Posted by: seasin | October 22, 2009

Sofra Restaurant Sofia-a carnivore’s haunt

Restaurant Sofra, Ul. Oborishte 69 (phone 02/9445005)

Sofra is a Turkish restaurant. Now, the Bulgarians’ relationship with the Turkish is, to say the least and put it in a very, very diplomatic way, complicated. Personally, I love Turkish food. But because of that complicated relationship, there aren’t many Turkish restaurants in Sofia.

This one however is a gem. Especially for a meat-eater.

It’s in a little house on Oborishte, just at the crossroad with Evlogi Georgiev. It has a garden at the front which can be very pleasant during the summer, because several trees cast a nice shade and the street is reasonably quiet.

As many Turkish restaurants, it’s a no frills, no nonsense kind of place.

The service is correct but slightly “localised”-on one previous visit, DB had ordered some chips (french fries, to you and me the non-brits), which arrived, golden and hot and positively delicious (proper potatoes, peeled and fried to perfection in the kitchen, not frozen lazy-cook ones)…about 5 minutes AFTER we had finished all of our other food.

On the most recent occasion, I was there for a relaxed dinner with two girl friends.

The only thing that makes this place stand out is the food. The menu is simple and very straight-forward. Lentil soup in two declinations (yum, yum yum for both of them). A couple of salads/mezes (try the aubergines salad-stunning!); pides and meat. Several kebabs (Iskender is our favorite), absolutely flawless lamb (grilled in chops or minced in all sorts of Turkish ways) and my absolute downfall, grilled chicken wings. There’s nothing simpler and humbler than this part of the chicken. Yet to me, when it’s done right, it’s the absolute best part of the bird. Sofra is doing it right. You get, on a plate spread with tasty little mounds of side dishes (a grilled peppers salad, rice, some red onion, and a few other things that I can’t remember, because OBVIOUSLY!), about 8 glorious little bites of birdy debauchery. They’d been marinated, quite clearly, I don’t know in what, then char-grilled to a juicy, spicy, perfection. I ate (and normally eat) them like a barbarian, with my fingers, licking said eating implements for every hint of taste (licked them all the way up to my elbows), cleaning the little bones thoroughly, chewing the ends…disgracing myself utterly in the process. The only thing that prevented some really out of place moans of pleasure was the presence of my vegetarian friend, who was rather unhappy with her lack of choice. And the only saving grace was that my Turkish friend (yes, I was having dinner with a vegetarian AND a Turk-two big sins in the eyes of some of my Bulgarian friends 🙂 ), was eating her pide (turkish version of pizza) with her hands-as is the proper way to eat a pizza, according to me :).

The other highlight of the evening for me was the traditional Turkish bread-lavash. A small one is the size of the table (it comes in medium and large, too!!!) and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It arrives on the table hot from the oven, golden, puffed up, sprinkled with sesame seeds and perfect. I could actually eat only that for dinner and I would be happy.

It might look like I’m going to Sofra just for the wings and the bread-and that would definitely part of the truth. I do. But the rest of the food is equally tasty. And simple. And…well…tasty.

You might struggle a bit if you’re a vegetarian. They offer a couple of salads, the lentil soups, some apetizers and a cheese pide, to cater for those who don’t eat meat. But no main course. Not even a hint of fish or seafood (which some veggies won’t eat anyway, but my friend does). But for people with no dietary restrictions, it’s a good place to go for really tasty, simple dinner.

As for the prices-we had three lentil soups, one cheese pide, one aubergine salad, one portion of chips, one portion of grilled wings for piggy little me, one medium lavash-and one small (which we didn’t touch but ordered because we were greedy), one cheese starter (just pieces of cheese served in a strange way, with pieces of butter strewn on the same plate), some water, two teas and a turkish coffee. The bill was 44 leva. We tipped.

Do try it, please-even if you don’t care much for grilled chicken wings 🙂 and if you go and see someone disgracing the human race by displaying the table manners of a caveman (or woman)…that would be me.

 

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 🙂

Posted by: seasin | October 2, 2009

Architects’ Club Restaurant, Sofia

Club Na Architecta, Ul. Krakra 11; tel 0888880979

My first experience with the Architect’s Club was some sort of an official function. I really loved the space-a very light and airy glass-encased restaurant, completely open to one of the most charming restaurant gardens in Sofia. Admitedly, it was summer, but even in winter when the garden is covered in snow the restaurant still feels bright and open. It’s just around the corner from both the University and the quirky Crystal Palace hotel, on the quiet Krakra street-smack down in the nicest part of Sofia Downtown. If you pass in front of it, you might be slightly intimidated and think it must be an exclusive place for members (after all, it is called the “club restaurant”)-but don’t hesitate to enter. It’s a very nice place, and the staff is unexpectedly friendly (hm…probably I’ve been in Bulgaria too long, now I expect being served with a smirk and a frown, and friendliness seems unexpected…how sad!).

That first party I’ve been to, on a lovely summer evening, the restaurant had taken a very Provencal feel-the terracotta floors, the color of the walls, the wrought iron bits on the furnishings and the interior design in general, bathed in the gentle summer sunset and warm, scented air definitely carried the place thousands of miles away from its actual location. I can’t remember much of the food (I normally don’t eat at receptions. First because I’ve organized so many of them that now every single one I’m attending just somehow feels like work; second because they all start so darn early for dinner-and too late for lunch-if I do end up eating something, it’ll ruin my appetite for a proper dinner, and it won’t be enough to keep my stomach from grumbling until breakfast; third because I absolutely abhore eating standing up (like horses or cows on pasture), juggling a plate and a glass while trying to make do without proper cutlery and at the same time shaking hands with people; unavoidably, as I’m about to pop in my mouth a rather too large bite of some sort of tasteless meat, I’ll be introduced to some hot shot and panick for a moment: do I put it in my mouth, or back on my plate? Do I swallow, violently nodding while attempting to pass the huge thing through my delicate gullet, eyes bulging out of my head and brain overheated while trying to find a way of shaking hands while holding plate, glass and fork?; and not least, because catering food around these parts of the world is…let’s just say I wouldn’t deliberatly have any of it for dinner-unless I was homeless and pennyless and willing to eat from rubish bins).

