Posted by: seasin | October 11, 2009

Bistrot L’Etranger…and then Bitburger

For those of you who know Sofia, it will come as a suprise when I’ll tell you that I went out for dinner last night…to both of the above mentioned places.

Bistrot L’Etranger is a posh, rather expensive small restaurant, and Bitburger (20, Stefan Karadja St.)…is a beer joint. Most of you who already read this blog know that whereas the first might be my kind of haunt, the second one definitely isn’t (me and beer, we don’t mix). However…but let me tell you the story.

Last week, I was ill. My synuses conspired with my windpipes and some foreign-spawned bacteria and decided I should be decked and made to stay in bed. I of course fought them…for about 5 minutes, then I had to give in. Man, it was bad. For a week I was on a cocktail of drugs, struggling not to cough because it felt as if my brain would explode if I did. You know, normal autumn cold. So I didn’t eat much. First, because it was hard work trying to keep anything in (not to mention that any trip to the edge of the bed took as much effort and as long as a climb of the Everest-so cooking was out of the question), and second, because one (or possibly several) of the drugs they gave me brought up a definitely foul taste in my mouth-it was as if I was constantly sucking on an old, rusty horseshoe. Covered in horse poo. No, I’ve never ACTUALLY tasted a horseshoe-rusty or not. Nor horse poo. But I’m telling you, that was the taste. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

So, after a week of that sort of fun, come Saturday, bacterias decided to go look for greener pastures, no more drugs to take and nasty taste gone, and me restored to my normal hungry food-passionate self, I was ready for dinner. I wanted special. I wanted posh. I wanted unusual. I wanted quiet, and tasty. Then I remembered we live in Sofia. Well, never mind, I’m still hungry. Then I had an epiphany. We’ll go to L’Etranger.

In theory, L’Etranger is a very unique concept in Sofia. On Tsar Simeon (just a stick’s throw away from Halite, off Maria Luisa Blvd.), this little restaurant (seats maybe max 40 people) is a family owned and run operation. I heard that the owner is French, and he’s the one doing the cooking, while his lovely Bulgarian wife seems to be the Hostess and do most of the waiting. Now this might or might not be true, but that’s what the gossip mill says and I don’t see why I wouldn’t believe it. The restaurant is very French Bistrot, in that there isn’t a menu-as you sit down, you’re being presented with a slate with the hopefully fresh concoctions of the chef. It’s also very French in another respect-it’s only open when the trees are the right shade of green, Mars in conjunction with Pluto with Saturn in the 7th house and the neighbour’s cat is howling just so at the moon. Just joking-but not really. Since it’s a family business, they may well decide that a certain Sunday is too sunny to be wasted doing dishes after grumpy clients. Or this other week they might sod it all and spend some time on the Cote D’Azure. So never show up there just because you felt like some Chevre Chaud. Call first. This way at least you’ll know for sure it’s open. And call the mobile phone-the owner might be pushing the kids around on the swings in South Park, but he’ll happily take your reservation for when they’re next open (0887523376).

Yesterday, I took my own advice and I called around lunch – on the mobile, as I said, they’re not normally open for lunch on Saturdays. That thing told me that those people know how life is ment to be lived-the French way (don’t work a second longer than you absolutely have to). It should have also told me that, if you run a restaurant, and it’s a tiny one, and you only turn around 5 tables a week because you’re not open long enough to do more, your profit has to come from somewhere.

Let’s make something clear. Before last night, I’ve been to L’Etranger a few times (b.b.t-before blogging time). It was nice, warm, special, romantic, cosy. There was a limited choice of food, but the salads were always nicely seasoned, and the meat was tasty, and the design and assembly of the dishes was innovative and pleasing-and not a trace of Shopska in sight-which sometimes, not very often but every now and then, is really really a good thing. Service was always smiling and personal, and they always provided me with an acceptable kir, which is a huge bonus in Sofia-I never seem to be able to find a liquid starter for a meal here.

So yesterday we clop-clop happily towards L’Etranger, high hopes and even higher hunger pangs pulling at our stomachs. Nice golden light, and the restaurant was full-quite an unusual sight, I must say. We sit down-and I pretend not to notice that our table is one metre away from the entrance door-after all, it WAS full so I wasn’t expecting hoards of people coming in. And I was expecting to eat and be out of there before the rest of the patrons-they were smoking, you see. It’s a sign their meal will take forever.

