensive as well as the more modestly priced eateries.