But I liked the feel of the place so much that I decided to organize there the very first event I would put together in Sofia for my new employer-a staff party to celebrate the signing of a very large contract. It was very good. The food was delicious and well served, the waiting staff very helpful although they weren’t speaking much English (and I wasn’t speaking much Bulgarian back then)-making it remarkable that they did so well and I, as a host, had such a wonderful interaction with them. It means they really tried to anticipate our needs, and are professional enough to troubleshoot even with a language barrier. They did freeze our champagne by mistake (we brought it in, and quite late, so they thought they’d better put it in the freezer to chill down properly before they serve…except they forgot. I won’t tell you how frowzen, then de-frosted by means of popping the bottle under warm water champagne tastes. My colleagues were already too merry on quite nice Bulgarian reds, whites and roses to care 🙂 ) but that was so little and so late in the evening that I didn’t hold it against them.

To make a very long story short, last night I returned for a light dinner with my love. We went because we knew it’s going to be good, and it’s very close to home. Safe choice.

And it was really good. It was, officially, my first dinner in Sofia with NO RAMPANT KIDS and NO CIGARETTE SMOKE. Admitedly, the weather was mild enough to allow us to still sit in the garden (I love Sofia autumns!), but there were no kids in sight. The garden and restaurant were wonderfully lit, there was no music but as it was quite full, the quiet buzz of conversation from other tables made us feel welcome and relaxed.

Now, the menu is nothing unusual for Sofia restaurants-there are a few traditional salads, nothing fancy, price between 5 and 8 leva (most expensive is the one featuring goat cheese); four soups (including the famous tarator); a few starters-between 5 and 20 leva, with the most expensive being the grilled octopus; a few grilled dishes-the usual ones; and a few mains, chicken, pork, beef and fish, three or four iterations of each-prices range between 10 and 15 leva, with a few spikes (29 leva for the most expensive dish on the menu, veal pepper steak).

We didn’t have starters as we were aiming for a light meal-DB got the chicken filets with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese, served with mashed potatoes, and I went for the pork fillet with lemon sauce, served with potatoes gratin and garlicky spinach. It wasn’t a life altering experience, but the food was good. They obviously care about the ingredients and the chef’s technique shows he’s not a housewife cooking in the family restaurant (as I very strongly suspect is the case in too many restaurants in Bulgaria-people cook without any formal training; I’m a very good cook, but I wouldn’t consider cooking commercially without first being properly trained, darn it!). The lemon sauce on my pork was velvety and very citrusy without being sour, the spinach was a triumph and the potatoes rich and creamy and probably made with a sheep or goat cheese, because they were really yummy with a hint of farminess to them. DB polished off his chicken, but didn’t have much to say about it-he seemed to enjoy the sauce too. I asked our waiter for a side-dish of green salad-which didn’t feature in the menu-and he graciously accomodated (this kind of request normally stumps most waiters here-if it’s not on the menu, even if they do have the ingredients and it’s a simple as boiling water, you can’t have it). The lettuce was fresh, crisp and crunchy, came with a wedge of lemon to sprinkle on top, and the chef even added a few chopped radishes and two quarters of a boiled egg on the sides of the dish-he must have thought that plain lettuce isn’t proper food for humans :).

We had a half-bottle of Chillean Cabernet Sauvignon, rather non-descript but a much better quality than one would expect from half bottles.

And now for the criticism. Our lovely waiter (easily one of the best waiters we’ve had in Bulgaria so far) told us the bread is really nice. It wasn’t. We didn’t really want bread but we ordered it hoping it’s freshly baked on the premises. My personal oppinion as a bread baker is that the bread is of the vacuum-packed pre-baked sort. As in, it’s baked on the premises (or rather finished there) but not MADE fresh every day. Shame, fresh bread is SOOOO easy and makes such a difference in a restaurant! the one we had was warm, but it was clearly re-heated once too often. My pork was tender, but the fillets were really tiny and very thin-and tasteless even with the lemon sauce covering them. I couldn’t taste the pork at all (not a bad thing, in fact, as I don’t really like the taste of pork) but I also couldn’t taste any seasoning whatsoever. Tip for Chef: you’ve obviously floured the fillets before searing them; next time, add some salt and pepper to the flour, then coat the meat in the mixture. You won’t believe the difference-and it will work magic with the lemon sauce.

They don’t seem to have any wine by the glass, and the choice of the half bottles was very limited (a bulgarian, the chillean we had, a spanish crianza and another one that I can’t remember). But this is where the criticism stops.

Because we were having quite a lovely evening and the portions weren’t oversized, we decided to have pudding as well-apple pie for BD, and creme brulee for me. According to him, the apple pie was yummy (with a special mention for the crust). My creme brulee enforced my oppinion that the chef knows what he/she’s doing. The custard was very very nice, smooth and creamy and fragrant and not too sweet. I liked. Liked very much. Granted, the burned sugar crust on top was too hard to break with the spoon (too thick, I think) so I couldn’t spoon it together with the custard, and there were some blueberries on the bottom of the bowl which were a nice thought but somehow didn’t add anything at all to the final result. But I did like the creme and I don’t normally like sweets.

The bill was very very decent-two mains, two deserts, three waters (soda) and a half-bottle of red wine, came up to 60 leva (tip not included) which was very fair for the food we had, and good value for the nice restaurant and really good service. As a bonus, it’s very close to home so we’ll definitely see more of the Architect’s Club in the future 🙂

Posted by: seasin | September 27, 2009

Mongrel cake -bakewell crust with a spicy fruit filling

 

After a very long time, yesterday I was back in my kitchen, loaded with interesting ingredients, and oh so ready to rock-and-roll…but it was one of those days when the gods of cooking are grumpy and frown upon their humble subjects, and everything you try to make fails miserably (well, almost. I did make a beautiful Indian-inspired pumpkin soup that I’ll post). I’ll blog about yesterday’s fails, but before that, let me tell you something about Transilvanians.

We’re stubborn. And stubborn. And a bit mad. And when the gods of cooking are grumpy, we don’t cower and beg and give up. What we do is we give it one night, you know, once they’ve slept on it they might have a pink-er outlook on life in general, and then…then we make cake.

Every kitchen fanatic out there will agree with me, that whilst cooking might fail every now and then (tough meat, burned casserole, bland sauce, not so fresh fish), there’s NOTHING easier to fail at than baking. So making cake today, one day after my FAIL day, seemed to be the perfect way to both jump back in the saddle after a bad fall, and to wave a V-sign in the face of the gods.

