Hamachi

I was looking for a place to have lunch in Sofia and I recieved some recommendations for Hamachi. It is owned by a group that runs quite a few notable restaurant that such as Cine Cita, Piccolo Casa and Sushi Bar. I had dinned their quite a few years ago and after reviewing my blog post, my experience was somewhat the same.

I drove past the place a few times as the enterance is back a bit off the street and sidewalk. The interior is bright and zen… very Asian. I got better photos this time around since I was there for lunch.

Once again I sat in the room with the tree, which was looking much healthier since my last visit. I no longer felt the need to give it a sip.

I again ordered the miso soup which, was quite good. The only flaw was that the tofu was a bit cold on the inside. I assume that the broth is made and the toss ins are added to order.

The presentation of the sushi has improved and I enjoyed my selections. I steered clear of the pre-made sushi served by the slice and ordered full rolls. The shrimp tempura was really nice, crispy and tender. Since I was the only customer, I had a chance to pick my server’s brain. I asked him about the sauce on the shrimp tempura rolls, I detected a hint of star anise, which he couldn’t confirm since it was not made in house, but in a bottle that you could purchase at the ubiquitous Alex shop. The issue about the chunks of veggies still remain. I believe that vegetables should be thinly sliced (avocado) and the carrots and cucumbers julienned… it is obviously more work, but the prices are high enough for the effort. 
The ingredients were fresh and authentic, but the menu lacked creativity. It was a bit boring, but on the bright side no cream cheese, at least I didn’t see any on the menu. The service was attentive and they seemed quite knowledgeable about offerings. I am not in a hurry to return, but my server recommended I visit the other Japanese restaurant in their portfolio Sushi Bar. Judge for yourself.

Hamachi
3 Orfey St. (Lozenetz) 
Sofia, Bulgaria
Hours Mon – Sun: 11:30 am – 12:00 am 
 Phone +359 (0) 88 4262244, +359 (0)89 4262244
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Alegre

I am always intrigued when I hear about new places that have Latin American inspired cuisine, because I feel that is the one area where Bulgaria has had much trouble… Amigo’s! It is the immigrants that usually share their native cuisine, but the sheer distance from South America to Eastern Europe is a bit far. While I am not sure how Alegre’s Cuban chef Ramone came to set up shop in Sofia, but he also runs Casa Latina located on Gladstone, maybe a Latin explosion has begun?

Alegre now occupies the space, which was formerly known as Sidoniya – Lord of the Chef, which is named partly after the culinary game show that awarded a restaurant to its victor. The decor has changed very little since my dinner there last year, so you can expect the same modern kitschy vibe.

I started with the Empanadas, which normally are favorite of mine, but these were light on the filling and a bit dry. They needed something more, plus at 6.40lv, I want to pay for the food, not the exoticness of the cuisine.

I ordered the Chili Con Carne as my main, which at 11.80 lv, I expected something a bit more… The flavors were OK, but it should have been served with some sour cream or guacamole, maybe fresh cilantro on top. This dish needs a revamp if they are going to charge that price.
My friend ordered the Molten Chocolate Cake for dessert, which was a bit too molten. It was undercooked. Also, the chocolate was too low on cacao. The percent of the chocolate was more milk chocolate and this type of dessert needs the bitter dark chocolate to balance the sweetness, especially with the ice cream and caramel sauce.

What would get me back to Alegre for another visit is the fact that they have live music on Friday and Saturday starting at 8pm. I love the Latin sound and think it would do for a night of drinks and live music, provided it isn’t blaring! 
29 Hristo Belchev St./ул. Христо Белчев 29, 
Sofia, Bulgaria 
Hours: Mon – Sun: 9:00 am – 11:00 pm 
T: +359 878766628 
E: restorant.alegre@abv.bg 

Sombrero

When I first asked for eating recommendations in Plovdiv, the biggest fan fare came in support of Sombrero, a Mexican restaurant in Plovdiv, yes… Plovdiv. It is located a bit of the main drag, a 30 minute walk from the center. It might be a tad quicker for most, but we were carrying Gabriel in a baby carrier. When we walked up to the restaurant it was a bit surreal, because it is not often you find a place with a large Mexican hat on the roof in Bulgaria.