I should however have taken the hint of the table in the doorway-because everything went downhill from there. It started with the slate. The menu, I mean. The salads were fine enough (the selection I was expecting to find there, still no Shopska)-but the mains…I was shocked. They offered the following items: salmon with goat cheese-around 30 leva/portion; couldn’t have that, first because after having salmon in Iceland in September, it was hell before I was going to ruin that transcedental experience by eating fourth cathegory salmon that’s been dead for God knows how many seasons, in a Sofia eatery. Plus, there’s no bloody way you can get salmon of a quality that would justify that price here. I know, I shop in Piccadilly and I’m sure restaurateurs shop in different places at different prices. (if they don’t they’re not worthy of my custom). The next course was souris d’agneau (lamb shanks), at 32 leva. Mneeeh. I like lamb, but I like it very pink just off the grill-and this was a dish they could have made with the bounty of lamb at easter and frozen since-many people wouldn’t be able to tell. Following course: bison steak with exotic peppers sauce. WTF????? That famous Bulgarian meat, Bison. Or maybe it’s French. MMMMmmmm….no, it isn’t. And what’s up with the “exotic” peppers? As far as I know, ALL peppers are “exotic” to Sofia-least they’re using some new species just discovered on the slopes of Vitosha…mmmnow THAT might be innovative and interesting. Same sort of price. The cheapest thing on the menu was I think to follow-25 leva for a portion of…Antilope sauce au Porto. When I saw that, I had just about had enough. The food was not going to be french bistro-honest, the freshest thing the market provided that day, with the best local and seasonal ingredients. Oh, there was some beef. Fillet. 42 leva per portion. I’ve lived here for 2 years now. There is NO beef to be found here, worth that amount of money per portion. I wasn’t going to have it.

As I was fuming over the unacceptable mains menu, doom arrived. In the form of a chubby, blonde, curly 3 years old running around the restaurant. Surely not. Surely not in this place charging 18 leva for a starter and 42 for a main. Surely not when the cheapest half bottle of red is 20 leva. Surely not in my romantic, quiet, gourmet (and it  bloddy well be gourmet, for those prices!) evening out after a week of suffering like a dog, and not eating other than the sour ooze of rusty horseshoes. Hmmm…child vanished to her parent’s table after about 30 seconds. Sigh. Maybe I can have my quiet, not very nice and very expensive dinner after all. I ordered the “Salade de Chevre Chaud”. 12 leva. DB had the smoked salmon with blinis. 18 leva. I had my kir while waiting for my salad. One more side note. French-spawn restaurants are the ONLY ones where I order salads with leaves in them. As in, lettuce, mesclun, whatever comes in the shape of green leaves. Because in my experience, the French are the ONLY ones who know how to magic a salad. They dress it in a way that makes it taste like food for humans, instead of sheep grazing stuff. So I was looking forward to that.

It came, and it looked great. Small salad leaves from several sorts of lettuces, they looked fresh and coated in dressing. Then I spotted the sad-looking meagre portions of “chevre” resting isolated on some yummy-looking triangles of cardboard at the corners of the huge platter. Slices cut from a “log”, they were about 2 cm accross and 1/2 cm thick. And not very nice tasting at all. The cardboard was white toast past its prime, cut in triangles. Looked, tasted and had the consistency of old cardboard. Never mind, after all chevre isn’t local either, more the fool me to pick it, let’s tuck into the greens. Biiig mistake. They were indeed fresh and well-washed and crunchy, but….the “dressing” was more or less oil. Might have been olive oil. I can’t even begin to describe how that first mouthfull of leaves, covered in a thick layer of tasteless grease, settled in my stomach. But I was determined to enjoy my meal. So I asked for some lemon juice, or vinegar, to dilute the oil spill on my leaves. “Balsamic vinegar, perhaps”-the lovely waitress suggested. Look, lady, I don’t care if it’s lemon juice or battery acid, as long as it cuts through this horrible grease film on my crunchy leaves. Just bring whatever the hell-I’m already doing the chef’s job here, don’t ask me to do it profesionally, too!

So what did we have for mains, you’ll ask? A healthy portion of Bulgarian attitude. By the time I had finished my painful salad, the chubby kid decided the call of the wilderness was too strong to be resisted-and after exploring the restaurant whilst yelling interesting remarks to her mother who coulnd’t care less where her spawn was, she headed straight for the door and started opening and closing it. One metre away from me. The door that stood between the cold Sofia evening and my fragile lungs, just recovering after hovering on the brinks of pneumonia. Of course, at that point I grabbed a waitress and told her-look, could you please tell the parents of that child that she’s annoying us?