And to make it all more interesting, I didn’t bake a cake following a recipe. Naaah, way to easy not to fail that (not entirely true, I’ve failed miserably following cake recipes before! but let’s pretend for a second!). I had a peak in my baking drawer and in my fridge, and a long ponder on what puddings DB would be likely to enjoy (that man is SO difficult, I’m telling ya!)…and I ended up with…

The Mongrel Cake- behold:

IMGP1012

DB loves fruit pies. And crumbles. And Bakewell tart. And cheese cake. And rice pudding. But now I’m digressing badly. I didn’t have the makings of a cheese cake. And rice pudding-well, can anyone think of LESS of a challenge? And frankly speaking, I don’t like pie crust. There. Or tart crust. Just can’t wrap my head around the reason why people would pour lovely filling between tasteless, rock-hard cardboard. Or crumbly cardboard with the texture of coarse sand. Soooo not my style!

So I nicked Nigella’s crust for the Bakewell tart, and then I went to market with a fruit sort of filling. This is how you make the Mongrel:

For the crust: 175 g plain white flour; 30 g ground almonds; 50 g icing sugar; 125 g cold butter, diced; 1 egg, beaten; 2 tablespoons very cold milk; pinch of salt; few drops almond extract.

Put the flour, almonds and sugar in a food processor and pulse a couple of times until combined. Beat the egg with the milk, almond extract and the salt in a small bowl. Add the butter to the flour mixture and pulse a few times until it looks like oatmeal. After a couple of pulses (just a blink, really) pour the egg/milk mixture through the funnel. Now, people, heed my warning: the butter needs to be COLD. Out of the fridge, cut it into dice-sized cubes, then stick it in the freezer for a few minutes. The egg and milk mixture? Needs to be VERY COLD. Beat it up then stick the bowl in the freezer for 5 minutes. Only take them out when you’re COMPLETELY ready to make this dough. Also, DON’T overdo it. This thing literally will be ready in under two minutes. It’ll get REALLY messy and sticky if you don’t obey. Forgive the caps, but I need you to pay attention! Now, once it’s sort of mixed and you blinked twice, turn off the processor, take the blade out (remember to unplug it first, dude!) and tip the dough on a thoroughly floured surface. Now, don’t expect this to be like pie dough or tart crust. It’s very elastic and as Nigella says, quite Play-Doh-y. Quickly bring it together with your floured hands, form it into a flat disk, cover in cling film and stick it in the fridge while you make the filling.

For the filling: 2 pears ; 1 medium apple; 100 g frozen cranberries; 50 g chopped walnuts (use almonds, they’re much better but I didn’t have any); 50 g butter; 75 g brown sugar; 2 tablespoons ground almonds; 1 tablespoon flour; 1 heaped teaspoon powdered ginger; 1 heaped teaspoon powdered cinnamon; 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg; 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom; juice of half a lemon.

Peel, core and cube the apple and the pears (I used Nashi pears because DB bought some as an experiment against my express recommendations. Once he tasted the first one, he left the two remaining ones to rot in our fruit dish. After more than two years together, the man still won’t take my word for it 🙂 Geordies are more stubborn than Transilvanians, that’s a fact! So those pears were molding there and I can’t stand waste. But I wouldn’t recommend that you bake with them, generallly-they have loads of juice and a gritty texture once baked; they worked well in the Mongrel, but still I would advise you to use different, more flavourful pears) and put the cubes in a bowl; pour the lemon juice on and stir to coat them. Set aside.

Put the sugar and the butter to warm in a sauce pan. Once the butter is melted, chuck in the fruit cubes, sprinkle with the spices, stir then cover and let simmer for 15 min; they should be nicely stewed-but if you’re using normal pears or your cubes are small, even 10 might do; add the cranberries and the walnuts and boil for an extra 5 minutes, lid off. Once they’re cooked, turn the heat off and stir in the ground almonds and the flour. Set aside to cool.

To assemble & bake: dough, filling, few tablespoons fruit preserve (use something with a bit of tang, like blackberry, orange marmalade; or else with a robust flavour; I used a gorgeous wild raspberries preserve made by my mum in Transilvania-but not everyone is that lucky!)

Pre-heat the oven at 200 degrees Celsius; once it’s hot, take out the pastry from the fridge, roll out to slightly larger than a 22.5 cm springform tin. Now, if you didn’t heed my advice about the cold ingredients and the over-mixing (or maybe, who knows, even if you did!!!) your dough will stick to everything (but that’s no real problem, just dust said everything with flour like mad!) and will break apart in small little bits when you try to lift it to put it in the tin (buttered tin, I might add). Don’t panick (I didn’t!)-it’ll still work. What I did-I rolled out small bits of the dough and sort of thumbed them into the tin bottom-sort of like you do with graham cracker crust for cheese cake. Then I rolled the remaining dough into narrow strips (about 4 cm wide and 10 cm long-any longer and the little bastards broke-enough to bring me to tears, I’m telling you! But I wasn’t about to let above mentioned gods piss on my head again, was I?) and thumbed them on the edges of the tin, pressing gently but thoroughly over the dough on the bottom, to make a seamless crust. It should be just under one cm thick, and as much as possible even.

Spread the preserve on the bottom of the cake, then spoon in the filling, making sure it’s nice and evenly distributed. Shove in the hot oven, in the middle and on a cookie sheet (shouldn’t leak, but hey, you never know!) and bake for 30 minutes.

Take it out and let it cool, then gently take it out of the tin. Serve warm. Or cold. With a dusting of icing sugar on top. Voila:

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You will not BELIEVE how delicious this thing is. As a hint, I could have eaten both the raw dough and the cooked filling without putting them together, and I would have been very happy indeed. Next time I’ll make it, however, I’ll make sure I have some almonds to chop and add to the filling instead of walnuts, and some almond flakes to sprinkle on top-just to carry the theme nicely.

I suppose you could serve this either with some whipped cream, or some custard, or ice cream. But why mess with perfection?

Posted by: seasin | September 17, 2009

Iceland

During the early months of this summer, I enjoyed playing a game. Whenever asked about our summer holiday plans, I would watch carefully the face of the person asking (most of them were just asking for conversation purposes, not because they had a real interest) and then say sweetly: “Oh, we’re going to Iceland”. Expression on their face when the reality of my answer sank in: priceless. You could actually watch the little struggle going on in their mind :”Iceland? Summer holiday? So what the hell do I say now? Why the hell? No, I can’t ask that. Nod politely? No, because I actually want to know why the hell!”. It usually came out as “Oh, really? Wow, how…cool!”. At this point, I would usually add that we’re also spending a week in Ireland. Which didn’t do anything to help them solve their puzzle. Iceland-brrr; Ireland-wet. It somehow didn’t compute for anyone as the ideal summer holiday.

But you know what, it was. Iceland. Cool, that is. And wet. And cool in the rap-lingo sense. Waaaay cool.

