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13 November 2015

Sofia, Bulgaria: What I Saw and Where I Ate

Built in 1882, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, this Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral became an iconic architectural landmark of Sofia.
Sofia happened more than two weeks ago and I can still remember vividly how this city took me in a tight embrace. Simply told, I loved every single minute I was there: the relaxing walks I had, taking in the sights, drinking the local wines and the trying out the food, be it international or traditional. Sofia is so full of surprises that are waiting to be discovered and appreciated. For a tourist, this is the place to be because the mixture of modernity and history in an energetic young city (after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989) is a very interesting experience. Plus you don't need to dig deep in your pockets because the prices are still very affordable.


I traveled by land to the Bulgarian border from Turkey where I was a part of a Press Trip in Thrace, Turkey visiting two Turkish wineries, Vinero Winery and Arcadia Vineyards. My first Bulgarian stop was Plovdiv for the Digital Wine Communications Conference 2015 (#dwcc15) then to the Press Trip in Rose and Struma Valley of Bulgaria (another post) where I got to know more wineries and finally, Sofia.


Being the capital and the largest city of the country, Sofia houses the important universities, museums, galleries, restaurants, commercial and cultural institutions of the country.  It is situated at the foot of the 2,290-meter high Vitosha Mountain, just a short bus ride away, where you can go for some skiing, hiking and  alpinism. 

English is already widely spoken in the country, especially by the young people, but still, maneuvering around the city can be trying at times because some signs are solely in Cyrillic. So before venturing out of your hotel, jot down the name and address of the place you are going to and study the map well. Taxis are cheap so they are a good way to move around the city, as well as the newly-opened underground metro that also has a connection straight to the airport. 


Arriving at Sofia, I decided to take it easy after the hectic schedules I followed the previous days. That meant more relaxing and blending in with the city life and less touristy activities. I did get to see some sights at my own pace but if ever you are in town and you would like to make the most of your time, an excellent way to see the sights is through the Free Sofia Tour carried out by guides from non-profit organizations. 

The Eastern Orthodox Church of Sveta Nedelya is a medieval church that has been reconstructed many times because of it had been destroyed a lot during its history from its unconfirmed foundation in the 10th century. The murals inside were done by Nikolay Rostovstev and his team between 1971 and 1973. It was blown up in 16 April 1925 in an attempt to assassinate Tsar Boris III.


Picture below: Top: National Art Gallery and the Ethnographical Museum (formerly the Royal Palace). Built in 1873, this was the ruling governor's residence during the Ottoman occupation. This was also the place where Bulgaria's national hero, Vasil Levski was tried and sentenced to death. Afterwards, it was refurbished to a contemporary Viennese style, and became the official residence of Bulgaria's royal family in 1917. Bottom Right: The Russian Church or the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, a Russian Orthodox church built in 1914. Bottom left: The gigantic Egg of Happiness in front of the Russian Church where a sign says to touch the egg and make a wish. 


Picture below: Top Left: Sveti Svedmochislenitsi Church is a Bulgarian Orthodox church that was created after the conversion of the abandoned Ottoman mosque and inaugurated in 1903. Top Right: The guards outside the Presidential Palace. Bottom Left: The statue of St. Sofia overlooking the city. Bottom Right: Palace of Justice along Vitosha Boulevard.


Looking through the glass windows of food shops is already a highlight in any trip. Bulgarian cuisine is rich in flavors with big influence from the kitchens of the Ottoman Empire combined with the peasant cooking maximizing the tastes of the fresh vegetables and herbs. Bulgarians start the meals with fresh salads and the most common one  is the shopska salata (my favorite) which is a mixture of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and sirene cheese (Bulgarian feta) followed by the main course which are usually with grilled or slow-cooked meat stews in clay pots where pork and chicken are commonly used while beef is not as common. Dessert follows suit along with coffee. 


Given its age of 7,000 years when it had the first human settlement, the city feels ironically young with the Bulgaria's new generation's energetic and creative optimism in its approach to a vibrant Sofia (and I think that goes too with the other areas I visited in the country). Being the future of the country, the city is in very good hands of these young generation. There is a fast development of enogastronomic activities and for that reason, I am here now, writing what I discovered in Bulgaria, the surprisingly great wines with indigenous and international grape varieties and delectable cuisine.  

From my wonderful experience in this country, let me share with you the restaurants I enjoyed. 

Lavanda

Address: Ulitsa Tsar Ivan Shishman 12  Tel: +359 882249740
If my Bulgarian friend didn't tell me that this restaurant shares the building with the trendy One More Bar, I would have completely missed it and gotten lost. Its entrance is at the back of the building (while One More Bar is in front) where you go up a flight of stairs and arrive to the surprisingly wonderful sprawling shabby chic restaurant. 


The menu is quite interesting. I ordered braised beef with Leffe beer, mashed potatoes with herbs and toasted pain d'epice paired with a local Merlot and for dessert, the pumpkin cheesecake which the waiter recommended. Both dishes were so delectable that even for the big serving, I managed to finish everything and scrape my plate clean.  