The owners have done their homework and really seemed to grasp the Southwest style… lots of color and light, plus fun decorations that adorn the walls. The distressed wood tables, most likely not hand painted, were an interesting component.
In the back, off the main room, there were some really cool murals and this mariachi musician and the dancer was my favorite. I am a sucker for bold and bright colors and there is something whimsical about the painting that  makes me want to drink a margarita!

I did drink a margarita or two… and it was quite tasty. A proper salt rimmed glass and a lime… I was surprised… cocktails are not exectured well in Bulgaria, but this was really fantastic.

My husband is a huge nachos fan. On of the things he misses from the States food wise is the nachos in New York, from the fast food Tex-Mex places that are run by Chinese people; I call them “Ch-exican”. Torn by which nacho dish to order, I settled for the Nachos Machos, which was pretty good, except for the chips, which were more to the Doritos category with the saltiness and seasoning than the Tostitos, which are a bit more neutral. 

For mains, we ordered Chorizos Yucatan, which had some sort of sausage and bacon, but it was not chorizo. It was served in an open tortilla, filled with veggies and topped with cheese. The standard accompaniment seems to be rice, fries, guacamole, sour cream and some spicy salsa, with chunks of chili peppers! This was probably one of the spiciest thing I have eaten in Bulgaria, but it would have been nice if they offered a milder salsa for those that can’t handle spice.

And Enchiladas Pancho Villa featured corn and flour tortillas filled with a variety of meat veggies and topped with cheese. It was good, but the similarities to the Chorizo Yucatan was apparent.

If I were to describe Sombrero, I would say it is typical for the Tex-Mex food you would find in the US, rather than Mexican. There were a few places in my neighborhood in New York. It was a hole in the wall join, but it was filled with Latin Americans and the menu wasn’t even available in English. It was unlike any Mexican I had ever eaten because it was authentic. It was what Mexican’s ate, as it was a Mexican restaurant for Mexicans… The logic for finding authentic ethnic food is to find the enclaves in which these communities live and eat there. So, as a New Yorker, I am luck to have such a diverse selection, which to enjoy. I have not been to Mexico or South America, I am not an expert, but an appreciator of the culinary offerings South of the Border…
I think Sombrero is a great place for Bulgaria and even Americans and other foreigners will be quite satisfied with the food. If you live in or plan on visiting Plovdiv, make a treck to this Tex-Mex establishment and share with me your opinion.

5 Dynev Blvd./Булевард Дунав 5 
Plovdiv/Пловдив 
Mon – Sun: 9:00 am – 12:00 am 
T: 032/336179, 0882 354 394 
E: sombrero_2011@abv.bg 

Wok to Walk

I have received numerous recommendations to check out Wok to Walk and I too was eager to find out more about an Amsterdam stir-fry noodle in Sofia, Bulgaria. The concept is as easy as 1, 2, 3…. You pick a type of noodle or rice, select some toss-ins, then a sauce.

The interior is asian-y orange and industrial, complete with some nice bamboo. While the design is nice, the lay out and traffic flow inside was not well thought out. At lunch time, there is a cluster of people trying to place and pick up their order. The flow is chaotic and not smooth. They have two woks going simultaneously and a third on standby. Each dish needs about 2 minutes to be prepared in the wok, so when it is busy it can be not quite so fast food.
You have a pretty decent selection of toss-ins…
A variety of sauces…
All wok-ed right in front of you!
I visited Wok to Walk on two occasions. The first time I ordered the peanut sauce “Bali”… it was not good. I love peanut sauce and consider myself a connoisseur, but it didn’t hit the spot. Listening to people rave, I assumed I made the wrong choice, so my next trip I selected “Beijing”, a typical brown oyster sauce and it was significantly better. I was really excited about how tasty it was and that fact that it is a franchise… it should be rather consistent. I will return soon, but when I don’t have my car because it is not convenient for finding nearby parking!