The words and feelings that describe it: stunning; lonely; dangerous; tidy; harsh; soft; cold; boiling; fertile; baren; ladden with contrasts, in short; colorful in the most improbable ways; dwarfing and taming humans, forever a rock and water reminder of who is really the master-the mighty Earth gave birth to us, and our arrogant lifes are in its rocky claws at all times. This is Iceland, through Transilvanian eyes.

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Horses (special, Icelandic horses) grazing and relaxing nearly wild under the shadow of extinct (or maybe not) volcanoes. Almost every mountain top is shrouded in white clouds, and the sky is painfully blue all around.

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Rivers and streams-some birthed by glaciers, some spurted out hot from the loins of the Earth-when you meet them, they have cooled down, but they’re carrying with them the mark of Evil-and depositing it all over the rocks. Yellow sulphur, as bright and sunny as seems, is a warning of the destructive power of what lies beneath

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Glaciers. Also hiding under clouds. And hiding, in turn, in their frozen bossom, live, breathing volcanoes.

IMGP0877Sea meeting molten rock, creating sculptures. And people living everywhere, isolated in this breathtaking nature.

IMGP0889Waterfalls. Everywhere. Most of them don’t even have names.

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Horses. Nothing else to add, really.

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Geysirs. Water coming out of the earth and flying high towards the sky, boiling, like a hot, wet, breath of a giant whale hidden under the hills. Beautiful and menacing.

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Water in the shut mouth of old, dead volcanoes.

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The broken feet of a mighty glacier, floating to disappearance in an unique Glacial Lagoon.

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And as a surprising domestic reminder, sheep. Grazing peacefully, all looking like cuddly toys, heavy with fluffy warm wool, hanging to the most precarious slopes, in picture-perfect landscapes.

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All around it, the sea. With scattered islands, the spawn of volcanoes, some younger than me, some already just a memory in science books. Iceland is a place where islands are born and die at the whim of a sulphur-smelling god.

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And horses.

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And a stick’s throw away, mud boiling like a witches’ cauldron.

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Surrounded by the surreal, ephemeral pinkness of the moss flowers.

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A blue lagoon of a less than tropical aspect

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And one to rule them all: the volcano

This was Iceland, to me: water, rock and improbable, fragile life-here in the form of grass clinging, vibrant and juicy, on to the very edge of death and destruction

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Posted by: seasin | September 17, 2009

Islands with I

Guess what, the Transilvanian IS BACK! You thought I was gone and vanished, never to be seen again, didn’t you? Well, you don’t know much about transilvanians then, do you? We are the ones who never go away 🙂 (some say. I think all these vampires stories are just stories. For once, I like garlic. I cook with garlic. I can’t live without garlic. That should tell you 🙂 )

We’ve been away for two weeks (woohoo!!!) on holiday. And, because we’re weird, we picked Iceland and Ireland for our summer break. DB, as a Geordie, can’t deal with cold or hot weather-he starts freezing under 5 degrees Celsius, and melting above 25. So because here, in Bulgaria, we are blessed with all 4 seasons, wonderful springs and long autumns, but also cold, snowy winters and sweltering summers, he came up with this theory: we’ll be just fine, if in the winter, we can go on holiday somewhere warm, and during the summer, somewhere cool. Sounds good to me, I said, just the thought of blue skies and bright sun, while Sofia is under one metre of snow, and it’s windy and grey and miserable and you can’t even drive anywhere, lifted my spirits enormously. I did have a slight issue with the other half of the theory (“going somewhere cool in summer”) when in fact everyone knows that summer is for the beach, baby! But I agreed to give his theory a try last year, and guess what, it works beautifully! We did Italy the first winter (Florence, Rome, Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, sunny and blue and dotted with ripe lemons and oranges on lush green trees-when the Balkans were shivering in -20 temperatures in snow storms), Canada that summer (remind me to tell you all about that, it was BRILLIANT), South Africa last winter, and now the isles.

So how was it, you’ll ask? I hope I’ll have time to blog about it, because both countries (islands) are unbelievably beautiful, each in its own very special way.

Posted by: seasin | August 24, 2009

Breathing with bread

About 13 years ago, on a sweltering August morning, I was entering a small, basic kitchen, with uneven whitewashed walls and low ceilings darkened by years of cooking fires. The room was full of girls and women, maybe 8 of them, all more or less connected by blood lines. It was a Thursday, and on the following week-end, one of the young girls in the room was getting married-a traditional Transilvanian village wedding. I was privileged enough to be allowed to be part of the preparations-although I had barely met those women-because I was going to be part of the wedding, and because I was sharing the same bloodlines. You know, the city girl coming to re-plunge her roots.

On that Thursday afternoon, three days before the wedding, the bride, her mother, future mother in law and several close relatives were together in a small village kitchen, making the bread for the wedding party. When I entered the room, nearly blinded by passing from the hot, white August sun outside, to the dim light of a tiny room only lit by windows the size of my two palms put together, I was looking forward to the cackling noise and cheerfull atmosphere one would expect from a room full of women of all ages. The thing that hit me most was the silence. The air was balmy, particles of flour were dancing in the sunrays coming from the tiny windows, and I didn’t even feel the sweltering heat. It was for the first time in my life that I felt as if I had stepped into some kind of church.

The voices were hushed, the movements were soft, there was no loud laughter, no rush. For as long as I stayed there, I had the weirdest feeling that I was taking part to a secret, long forgotten ritual, some sort of ancient magic. The women there knew exactly what they were doing, and although I had no clue, I only felt as an intruder for a short time. One old lady, the bride’s mother, lifted a tanned, wrinkled face from a sack of flour, gave me a small, almost shy smile, then brushed her knuckles over my cheek and asked if I wanted to help. Oh, yes, that I did!!! So, marked by a powdery trace of flour on my city girl face, I joined the witches circle. We sifted, we crumbled live yeast in warm milk, we grated potatoes (the village bread is made with potatoes, in huge round loaves, sometimes up to 5 kg in weight, and it lasts for a week or sometimes more, sweet and tasty and hearty, with a thick crunchy crust-bread for those hungry after simple, physical labour)-and then we kneaded. All of us, lined along a massive, rather shallow oval vat that looked like it was carved out of a whole tree trunk and polished smooth by anonymous men of long ago, we bent over and sank our hands in the warm, silky and sticky dough. The first touch was mesmerising. I felt the living thing enrobing my fingers first, then the whole of my hands-it was like plunging, hands first, in life itself. And the rythm of all those sister hands, pulling and pushing and caressing and blessing, was intoxicating.