Before 10

Address: Ulitsa Milko Bichev 1 Tel: +359 884935857
Proclaimed the best restaurant in 2014 by Bacchus, the Bulgarian gourmet lifestyle magazine, this 5-year old restaurant is definitely one of the places to go to in Sofia. It is located at a street at the end of Zaimov Park and in the lower ground of a building along Ulitsa Professor Milko Bichev. It can be tricky to find it because the name outside is written in Cyrillic (I just recognized the 10 in it) where there is a short flight of stairs with a wooden door to take you to the restaurant. Although windowless, the round restaurant is decorated quite well with whites and ecrus giving it a rustic elegant look.  



The menu, which changes often, has both international and local dishes and wines. I started my dinner with the classic shopska salata which was probably my 50th (I lost count!) but their version had an interesting addition other ingredients I normally don't encounter in my shopskas. The rabbit rolls were great and full of flavors. The portions are quite generous so arrive hungry or skip the salad so you can arrive to the dessert which I heard are very good.


Attentive service, amazing food and excellent wines are three fundamental factors needed to have an enjoyable dining experience. Proprietor Desislav Zvancharov and Chef Hristo Milanov will make sure that you get the best as soon as you sit down in this restaurant.

Talents

Address: 9 Petar Baron Str. Tel: +359 24219068
Discovering Talents was by chance. I just stepped out from their next-door neighbor, Dobrev Cheese Shop bundled with my vacuum-sealed sirene cheese to take home with me the following day. Talents Restaurant has a modern facade that pulled me and my friend to a stop and check it. Right on cue, one of the chefs and a couple of culinary students were outside and answered our inquiries. I made a booking for my lunch the following day before heading to the airport. 


Being a part of the HRC Culinary Academy which usually has 50 students hailing from different parts of the world, Talents is a restaurant being run by the culinary students and overseen by their chef instructors both in the kitchen and in the dining area. This ensures that the training is not just limited to the kitchen only but also extends to the dining area where they experience serving the food to the diners. In restaurants, it is vital to know all aspects of maintaining it.


The menu has a range of very compelling international dishes and it was quite difficult to choose. I ordered a remarkable pork tenderloin with wild mushrooms, parsnip puree and jus with raisins paired with a full-bodied Via Diagonalis red wine blend of Merlot, Carbernet Sauvignon, Mavrud and Rubin. The main course was rather filling but since I already learned to arrive hungry, I still had space for the dessert that I had been eyeing in the menu from the beginning. I had a delicate lavender cheesecake served with apple sorbet and caramel. The flavors lingered in my mouth wonderfully. What a lovely lunch!


After lunch, Talents Restaurant Manager Angel Angelov took me to the kitchen to meet the kitchen crew of energetic culinary students with Chef Instructor Hugues Boutin (in red) and Executive Chef/Chef Instructor Milen Zlatev who were already working on their French-themed dinner. If only my flight was not leaving that night, I would have booked again! My best wishes to the future chefs of the best culinary school in Bulgaria!


Grape Central

Address: 45 Tsar Samuil Str. Tel: +359 889820444
After a whirlwind tour of the vineyards in the Struma and Rose Valleys in Bulgaria, our group parted and reconvened in Grape Central, a trendy wine bar and restaurant where all wine lovers hang out. It's no surprise because behind Grape Central are three remarkable people with impressive wine and culinary backgrounds. Efrosia Blagoeva and Yana Petkova are both members of the tasting panel of Divino and co-founders of Bulgaria's Wine Writers Club, which are just a few of their accomplishments. Chef Ivailo Ignatov instead is a true food and wine lover who graduated with mention at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy.
 

Grape Central has a casual elegant feel to it with spirited people serving, dining and drinking. It's a place to discover and learn about wines with more than 300 wine labels in the house plus they offer 10 different kinds of wines by the glass every month. Aside from these, they also conduct occasional wine tastings.


The food was excellent and paired very well with the wines. The most notable dish was the vegetable quiche which had a touch of smoky flavor to it. The sausages with homemade mustard and kebab were equally delicious. Their food menu changes according to the season and always with the attentive detail to the quality and freshness of the ingredients. They are open for lunch and dinner and a little reminder - they only accept cash.


Sun Moon

Address: 39 September 6 Str. Tel: +359 899138411
Sun Moon is a vegetarian restaurant and bakery that prepares more than 15 types of bread using natural methods and organic ingredients from local farmers. The place was packed both inside and out when I had brunch there. Owing it to a beautiful sunny autumn day, a lot of people were soaking in the sun plus the place is really popular with the locals. Having missed my breakfast, I ordered the mish-mash, a classic Bulgarian dish with eggs, peppers, tomatoes, loads of parsley, cheese, onions and tomatoes. I had it with a bottle of Kombucha. It's definitely a place to have a quick and easy healthy lunch while in the city.