Review: Izbata Tavern and a few days in Sofia, Bulgaria

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?

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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!

Lemonade and ice tea, 1.60 and 2.80 Bulgarian lev
Lemonade and ice tea, 1.60 and 2.80 Bulgarian lev

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!

Eggplant chaviar (roasted eggplants with olives, garlic and mayonnaise, and toasted slices of bread), 4.50 Bulgarian lev
Eggplant chaviar (roasted eggplants with olives, garlic and mayonnaise, and toasted slices of bread), 4.50 Bulgarian lev

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!

Chicken soup, 2.80 Bulgarian lev
Chicken soup, 2.80 Bulgarian lev

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.

Peppers byurek (roasted peppers in breadcrumbs stuffed with cheese), 5.90 Bulgarian lev
Peppers byurek (roasted peppers in breadcrumbs stuffed with cheese), 5.90 Bulgarian lev

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.

Chicken satch, monk's style (chicken fillet with mushrooms, onion, tomatoes and spices), 12.90 Bulgarian lev
Chicken satch, monk’s style (chicken fillet with mushrooms, onion, tomatoes and spices), 12.90 Bulgarian lev

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.

Review: Hadjidraganovite Kashti, Sofia Bulgaria

Our five-day stay in Sofia Bulgaria was always planned to be a rest stop after the intense week-long marathon of our Fez Travel tour of Turkey. As I’ve always said, you need to schedule in some downtime during a long holiday – you can’t always be ‘on the go’, out exploring new neighborhoods, trying new foods and meeting new people. Sometimes you just need to be in your rental apartment, watching a movie and eating pasta – that’s specifically why we paid a little more than we normally would for accommodation as we wanted somewhere a bit bigger and better equipped for a more comfortable stay.

Still, I didn’t quite expect to spend as much time within our apartment in Sofia as we actually did. K was still nursing his cold after two weeks and he had finally passed it on to me, so we spent the first three days of our five-day stay in Sofia dosed up on cold medicine, hermited in our apartment watching the Star Wars series in preparation for watching The Force Awakens.

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On the first day we went out, we headed north of the city to the bus station to buy bus tickets for the next leg of our trip to Skopje in Macedonia. A lot of people said that we could buy them on the day of travel but as I tend to get a bit anxious if there’s no confirmation, we bought them two days early. We timed our outing to coincide with lunchtime as we wanted to get out to try some Bulgarian cuisine – luckily a pretty highly-rated restaurant called Hadjidraganovite Kashti (different in Cyrillic!) was located close to the bus station.

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The restaurant dates back a hundred years to the time of a wool trader called Hadji Dragan who built an inn in Sofia, inspired by all the different inns he had visited over the years around Bulgaria. The exterior of the restaurant is still decorated in the style of the time with displays of traditional Bulgarian costume, wooden carts, and more. As we walked in, I was relieved to see that all the diners were locals – sometimes TripAdvisor isn’t the best guide for local restaurants as it’s curated by tourists, but that wasn’t the case here.

0.5l Bionade (home made syrup, soda water, lemon, mint leaf), 2.80 Bulgarian lev and a fresh orange juice, 3.20 Bulgarian lev
0.5l Bionade (home made syrup, soda water, lemon, mint leaf), 2.80 Bulgarian lev and a fresh orange juice, 3.20 Bulgarian lev

The menu was incredibly comprehensive, spanning almost fifteen pages of meat, vegetable, salad dishes, not to mention desserts and drinks. It’s worth spending some time on their website beforehand to peruse the menu, in case you’re like me and you get struck with indecisiveness when given too much choice at a restaurant.

We ordered some drinks to start – a Bionade for K (also comes in 0.3 litre and 1 litre quantities) and a Fresh Orange Juice for me. My OJ was exceedingly sweet so I suspect they may have sweetened it with some sugar syrup. Interestingly, K’s bionade was the complete opposite, and was exceedingly sour, even for K who tends to prefer his lemonade on the sour side. This ends up working out well though, as many of the dishes we ordered were quite heavy and rich and we needed the crisp sour lemonade to cut through the richness.