We kneaded for a long time, bent over the monster amount of dough, hard work, and with every passing moment, every flexing of my arms and back muscles, I felt added admiration and respect for those simple women. And I felt like one of them. I caught myself replicating their hushed tones when speaking-we were doing magic, magic needs quiet and love and respect to happen. I caught myself replicating their movements-no, not the turn of the wrist of the expert kneader, it took a while to master that, but the quick wipe of my arm over my brow, to stop the sweat from going in my eyes-there was no time for cleaning hands and getting tissues or handkerchiefs-the living dough was giving us no respite. I felt connected to those women, by that warm dough that was breathing under our fingers, much more than the rational understanding of the fact that we were, in fact, related, ever let me feel.

There was no rest for a long time-while one batch was resting and growing bigger in a corner, under crisp white table cloths woven at home by those same women, another batch was mixed and kneaded…and when the old lady, who was in charge of things by reason of her age and experience, unveiled that first batch, my eyes went wide and I felt my mouth stretch in a big, proud grin-that thing, we made it-it was alive and rose and would turn into tasty fragrant BREAD. She shaped the first loaves, helped by another lady, while we were measuring out the makings of the third batch-then they opened the oven, which was adding its breath of fire to the August heat, a small mouth of orange glow in the dim light of the room, and with iron arms and steady hands, carefully and reverendly placed the loaves in to bake. Unless you’ve witnessed it, you’ll never imagine the smell-the combination of wood burning, charcoal, bricks and clay baked hot for years, and bread. It was like a drug, a fitting thing for us witches.

We baked perhaps over a hundred huge round loaves that day-they were coming out, dark brown and steaming, then one of the women grabbed them each with a thick cloth, and then gently starded beating the bread with a wooden sort of small bat, quick, dull-sounding hits, which made the crust crack and its first layer, the dark brown, nearly burned layer mixed with charcoal and clay residue from the oven, fall off. That layer would dry hard as a rock otherwise, and no knife would be cutting through it after a day or two-so the careful, gentle knocking was practical wisdom. The ready loaves would end up in large round wicker baskets, covered with yet more home-woven spotless white cloths, and placed to sleep and rest in a cool cellar until there was time for the feast.

I think you can tell by now that I was drawn into the breadmaking magic that day.

I don’t eat bread normally-sometimes not for months-but whenever there’s an opportunity to relive that experience by sinking my fingers in elastic, warm, sensual dough, I’ll take it.

And whenever I feel like life is too fast, too complicated, too sad, too bleak, whenever I feel alone and I feel like my lungs are not filling properly, I bake some bread. As I start sifting the flour, all of a sudden I can breathe like the first woman on Earth-back when the women’s steps were treading clean land, and they were breathing the pure air of the endless forrests and plains.

There’s nothing more calming, more purposeful, more ancient and peaceful and sensual than making bread.
And nothing says more loudly and completely “I love you” to a man, a family or friends, than caressing hands placing dough in an oven. It’s been like this forever, all over the world-making bread makes me feel related to the whole humanity. 

Breadmaking is my way of feeling lovingly human, simple and clean. And my way of breathing when it’s all getting too much to handle.

Posted by: seasin | August 18, 2009

Rosemary pork chops and spicy potato wedges

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I don’t normally eat pork. Before I moved to Bulgaria, I probably hadn’t touched pork (in any form, meat, bacon, sausages, nada!) for about…maybe 5 years?

I don’t particularly like the taste, I find most pork cuts awfully fat and I think pigs are really dirty creatures.

But people do change, and when I got to Sofia, more out of necessity than for any other reason (pork is the cheapest and the most widely available meat here-therefore also very fresh) I started eating it again.

Now, two things from my list of reasons-why-I-don’t-eat-pork haven’t changed. I still think it’s much too fat for my taste…and I simply can’t stomach the taste of it. So I started slowly, with bacon from which I was (and I still am!) trimming the fat and frying…in a non-stick pan with no grease added. I know, I know! Then sausages (although I still pick and prefer all-beef, beef-and-lamb or all-lamb sausages). And finally, because a. DB likes pork; and b. most times we’re going shopping, there’s simply no other meat available (except for chicken, but chicken…is boring!)-I started cooking pork and eating pork often-ish.

I do love a challenge, and I set myself one: to cook pork in a way that makes it taste less…fat, and less porky :).

This recipe is quite strongly flavoured-so only do it like this if you’re willing to go for something different. If you do like the taste of pork, and don’t have a palate for rosemary, cut the rosemary down or even replace it with a different herb-like thyme, for example. But if I were you, I’d give it a try as it is.

So..to make the rosemary marinade for the meat, you need the juice from one lemon, two sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves picked off and finely chopped, one spoon of olive oil, one teaspoon of honey, and either three cloves of garlic, finely chopped (or squeezed with the garlic press), or one heaped teaspoon of garlic powder. Yes, you can use dried rosemary-but in this case, you need a full heaped spoonfull. Trust me, I know this is strong stuff, but we’re just trying to hide the porky taste of the chops. 

Give the marinade a stir, then place in two large pork chops (about 300 g each), bone in. As DB did with the steaks the other day, give the steaks a goood rub with the marinade and toss them about a few times, to make sure they’re completely coated. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the raw meat-I’m trying to show you how to eat pork, not how to win a swift trip to the ER. Cover the chops, and put them in the fridge while you make the wedges-but pop your head in to say hello every now and then, and turn them around in the liquid.

For the spicy home-made potato wedges:

First, turn your oven on to heat up at 180 degrees. In order to feed two rather hungry people, you’ll need 4 medium potatoes (mine were as big as my fist. DB seems to enjoy buying potatoes the size of my fist. Hmmm). Don’t bother peeling them just wash them up, cut each in half lenghtwise, then slice each half into 4-6 wedges (obviously, more wedges you cut, the smaller they’ll each be, and the less baking time they’ll need. Keep that in mind). Pat the wedges dry in a paper towel, then drop them in a big oven dish (I use a tin baking tray with rather high sides); over the potatoes, pour about three spoons of oil (your choice of it, really, but this time I used a mix of olive oil and sunflower oil-olive oil doesn’t get as hot as other oils, and you really need as hot as you get to manage lovely crisp wedges); sprinkle with: one heaped teaspoon of rosemary (yes, MORE rosemary-I’m serious about this stuff)-either fresh leaves, finely chopped, or dried-your call, really; one heaped teaspoon of chilli flakes (or about 5 of the small pepperoncini, crumbled between your fingers. Remember to wash your hands about three times with soap and water after doing this, the little italian buggers are strong, man, and as I said before, I’m trying to show you a recipe, not teach you about pain. Even if you do wash, please remember not to rub your eyes for about an hour or so-if you forget and you do, you’re a goner!); one heaped teaspoon of garlic powder; a goood grind of fresh black pepper; and a goood grind of salt. Once everything is in the tray, get down, dirty and personal with the wedges and give them a really good stir&rub with your hands, trying to get all surfaces well coated.

