Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
By the time we started getting better from our lurgy, K and I only had one day left in Sofia. Luckily, the Free Sofia Tour runs every day, twice a day, so we joined a surprisingly large group of twenty people as our guide Niki took us around the key sights of the city.
Photos taken on the tour are in the below photo gallery – what I enjoyed most was the juxtaposition of old and new in the city centre. There are places where if you were to turn in a circle, you would see Roman-era ruins, Communist-era monolithic buildings, Orthodox churches, mosques and synagogues, and modern glass buildings. It’s very cool, and a great representation of how new can be integrated with old – where else could you find Roman ruins in a metro station?
At the end of the tour, our guide Niki was able to point us in the direction of an excellent little local restaurant. As he warned us though, it can be difficult to find – it’s down a side street, and located in the basement of a building where the entrance is located in the back courtyard. If you can find your way there though, Izbata Tavern is the place to go in Sofia!
We started off with an Iced Tea and a Lemonade, unfortunately not home-made as I’d been hoping. The lemonade was a suspiciously artificially yellow colour which put K off as he claimed it looked like urine. The Nestea iced tea tasted great though – I’ve never tried the strawberry and aloe vera combination which worked really well. Wikipedia tells me that it’s only available in the Balkan countries, so unfortunately it’s not something I can have again when we return to Australia!
We started off with a cold appetiser to share – Eggplant Chaviar Dip, or what we would consider to be babaghanoush in Australia, but with a bit more of a salty flavour to it thanks to the addition of olives to the mix. I loved the intensity of the smokiness in this dip, but felt that the toasted bread wasn’t necessarily the best accompaniment – call me biased, but I prefer babaghanoush with Turkish bread, or other bread that’s a bit holey as it holds onto dip much better!
We also ordered a Chicken Soup to help counteract the last of our lurgy – this was a particularly yummy chicken soup with true depth of flavour that can only be created from proper chicken stock that’s been simmering for hours. No artificial stock cubes used in this soup! There was a healthy amount of chicken meat and vegetables in the soup as well – only the addition of some noodles could have made it better.
Niki had suggested that we try his favourite dish at Izbata Tavern – the Peppers Byurek. I feel like this is a particularly Balkan-style dish – the use of soft creamy cheese in many dishes is particularly prevalent in countries ranging from Bulgaria through to Macedonia and Serbia. Unfortunately it isn’t quite suited to my palate as there was simply too much of the salty creamy cheese filling in the roasted capsicum. I feel like it would have benefited from some additional ingredients in the stuffing to lend some texture to the dish – chopped walnuts for example, or even a grain of some description would have lessened the intensity of the cream cheese while adding some textural interest.
We finished off our meal with the Chicken Satch, Monk’s Style – an overly ambitious order as we were quite full by this point and could have gotten away with simply ordering another appetiser rather than a full meal! This was incredible value for money though, with an extremely generous serving of plump tender chicken for barely $10 AUD. With some juicy mushrooms on the sizzling hotplate and sweet caramelised onion too, this simple spiced chicken dish was super tasty and something I would definitely order again.
Izbata Tavern offers some great value local dishes in a central location in Sofia. Overall the menu seems to be a little healthier than other similar Bulgarian restaurants (like Hadjidraganovite Kashti) where many dishes are overly rich and oily – everything here is a little lighter and more waistline-friendly for travellers who don’t want to go overboard with eating rich food. I suggest going there for lunch after joining the Free Sofia Tour – and perhaps spend a few more days in the interesting city of Sofia by exploring their Communist history, or even getting out of town to commune with nature in their nearby mountain hiking trails.
Sofia is definitely a city I’d like to return to the future – hopefully next time when we’re not suffering from a cold and are physically capable of exploring more of the city!
Izbata Tavern is located at 18 Ulitsa Slavyanska in Sofia, Bulgaria.