 8, Vitosha Blvd, 
1000 Sofia, Bulgaria 
Sunday to Thursday 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM 
Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM

Maraia Fusion Bar and Diner

I had visited Maraia Fusion Bar and Diner years ago and I wasn’t impressed, which tends to be the summation of my restaurant visits, but what prompted me to return was the fact that this veteran establishment had been voted restaurant of the year… A friend who had attended their celebratory function for the award said that the place was pretty good…

The Bulgarian Hotel and Restaurant Association awarded Maraia Fusion with its top honors for 2012. I am not familiar with this organization and confused them with Bacchus magazine’s annual dolling out of accolades. Nonetheless, I was hoping on hosting an EGL dinner and Maraia seemed as good a place as any.
The concept of the restaurant is fusion, but that is not related to the blending of two distinct cuisines like Japanese and Bulgarian… the “fusion” is the fact that they have two different menus… not really fusion, but whatever.

Off the bat, the interior was very “fusion-y”. They illuminated circular stone bar with probably the most difficult to clean glass chandelier, which was surrounded by a wall that I assumed were covered in astroturf (faux grass), aside from that they kept the dark and shiny vibe consistent throughout.

When we arrived at about 19:00, the server to customer ratio was skewed a bit high to the former. I always find it uncomfortable when there are so many staff mulling about, but that could be the one of the criteria that helped to secure their win, numerous and attentive staff. All in all, the service was probably what shone through for the BHRA because the food was nothing spectacular.
I orded the sushi because they had a decent selection that didn’t contain cream cheese or mayonaise. It is sad how my criteria has changed… They did offer, which it was the first time that I have seen it on a menu in Bulgaria…. KAMPYO
Other people at the table ordered from the non-Japanese portion of the menu and were quite satisfied, although I hate places that serve out of season… I might have mentioned that before, but the biggest gaffe of the night went to the Crunch Prawns with Zesty Sauce and Mint… The shrimp were not cleaned… They were fried, so unbeknownst to the customer you get a mouth full of shells… and other bits… I wonder if that is what they meant by crunch? If you are going to fry the shrimp clean them… that is definitely in the 101 category of cooking, oh and there was not mint.
Overall, Maraia is not my sort of place… many people like it; I can see the appeal, but not for me. If you have had a good or bad experience please share and comment below.
123 G.C. Rakovski St./ул. Г.С.Раковски 123 
Hours Mon – Sun: 8:00 am – 2:00 am 
Phone 0882 666 777 

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Lavanda and Bols Genever

My visit to Lavanda last September was memorable but for all the wrong reasons. What prompted my return was an odd posting on Lavanda’s Facebook page; it urged me to give it another go. A few other readers decided to join me to decode what was in fact a special seasonal dinner menu that was paired with cocktails created by One More Bar’s “mixologist” Drago Ivanov using Bols Genever.

I needed to do a bit of research to find out more about Genever, which goes by a variety of names including jenever and Dutch or Holland Gin to name a few. The traditional name jenever can only be used if it is produced in either the Netherlands or Belgium. It is quite a strong spirit with the aroma of juniper. The flavor profiles are unique, so you can’t put it in an already existing category, but if I were to pigeon hole, I would say vodka-esque with gin notes.

The first item was a Red Beet Salad with Walnuts and Clove. It was served with a cocktail: Genever, Red Vermouth, Campari, clove and chocolate bitters, club soda and orange essential oil. The salad didn’t scream out to me as I find this winter has been full of shredded beet salads, but the drink was woo hoo! I have not paired hard liquor with food and this was strong. The drink was interesting, but maybe better on its own.

In the US, the “nose to tail” trend is holding steady, but in Bulgaria there has always been this concept of total utilization because the living conditions don’t allow people to just throw away good meat because it is icky… This leads me to the starter of Cold Beef Tongue with Horseradish and Sherry Vinegrette. It was marvelous. The tongue was tender and thinly sliced, very carpaccio-esque. Everyone at the table that tried it was quite impressed. The course was paired with probably the most ambitious drink of the night which combined Genever, pear, dijon mustard, honey and black pepper… it was just not right, almost like a salad dressing…

The homemade Gravlax an interesting dish, but not one of the favorites. The homemade aspect was a bit lost as the people that ordered it couldn’t differentiate it from the packaged stuff you can find at the supermarket and it was such a small quantity, but the combination with the purple rice waffles was unique. I want to know where to find a waffle iron in Bulgaria? The Genever cocktail included red pepper, spicy maple syrup with Himalayan salt… again… maybe on its own, but it didn’t work.

