Posted by: seasin | July 28, 2009

Monastirska Magernitsa-a traditional Bulgarian restaurant

Now we need to clear something up: it’s the cuisine which is traditional bulgarian at this restaurant, everything else is very much at normal standards (which, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, is very rare here).

Whenever I have a craving for very tasty bulgarian food, picked from a crazy menu which has interesting choices crammed on every one of its numerous pages, that’s where I go. I love this restaurant. I think it’s probably the best one for Bulgarian cuisine in Sofia.

It’s on Han Asparuh, right in the centre of Sofia, again in a small house (a historic one, none the less, some famous Bulgarian critic used to live there at one point in history, don’t ask me when, there’s a plaque on the building with his name but not much other information at all) with a nice little garden in front. Since we were there on a blistering summer evening (probably 38 degrees in Sofia last Friday) we very much appreciated the little instalation that they have, you know the nifty outdoors air conditioning which is in fact just a network of sprinklers spraying a very fine mist of water droplets in the air, all over the garden. You wouldn’t think that’s much use in Saharan temperatures, but trust me, it made SUCH a difference and turned a suffocating evening into a very pleasant one indeed!

The restaurant also has what it calls a “winter garden”, a closed veranda running along the side of the building, which can be used in winter, and several charming rooms full of various decorative items, some parts of traditional Bulgarian folk costumes, some just old household items (when I say old please read 100 years old), all quite charming, really. In one of the rooms downstairs there’s a charcoal pit, and there’s always something roasting slowly on a spit over its glowing embers-the smell is enough to make you want to order food every few minutes for the next ten years :). A nice little touch-guys please skip this following sentence and if you don’t you’re reading it at your own risk: ladies, besides hand cream, they placed in the ladies’ room complimentary sanitary stuff for us (of both sorts). How cool and considerate is that? Not that I would ever need it, as I’m manic and therefore always prepared, but isn’t that very sweet? Who else does that?

The service is smooth, so smooth actually that you only notice it once: after you’re seated and you get the menus, they bring over a nice little platter with fragrant warm home made bread, light and pillowy and smelling like heaven, with a dish of sharena sol on top (that’s a very typical Bulgarian mix of spices) in which you’re supposed to dip the bread. They gently explain that it’s a Bulgarian tradition to welcome guests with bread and salt-a tradition as old as the world, then they vanish somewhere in the shade leaving you to peruse the menu. And boy, what a menu that is!!!!!!!!!! The story behind the restaurant (and its name, which if I understood correctly, means the monastery’s kitchen) is that they offer recipes gathered from the hundreds of monasteries that dot the Bulgarian landscapes. Now, if you know something about Bulgarian history, you know that said monasteries were the centre of resistance against various invaders, therefore the places that most easily preserved authentic bulgarian traditions-and dishes. And if you know something about Western Europe medieval history, you know that when you speak about monasteries and great food and drink in the same sentence, then you’re definitely allowed to have high hopes (if you don’t know what I mean, just think about who was most famous for making beer, bread and cheese in Belgium, for instance). In short, you’re in for a treat.

The menu is the size of Encyclopedia Britannica and so full of interesting things (with even more interesting English translations:) that I’m still discovering new dishes even after one year of visiting them rather regularly. Every dish has a wonderful description (very poetic and in very…approximate English, but good enough to keep one both informed and entertained) and if you’re not warned (by whoever took you there for dinner, or by me) you can spend the evening just reading it, and eating nothing. So here’s what you do: pick and order a salad (that’s the Bulgarian thing to do-no meal starts without a salad. Well, maybe breakfast). And drinks (this is one place in space and time where one should at least try the Rakia, the national spirit-Burgas 63 is a safe choice, gentle to the unaccustomed palate). That will buy everyone some time to look at the menu in awe and drool and be torn between all the wonderful choices presented to them for the main course. Then when the waiter/ess brings the salads, you should be ready to order the main course. Don’t forget about the wine, their food works wonderfully with most Bulgarian wines. Forget about dessert though for a minute, it’s very very likely that once you had the salad and the main, you won’t be able to draw a breath in, let alone munch a biskuitna torta (yum!)

On Friday evening, as we were out with DB’s brother and his wonderful wife (because we did find a babysitter after a lot of looking-yey!!!) we followed my recommendations to a t :). Everyone had the rakia (except me. I’ve already had it once since I’ve moved to Bulgaria, no need to repeat the experience another time during my lifetime, or possibly even the next lifetimes, if you believe in that kind of stuff), and we each had a salad (the descriptions of the salads seem deceptively similar, but trust me, the salads are all different and all very nice). I’m normally adventurous but on Friday I just had the Sofiynska (aka Shopska)-because the fresh, garden grown tomatoes are in season and there’s no better way to enjoy them than in a shopska. We then had our main course-and again, rather boringly, I picked the same thing I had last time I ate there-one of the rabbit dishes. Why-because it’s the only place in Sofia where I can get rabbit and this particular one is wonderful. It’s rabbit filet, marinated in some wonderful stuff, grilled over charcoals, and served on top on some garlicky smashed potatoes drizzled with a yummy tomato sauce. See, I’m drooling just remembering it. For those of you who have issues eating the Easter Bunny (or Bambi, or the nice little fluffy lambs, or the nice little doves), here’s my message: there’s plenty of food on the menu of that restaurant that doesn’t come from cute little creatures; and here’s my second message; GROW UP, it’s all food! There’s no difference between a pig and a rabbit (well, there is. Pigs are dirty and mostly their meat is fat and sometimes bad for you. Rabbits are clean, they eat veggies and grass, and their meat is very lean and sweet). They don’t speak. And if you pitty the bunny, you should also pitty the pig. Or the cow. They all die to feed you. So get over the bambi thing already. End of rant 🙂

My fellow diners had various dishes served in clay pots (lamb for one, veal for the other, a mixture of meats for my lovely boyfriend), and we all had a great local wine, the Terra Tangra Cuvee. Now this wine deserves a post of its own,  so I’ll just say it’s my favorite Bulgarian wine so far, with consistant quality in every bottle that we had, and not overpriced at all (around 40 leva in restaurants but alot cheaper in supermarkets or wine shops)-give it a try, you’ll like it. It’s a wine from South Sakar, and the label has other wines as well (a very nice Cab Sauv, particularly). The greediest of us (that would be me and DB’s brother) also had desert (wonderful local frozen yogurt with walnuts and honey for me, a tiramisu for our guest).

As usual, I was plenty pleased with the food, the service and the surroundings, we had a nice dinner and I can’t recommend this restaurant more. For your own enjoyment, but also as a great place to take out your foreign guest so that they discover what’s good about food in Bulgaria. Dinner for four with rakia and a bottle of wine was 160 leva (tip not included)-so it’s not overly expensive either. Two little foot notes: for those interested in adventure eating (aka those of you who would eat innards or funky vegetables) there are very intriguing options on the menu, using ingredients like stinging nettles, lamb intestines and so on. And also please note that there’s no touristy entertainment here (no “belly dancers” like at Veselo Selo, no group of fat guys playing violins and accordions and singing bulgarian songs like at Hadji Draganovishte Kusthi, no fire walkers like at Vodenitsa). There are, rather sadly, some tvs inside tuned onto Ethnic TV or something like that, but mercifully they are muted most of the time. Here, the entertainment is the menu.

This is their website http://www.magernitsa.com/en/index.html and by all means, pay them a visit. If you do and then hate it, I’ll cook you dinner to compensate 🙂

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