Pop them in the hot oven and WAIT. They’ll take about 45 minutes at 180 degrees-take a peak every now and then and give the tray a good shake, so that they don’t stick. Also, use your eyes and common sense. Mine took 45 minutes to get to that stage where I wanted them (they’ll need a further 15-20 minutes, but we’ll talk about that in a second!), but your oven is certainly different-so if you notice they start getting charred, you adjust the time accordingly.

Once the potatoes had 40-45 minutes, you need to handle the pork.

Heat up a non-stick pan as hot as it gets, then give each chop a superficial shake to get rid of some of the liquid (but reserve the marinade), and pop them in the pan. Leave them for about 4 minutes, flip them over, another 4 minutes, rinse and repeat 🙂 No, no, I’m joking 🙂 they just need about 8 minutes on each side-in two blocks of 4. Once both sides are browned, put them in an oven-proof dish, pour the marinade over them, pop them in the oven to join the potatoes, and kick the heat up at 200 degrees. This will allow the wedges to become crisp on the outside and nice an fluffy inside, and the pork…well, to cook!

Leave both dishes in there for about 10 minutes, then check the pork: the bone should have changed color (no pinkness or blood-like colors visible), the marinade and jucices coming out of the pork should be well simmering, and when you stab the meat with a fork, the juices should run clear. If it’s not quite done yet, give it 5-10 more minutes. OBVIOUSLY, if the potatoes are ready by then, take them out, covering them lightly in foil to keep them warm. Now, if you’re really afraid of the plague or whatever else you get from undercooked pork, you’ll definitely have to figure out your own timing for this meal. Normally pork, if it’s in thin-ish slices, should be done completely in 25 minutes at those kinds of temperatures. Personally, I like it moist and juicy and as most people would consider just slightly undercooked-exactly at the point when all pinkness has gone out of it. And because it will keep cooking for about a minute even after you turn off the oven, I think the amount of time I’ve given in this recipe is perfect. As a matter of fact, these chops I’m proudly showing you WERE definitely perfect.

I served them with some simple, halved cherry tomatoes, and a couple of spoonfuls of the meat juices generously splattered on top of the chops. They would go down a treat with some crusty bread to soak up the juices-but we don’t really eat bread. Anyhoo, they were absolutely wonderful. Well, BD made a bit of fun about me using up the whole remaining quantity of rosemary in the world, but hey, that WAS the purpose of the recipe, and after all, rosemary is good for you, isn’t it? ( as a matter of fact, it is-it’s extremely high in iron, calcium and vitamin B6, and there were studies linking a compound found in it with shielding the brain cells from free radicals, thereby lowering the risk of strokes and degenerative diseases; on the other hand, an overdose-which, I assure you, is much much more than what I’ve used in this recipe, can provoke weird adverse reactions. You’d have to pretty much graze a whole hill-side full of rosemary to get that though, so I’m sure you’re safe!)

Well, if you do try it, let me know how it all went! And consider yourself warned about the overdosing and side effects (in my case, the only serious side-effect was one very seriously pleased boyfriend. Manage your own risks, people!)

Last night we had dinner at Uno’s. Just to spoil ourselves a bit. And while I recognise that most people won’t afford a dinner at Uno’s in Sofia, I also have to recognise the fact that it is, by very very far, the best restaurant in Sofia.

I could actually say it’s the best restaurant in Bulgaria, if it weren’t for the oustanding, out of context, absurd and unbelievable little gem that is the restaurant at the Mussala Palace Hotel in Varna. But then again, the Mussala Palace is an odity and in a cathegory of its own, and I’m writing now about our evening at Uno’s, and we’ve only been to Varna once since I moved, and we’re not very likely to go again very soon, so actually, I can say in all confidence that Uno’s is as good as you’ll get in Bulgaria.

Now, Uno’s is an institution. I think they’re celebrating 10 years litterally of excellence this year, and such consistency and dedication to do your very best is so rare in these parts of the woods, that they deserve a medal.

A few words about the location: a nicely re-done house on Bulevard Levski (there’s another location as well, but as I’ve never been there I’ll limit my comments to this one), which benefits from a lovely hidden from the street garden all summer long (and, given the patio heaters that were present all around, I think it’s a safe guess to say that you can enjoy the garden all year round, if the weather is clement). The place is extremely understated in decorations, and for me my friends, that shows two things: a. real taste; b. this restaurant is not there to show off the owner’s wealth, poor taste and the newest trends in restaurant design. The restaurant is, instead, all about the food and the client and the two of them meeting in harmony and undisturbed by decorations. I like. I like very much.

Uno’s claim to be an Italian restaurant. Well, to me, it isn’t. It’s just a very good restaurant. Yes, it does have a slight mediterranean inclination, and a very extensive, well picked and very well presented by the sommelier wine list-just like any Enoteca should have. But…there’s nothing precisely Italian about the place. As I said, it’s-just a great restaurant.

The service has always been impecable, the standards worthy of any Old World capital, just smooth and confident and really destined to make you notice the food and enjoy your evening.

And talking about the food…DB spoiled himself with a starter of scallops, sauteed and served over delicious slices of stewed apples, and enhanced with their own juices made into a sea-tasting froth. The scallops were sweet and tender-and they enforced my oppinion that if the Gods existed, scallops would be on their table all day every day.

I went for the baked goat cheese (told you there’s nothing Italian about the place, both starters are as french in inspiration as it gets), delicious, served over a carpaccio of beetroot which made a really nice background to the pungent cheese, sprinkled with pinnoli (pine nuts) and accompanied by a small crisp fresh and tasty green salad mix.

For our mains, we went for the spoil again-DB for the veal steak-just because it’s so darn impossible to get a proper steak anywhere else in Sofia-it came with crisp oven baked herbed potatoes, and a wonderful pepper sauce (his choice-you get three to choose from), served properly on the side. The meat was medium-rare, instead of rare, as he ordered, but then again there’s an excuse for that: chefs are hesitant to make it really rare, as normally clients who order it rare really expect medium-rare. Especially in Bulgaria. But it was extremely tasty and a proper piece of steak.