To be fair-the waitress removed the child, took it to the parent’s table, and spoke to them. Ok, I said to myself, that’s it sorted. I won’t let that minor incident ruin this already not so nice dinner. After all, they did take the kid away-and it was already more than any Bulgarian restaurant has done after such a complaint before. But I was being optimistic with no cause. Whereas the restaurant staff realised that they had to respond to our complaint, the girl’s parents couldn’t see for the life of them that some other adults might not be enchanted by their blond little angel. So, less than five minutes after the removal, said angel was banging the door again. This time, after about two minutes of said activity…the father joined her. Not to remove her, but to…help her open and close the door repeatedly.

That was the point when we asked for the bill and refused to even see our mains. No, no one understood a thing. They apologized, but they said “we can’t control other people’s children”. Obviously. They probably do the same when they take theirs to the restaurant. They did try to bribe us by waving away our bill (after kindly offering to wrap our mains to go, in a desperate attempt to still cash in on our custom. No thank you, had I wanted take away, I would have ordered from Pizza Victoria, at a mere fraction of the price) but we just left the money on the table and left.

I’m not going to rant anymore about very young kids in restaurants. They are disruptive. They’re not mine. I don’t want to have to cope with them. I don’t believe 3 years old belong in restaurants full of adults at 10 pm-they should be in bed long before that. I also don’t believe that if you can afford to fork out for a dinner at L’Etranger, you can’t afford a baby sitter. It is obvious to me that parents who drag their kids to posh restaurants late in the evening have no understanding about a child’s needs and requirements. But wait, THAT much should be obvious. Same parents smoke nonchalantly and blow the smoke in their angels’ faces. OBVIOUSLY they don’t think about those kids as about growing human beings, needing a healthy environment, education, structure and guidance. They’re just toys for them. I feel it for the Bulgarian kids.

But on the other hand, they’re not mine. And I also feel it for my quiet evenings and nice dinners. And I loathe more and more parting with my hard earned cash in places where I have to bloody babysit for some one else’s kids.

So we left, and for the rest of our stay in Sofia it’s quite unlikely that we’ll return to L’Etranger. Last night, they proved that they strayed very very far away from the French bistro concept that made them so appealing to me. First by the quality of the food, second for failing to convey to their Bulgarian customers that if they bring kids in an adult environment, kids are expected to behave as adults. Stay put in their seat, eat their dinner, and turn the volume down. Sort of …like the FRENCH kids do-I’ve seen them with my own two eyes, in countless restaurants over countless years. But she’s three, you’ll tell me, a three years old can’t do that for more than three minutes. That’s their attention span. Oh, my darlings, but I BLOODY WELL KNOW THAT, and I don’t have a three years old. Someone however has to tell it to the parents-next time they’ll know not to torture the kid in circumstances she can’t yet handle for natural reasons.

We finished our dinner at Bitburger. It’s a beer joint just off Rakovski. Food is terrrible (even the grilled sausages, albeit yummy, were cold), but the beer is good, cold and plentyful. Last night, the joint was full, they had live music (more like live cats being skinned while standing in hot water, by the sounds coming out of the singer’s mouth) and it was smoky. But you know what, at least that place is honest. It’s a beer joint and doesn’t pretend to be more. Our whole dinner with beers and wine costed less than one portion of the beef at L’Etranger. People were having fun and the service was correct and spiced with the lovely Bulgarian head wobble. It might not be up to my standards, but it didn’t deceive my expectation, and it has delivered what it had promised.

I will definitely return to Bitburger, and I strongly recommend you to go as well-it’s a warm, friendly place with amazing beer. Their sausages are nice, the cherry pie and the strudel hot and sweet, and the waiters and waitresses always friendly. A good pub with fair prices.

You decide by yourselves if you want to pay L’Etranger a visit. Who knows, maybe we were just unlucky last night.

* edited by me on October 22, to remove some thoughtless nasty remarks that were unworthy of an otherwise reasonable Transilvanian. I’ve learned an important lesson. Think twice, write once. And don’t write reviews of actual real places when you’re upset. Even if you are upset. Sleep on it. Thank you, L’Etranger, for teaching me an important lesson about blogging. And even if I’m not really welcome anymore, right before I will leave Bulgaria, I’ll sneak in a suprise visit. I hope you make me regret my current rants 🙂

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