I ordered the Seared Pork Cutlet with Red Onion Marmalade served with Potato Gnocci in a Rosemary Brown Butter Sauce (Beurre Noisette). It was awesome! The pork was cooked perfectly, seasoned well and the rest of the dish just worked. I am a sucker for red onion marmalade, since I tried a Romanian version at Terra Madre Balkans.  I hope that this dish becomes a seasonal addition to the menu. My Genever cocktail was 12 year old whisky, grapefruit juice, cinnamon bitters and rosemary water… It was a nice stiff drink, but not for dinner. I ordered a bottle of wine on the side.
Another person decided to order the duck dish, which is what I ordered on my first trip to Lavanda in September… the basics of the dish are mostly the same, but the execution was greatly improved. Just compare the two photos.
The desert was lovely albeit to small with two measly truffles filled with glorious chocolate and candied ginger, but they were tasty and served with hands down the best drink of the night, homemade limoncello with cardamon and lemongrass.

I applaud One More Bar and Lavanda for trying out this idea of pairing spirits and food, but I think they tried a bit too hard on the cocktails by overextending the concept. I think if something a bit simpler (more fruit, less mustard) was created the stark contrast wouldn’t be so, well… stark! Also, the suggestions from the Bols brand, could have forced their hand. I suggest the next time that they make the event more like a cocktail party and create hors d’oevres to accompany the drinks. As for my thoughts about Lavanda, they are really blossoming. I look forward to dining their again as the seasons and menu evolve.

Ivan Shishman 12, Sofia, Bulgaria
Hours Mon – Sat: 12:30 pm – 11:00 pm
+359 (0) 88 224 9740
Email lavanda.sofia@abv.bg
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Atelier

For a Wednesday afternoon at a quarter to one, Atelier was packed, even a notable name like culinary personality Uti stopped by. It was and good thing my friend made a reservation because there was not a free spot. During one of my visits to previous visits to Sofia, I stumbled upon Atelier, which happens to be in one of my favorite neighborhoods, Dr’s Garden. It had been on my list to visit for some time.

In French “atelier” means workshop or studio and Atelier’s walls are adorn with photographs highlighting Bulgaria’s most famous artists… including Kyustendil’s Vladimir Dimitrov – the Master.

Unfortunately, with most new places that I visit in Bulgaria, I am always filled with skepticism. When the interior is well designed and clean, trying to give off a certain vibe, I wonder did they put the same attention and emphasis on the food? Does the carpet match the drapes? Atelier did not disappoint. I was quite satisfied with our starters. Of the four on the menu we shared three of them


The Spicy Shrimp with fresh Zucchini with Rosemary and Parmesan Crisps, was tasty. The crisps were actually crispy and not greasy, which can be tricky. The shrimp were well cooked and not rubbery, but it lacked the heat that name indicated and an apparent absence of rosemary.

We also shared freshly baked soda breads, one was served with an eggplant mousse and tomato confit. The other came with marinated feta cheese, sun dried tomatoes and olives. I was really happy with the the flavor and execution of the food.

My main was ultimately the most satisfying. I ordered the Pork Shanks served with gently steamed oysters in cognac with dried plums and olives. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender yet succulent. The sauce paired well with the oysters, plums and olives. My friends ordered the pork ribs and beef tenderloin. They were both content.   
The intellectual French bistro vibe was well established. The menu includes more of an international fare and a big upset for me was the absence of Bulgaria wine. If you are going to highlight Bulgarian artists, why not include the talented winemakers in one’s own country, rather than importing old world and new world wine? I hope this place continues to mature and considers creating a more seasonal menu, zucchini’s don’t grow fresh in January, neither do eggplants or tomatoes… I will be eager to return in the warmer months. Another reason to spend more time in the area. 
Atelier
16 Prof. Assen Zlatarov St./ул. Проф. Асен Златаров 16
Sofia, Bulgaria
Hours: 11:00-23:00 
Phone: +359 (0)88 620 27 17


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