I went a bit adventurous, and ordered the turbot. Now, the turbot is one of the very few fish species that call the Balck Sea home-and it’s a nice tasting fish, with white flesh and a firm texture. Because it’s quite rare however and it can grow quite big (meaning that if you, as a restaurant, buy one, you’d have to be sure that many of your clients are going to order it, because there’s no way that one person can eat the whole thing), it tends to be seldom present on the restaurant menus (or, in true Bulgarian fashion, it IS present but only on the menu, not in the kitchen as well) and quite expensive for what is essentially a local fish. But as we were in spoil ourselves rotten mode, I got the turbot (kalkan as it’s called here…and in Romania :). I chose to have it oven baked, rather than the fried option (which was actually the one in the menu-it was wonderful that they gave me a healthier cooking option without me even having to ask). Now, if you care little about the size of your bottoms, and you do want the turbot, please please don’t do like I did and order the fried one. It is finger-licking delicious. The one that I got, skilfully skinned (turbot has thick skin covered in bony buttons) and de-boned by our lovely waiter in front of us, was very very nice indeed-served with a mix of peeled, cubed and slightly stewed tomatoes and sliced black olives, and with freshly squeezed lemon juice in a little side jug, it was delicate and perfect. But I’m telling you, the fried version is really the one worth trying, especially if it’s your first time tasting this peculiar fish.

We also had pudding-very very unusual for us, but it was completely Uno’s fault. Yes, I blame them completely. See, they don’t have a desert menu. Instead, once your main course plates are cleared and you had a few minutes rest, a chance to finish the wine and chat some more about the doomed world economy and generally Arsenal beating Everton 6-1 and other important stuff of the sort, that sneaky waiter comes over…with a huge platter loaded with desert samples. See, when you’re only seeing words on paper, it can be easy not to want desert (especially if you don’t have a sweet tooth). But….but…when they’re THERE, under your eyes and nose, in all their magnificent irresistible naughtiness, how can one resist them? Well…you don’t. DB had the Tarte Tatin, if I remember correctly (but I might not, by that time of the evening I was high on nice food and great service and even greater company and my favorite Bulgarian red) a pear Tatin rather than the traditional apple one, and I had the Chocolate souffle (in my oppinion, inadequately named, because it was a moelleux au chocolat, or chocolate lava cake, as it’s called, in a very 80s manner, in the States). Do I need to mention that they were absolutely to die for? We licked the plates clean, I’m telling you.

We obviously had a bottle of my fav Bulgarian red wine, an under-rated Cuvee of Cab-Sauv and Merlot coming from the South Sakar, under the Terra Tangra label-how wonderful of the Enoteca to stock it- it’s not a very prised wine by the wealthy mob of the country, and the design of the bottle and the quality of the label are…slightly cheap looking and could do with a complete make-over-but the wine is a nectar, full and round and very very remarkable. I do recommend it with all my heart and slightly intoxicated palate-if you’re into reds and looking for a nice Bulgarian one, please try the Terra Tangra cuvee.

And then, because every rose has its spines, we couldn’t help but complain about the flock of children, between 4 and 10 in age, who were running around the tables like mad and ruining what otherwise would have been a perfect evening. Look, folks-you have kids-well done. It’s easy making them, as we all know, it requires no brains whatsoever. But for the love of God, if you made them, please understand that it’s your responsibility to EDUCATE them. And if you insist in bringing your little bundles of joy in a definitely adult-only environment, such as a posh expensive restaurant on a Saturday evening at 10 pm (not to mention that…what the HELL are children doing in a place where adults smoke and drink that late at night?), you have to be sure that they’ll behave and not disturb. Because, as amazing as your running screaming out of control brat is to you, to me he’s just an annoying noisy spot on an otherwise nice evening that I’ve been waiting a very long time for and I’m paying dearly to have. I’m there for the food, wine and conversation-if I had wanted screaming kids, I would have had a picnic at a playground or dinner at McDonalds.

And you, restaurant owners and managers in Bulgaria, HAVE to realise this thing once and for all. No, clients don’t like other people’s children creating havoc while they’re trying to eat. IF you want to have a family-friendly restaurant, fine-but advertise it as such. IF you’re trying to run an upscale venue, children are not a plus. Well-more precisely, I absolutely think they should be welcome-as long as they sit in their seats, eating their food and not making loud noises-just like everyone ELSE in the restaurant is expected to behave. Now, if I, a thirty-something young lady, I would start running around the tables bouncing some ball and screaming from the top of my lungs, I’m pretty sure that a. the other clients would complain about it; b. the waiting staff and the restaurant manager would do something about it; b. that something might involve calling an ambulance from the nearest mental institution. Look, we’re in an adult place, they’re welcome if they can behave according to the venue. IF they can’t and don’t, you as restaurant MANAGERS have the responsibility to deal with it.

And I don’t mean deal with it the way UNO’s dealt with them last night-they tried to bribe us with a “free” digestif. No, no, no-that’s the wrong thing to do. I said deal with THEM, as in STOP them from doing it again, not deal with me by bribing me with nasty tasting drinks. It didn’t work. (we might have had a deal if it was a bottle of bubbly and a ten percent discount for life-that’s a bribe I might consider for putting up with screaming running little bastards. But a disgusting mix of Fernet Branca and Mint-it only made me madder!).

So a rather nasty end to an otherwise absolutely wonderful evening…

As for the prices-what can I say? The above-described mouth-watering dinner, with the wine and a bottle of sparkling water, was 210 LEVA (just over 100 EUROs) for two (very content with the food and wine) people. That’s obviously not something that one can aford on a daily basis (well, maybe you can, but then I’m not a friend of yours, you rich decadent…person!) but well, well, well worth it for nice evenings.

Uno’s is definitely the best restaurant in Sofia, and even the prices won’t deter me from going again as often as I can possibly wrestle and cajole DB into it (no, he likes it too, a lot, and we don’t really mind the prices, it’s just that, because Uno’s is sooo good and really has no rival, we and especially him are using them very often for business lunches and dinners-so he’s not very interested in going there again for private dinners. The evil Geordie that he is!).

On the other hand, one more evening with running, screaming kids might indeed deter me from ever going again. Uno’s, you’ve been warned-and I do indeed go there for business dinners and lunches of my own too, send my boss there frequently as well, and generally recommend it to most foreigners who need a nice place. Giving up on it just because of that issue would be a shame as I really love the place and I’ve only ever had positive feed-backs from the people I’ve sent there.