Kalugerska salata (boiled haricot beans, gherkin, onion, chutney from roasted red peppers and tomatoes, olives), 4.80 Bulgarian lev
Kalugerska salata (boiled haricot beans, gherkin, onion, chutney from roasted red peppers and tomatoes, olives), 4.80 Bulgarian lev

Believe it or not, this is actually a salad in Bulgaria – a Kalugerska Salata to be precise. While there’s a significant lack of leafy greens on the plate (a solitary decorative lettuce leaf really doesn’t count), I can’t fault the taste of the dish itself. Soft beans, sour gherkins, sharp onions and smoky roasted chutney is a brilliant combination that hits every tastebud – it’s just not what I would call a salad. I think this bean mix would be amazing on toast though, perhaps with some aged cheese melted on top as a simple, hearty lunch at home.

Troyansko tiganche (beef in wine sauce and spices served in a copper pan), 18.20 Bulgarian lev
Troyansko tiganche (beef in wine sauce and spices served in a copper pan), 18.20 Bulgarian lev

We ordered the Troyankso Tiganche as our first main dish – a dish oddly reminiscent of Chinese five-spice gravy beef! The wine sauce was really quite thick and almost gelatinous in texture, and extremely rich and dense in spiced flavour as a result. The beef was extremely tender, and had really taken on the strong garlic aromas of the sauce – no doubt the whole dish had been cooking for hours!

Kavarma po radomirski (Braised in clay pot, pork with vegetables and egg on top), 12.20 Bulgarian lev
Kavarma po radomirski (Braised in clay pot, pork with vegetables and egg on top), 12.20 Bulgarian lev

Our second main dish was the Kavarma po radomirski – a claypot dish that called to me as it sounded not dissimilar to Chinese claypot with pork and egg (something like this)! Unfortunately it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for – this pork and vegetable claypot was a lot oilier and richer than a standard Chinese claypot – it actually needed something like rice on the base to soak up all the excess oil and sauce. We ended up leaving a full inch of sauce on the base, and needed to desperately cleanse our palates after finishing this oily claypot.

Sweet pastry 'Banitza' with orange syrup, 3.20 Bulgarian lev
Sweet pastry ‘Banitza’ with orange syrup, 3.20 Bulgarian lev

We finished off the meal by ordering dessert to share – a Banitza with Orange Syrup. Banitza is a very typical Bulgarian sweet pastry that’s made of eggs and cheese sandwiched between layers of filo pastry. This version soaked in a sweet but tangy and refreshing orange syrup was absolutely divine, and much tastier than having it plain the way it’s normally served. I could have easily eaten more of this banitza!

Cake with yoghurt cream, 3.40 Bulgarian lev
Cake with yoghurt cream, 3.40 Bulgarian lev

…oh all right, we didn’t finish off the meal with the last dessert. It was so delicious that I decided I wanted to try something else off the dessert menu, so we ordered the Cake with Yoghurt Cream as a final hurrah after we’d finished everything else despite the fact that we were absolutely full to bursting. I’m glad we ordered this – the spiced walnut sponge cake combined with the tangy yoghurt buttercream was an absolute winner, and is one of the dishes I’m determined to master on our return to Australia!

Hadjidraganovite Kashti (what a mouthful) is, by popular reckoning on TripAdvisor, one of the best restaurants in Sofia. By my reckoning, I think it must be the restaurant serving the largest menu of traditional Bulgarian food, offering their diners plenty of choices – even those with dietary requirements won’t have any issues finding something to suit them here.

The desserts are by far the highlight for me and I highly recommend ordering at least two desserts if you visit. Just keep in mind that the main meals can be quite heavy, oily and dense – so perhaps try ordering a few smaller lighter appetisers instead if you don’t want to end up waddling out the door with a heavy stomach!

Hadjidraganovite Kashti is located at 75 Ulitsa Kozloduy in Sofia, Bulgaria.