Posted by: seasin | August 15, 2009

The times when being a foreigner is hard

That's how my faraway village looks this time of the year

That's how my faraway village looks this time of the year

I haven’t been posting for a while, although I have a few reviews and some recipes to share-it’s because this past week I haven’t had the lightness of heart required for writing things that other people might enjoy reading.

You know, I’m one of those rather ridiculous people who need very very little to be happy. I take great pleasure in the small things that life has to offer, the bright sunshine of a morning, breathing in the air and knowing the sea is close by even if you can’t quite see it yet, the colors on a butterfly’s wings, the bubbles in a chilled glass of champagne, my bronze leather sandals with ridiculous high heels that also happen to be very, very comfortable besides making me feel like a greek goddess when I’m wearing them. You know, all this small crap that most people don’t even notice, let alone feel completely happy and content because it exists.

So when I started considering moving abroad, I knew I would miss a few things-my single life, my cat, my cramped little flat which was a shoe repository and where no one was allowed to come except when granted special permit, my job, oh my exciting fascinating job which had pretty much engulfed my whole life. Obviously, I knew I’d miss my family-but my father decided a few years ago that he’s had it with everything and just went on and died on us, losing a battle with aggressive cancer that he didn’t even know he was having-so I was going to miss him no matter where I was on this planet; and my mum and my sister, I was going to miss them too, but I wasn’t seeing them much even when I was living in Romania, anyway, so the phone calls and few visits back to Romania would take care of missing them-not to mention that I was only moving to Sofia, which is definitely within driving distance from Romania-so I wasn’t worried about that, either.

I knew I’d miss my friends, the few real good friends I have, but again, our friendship is such that, even before I moved, we wouldnt’ speak to each other or see each other for months, yet when we did, it was like we never had been apart-my friends are people who have other things besides friends going in their lifes, families, work, a LIFE, you know, and yet they would put everything on hold when either one of us was calling with and invitation to dinner or a party-although we sometimes lived in different towns-or different countries. Friends who are willing to put their life on hold for two weeks and travel with me in a weird far away country, where they had absolutely no business whatsoever, and would spend most of our stay there by themselves, just because I absolutely had to go on that trip-for work, and it was only two weeks after my father’s funeral and I was broken into little pieces so they were worried that I might forget some of the pieces at home, or maybe in that far away country, and then what would they do with a broken, incomplete Transilvanian for life? So with that kind of friends,  I pretty much figured that Bucharest or Sofia or Timbuktu, it won’t make much of a difference either.

After pondering on all that, and on all the positive aspects of moving, I decided to go ahead with it and become, more or less permanently and to most of the people I’d live and work with, or meet, a FOREIGNER. Well, for most of the time, it’s been really exciting. And interesting. And challenging. And I met some really nice people in the process, and some really weird ones, too.

I furthermore figured that I’m actually missing more things than I initially thought I would. Life in Bucharest-no, not the crazy traffic, or the derelict old comunist blocks of flats with laundry drying underneath the windows and people living there anonimously like sardines in grey concrete cans. But hell if Sofia didn’t make me miss…the Mall, people! The shops with things that you were actually interested in buying, all the services and convenience. I miss the restaurants, I miss the parks, I miss the fast, crazy pace of life, I miss the competition and the fact that everyone has or seems to have a purpose and a determination to do whatever it takes to achieve a better future. I miss the fact that people don’t feel defeated! I miss the bustling cultural life, the non stop events. I miss my gym, and my horse riding mornings, and oh, how I miss the football games 🙂

But besides all that, this week I finally realised that the thing that I strangely miss and that’s making me feel most like a foreigner, is the absence of my country’s traditions.

Let me explain. Like several other Eastern European countries, we celebrate name days. For those of you who never heard of it, it’s a partially religious tradition that makes people celebrate like a second birthday, on the Saint’s day who’s name they’re wearing. Like, for instance, if your name is Jane, you get parties, flowers, congratulatory phone calls from friends and family, presents and all sorts of slack from domestic chores, on whatever day it happens to be St. John. No one ignores you on that day-the tv stations and radio stations begin their programs by congratulating all those who celebrate their name day, the company that provides your mobile phone services sends you a text message congratulating you, and informs you that they’re offering you I don’t know how many free minutes just because you’re special. If you book a table at a restaurant to celebrate with friends, the restaurant will offer you flowers, or a cake, or a discount. It’s a tradition, and I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but it just is-and the whole country takes part in it. Of course, not every one is fortunate enough to have a Christian saint’s name-so they are a bit envious and they claim it’s an ancient tradition that’s not worth keeping, but a. that’s a topic for a different post; and b. in the end, because of all the cheer and the parties and the fun and celebrations that go on, they’ll eventually drop the sour face and join in the proceedings-because, even if your name is not John, you most certainly have a family member, a friend or a co-worker who’s name IS John, and that means that for the price on a phone call to say”Congratulations”, and maybe a bunch of flowers or some chocolates, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and full glasses and plates into the general fun.

So, to make a long story short-and bitter-, since I was born, besides Christmas and my birthday, I’ve always also had my name day to look forward to. Well, ladies and gentlemen, not anymore. Of course, I noticed a difference last year in August, but I was still all wrapped up in the excitement of moving and my new social life, so I wasn’t that bothered. Naturally, my family and friends called and some even sent flowers (!!!), but that was it.

At the begining of this week however, when I was investigating again ways of sending my mother, from afar, a little present and some flowers (we share a name day), I realised that the family, and many many friends, and her employees, and even people who don’t know her at all, the bank clerk, the traffic police agent that will stop her for breaking some ridiculous rule, a shop attendant who sees her name on her bank card when processing her transaction, all will smile and wish her a happy name day and cut her some slack and for once, on August 15, she will once again feel spoiled and special. You have no idea how important it is, that for one day you become visible for everyone around you-not just those who know you.

This year, for the second time in a row, no one, besides my mother, my sister, the rest of my family and some close friends, knows that this is a special day for me. And they’re far away and I can’t physically share the joy and the ligthness and brightness of the day, and that feeling that it’s a celebration that everyone acknowledges and is happy to participate in. I feel alone and I feel a stranger. And that’s tough, because it’s unexpected. I didn’t think it will matter for me-just because it was something I had every year since I was born, I was pretty much taking it for granted.

Well what do you know, I guess it does matter. Feeling lonely when you’re surrounded by people, even if most of them actually like you, pretty much sucks. It made me realise that we shouldn’t take ANYTHING for granted in our lifes, and also that no matter how much you like your life abroad, a little part of you will always feel a stranger.

For the moment, I’m having quite a hard time dealing with it-so if any of you Internet people out there have been in this bleak place I’m in now, drop a word of advice.

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