After listening to a friend proclaim year after year that Sofia is one of his favourite cities, and after developing an interest myself in Bulgarian wine, I booked a holiday to the Balkan country. Mostly my reasoning was wine, because wine, but I consumed some non-wine too, and it was tasty non-wine (i.e. food). Here are lots of pictures and a few words about what I ate.
Veda House and its smoked tea cauliflower with walnuts is reason enough to visit Sofia. Get on a plane, eat this, and drink a lot of wine, and then maybe eat this again, because it is special. The cauliflower is cooked with Chinese lapsang souchong mountain tea along with carrots, walnuts, raisins, and red peppers. Dill is used plentifully. The combination of smoky savouriness from the tea with the concentrated bursts of sweetness from the dried fruit is a beautiful marriage. This tea shop also has other vegan options, not to mention a pages-long menu of unique teas and tea blends.
I am not one to return too many times to the same place in a city I’m visiting for only a short time, but Rumen Wines secured my presence for three of the four nights I was in Sofia. This is a wine bar for people who don’t like pretentious snobbery, who want honesty, and to relax over a
glass bottle or two of wine by yourself or with strangers you meet who may or may not buy you one of the aforementioned bottles. But if you aren’t a wine drinker, Rumen Wines doubles as a cafe, with coffees and other drinks on offer as well.
I had no intention of dining at Rumen, but when it came to light that one of the employees was vegan I quickly changed my mind. The quinoa dish, naturally vegan as-is, was a hot grain salad with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and spinach, with a cumin-centric seasoning. Tasty as it was, the real winner was the easily veganisable plate of walnut and leek patties, served with sweet potato, fresh tomatoes, and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. The only thing missing was a bun – these would make outstanding burgers.
Mix of Figs was my favourite cafe for casual breakfasts with coffee and a book. The atmosphere was pleasant and the food options varied and plentiful, especially if arriving around 11 or 12 when the hot lunch dishes began to come out of the kitchen. The cafe stocks all sorts of pastries, cold pizzas (one has pickles!), and homemade faux meats (the sausage I had was A+). They even have their own vegan blue cheese, which I never got around to trying.
My favourite item was the potato banitsa, heavy on layers of filo and generous with herbs. Also enjoyable was the chocolate pudding, an item I would never usually order, but the visual texture piqued my interest. The consistency was a mix of liquid and gloop, sometimes with bits that were almost chewy, and I liked it so much that I bought a second pot on the following morning.
Manastirska Magernitsa is a Bulgarian restaurant with an impressively gigantic menu, complete with a small vegan section and plenty of other dishes that can also be made cruelty-free. From the vegan section I ordered a potato and mushroom dish described as “mash potatoes and mushrooms Father Nikolai,” which did not include father Nikolai (whoever he is) but instead was a rich, warming winter stew with a toasty roux base further seasoned with paprika and dill.
As it came recommended, I also ordered the inordinately delicious grilled Manatarki (cep/porcini) mushrooms, heightened further when sprinkled with sharena sol. This is a Bulgarian spice blend that includes, but isn’t limited to, paprika, fenugreek, thyme, savory, salt, and pepper. It’s not a cheap dish (in fact the entire menu is overpriced compared to other less touristy restaurants), but still it was worth every penny.
Only in recent years have I decided it might suit me to overcome my cucumber phobia, which is less of a phobia than a reaction of repulsiveness to a foodstuff that has the capacity to destroy any and all things. And so, with severe deep breathing, I ordered this vegan tarator from Soul Kitchen, which incidentally has one of the most beautiful restaurant interiors I have ever seen. Tarator is a cold Bulgarian soup comprised of yoghurt, cucumber, garlic, dill, walnuts, and oil. Call my mind changed; cucumber is slowly but steadily earning my favour, and if England ever has a day above 12 degrees this summer then I will make this myself. And eat it.
For my main at Soul Kitchen, I chose a cashew cheese and vegetable roll, with superfluous flowers, called “Cheese of Provence.” Described reasonably accurately on the menu as “baked cheese cashew with marinated dried tomatoes and herbs, zucchini, carrots, lavender, grilled tomatoes,” the standout aspect of this dish was the cashew cheese alone.
The tomatoes lacked flavour, the petals’ only purpose was to make a prettier picture, and the kale chips were also bland. Never, however, have I ordered a main in a restaurant that contains such a sizable portion of nut cheese, and for a reasonable price to boot. The nutty spread was complemented with plenty of basil and was not overly salty as many nut cheeses are. For these reasons, despite the above mentioned negatives, the Cheese of Provence is worth trying.
Finally, the random one-off meals and stops in Sofia. I grabbed a coffee at Loving Hut, which said it had mushrooms in but I think that was a lie, and I also had a slice each of mozzarella quiche and salty pie with pickles. The look and flavour of the latter indicated it was made of shredded carrot and pickle juice, which already appeals to you if you understand the power of pickles. If you don’t then maybe just get the quiche.
Vino Vino is a wine bar with an expansive menu that includes many items I’m sure could be easily made vegan (plus staples like hummus). I really only stopped for a glass of wine to calm myself after the five minutes I’d just spend inside of a church, an actual holy place, but a light salad appealed too. Please don’t blast me for my sacrilegious comments, or for the awful pairing of a big red wine with a sweet salad, but the sun was shining and whatever, wine (it was a rich, tannic, oaky Mavrud if you wanted to know).
Sunmoon Bakery has a few locations around the centre of Sofia, with a menu packed full of vegetarian and vegan items. I visited the Septemvri location (there are a few outdoor tables if you’re lucky enough to score one at this popular restaurant) and ordered the nettle stew, a thick and hearty vegetable and grain hodgepodge best mopped up with some freshly baked bread. The vegan version of this stew contains generous chunks of tofu and a heavy sprinkling of crushed walnuts and minced parsley.
Last, but never least because portable snacks and pastries are an important asset of this world, is Patisserie de Provence, which is around the corner from Rumen Wines. They had three vegan banitsa pastries when I visited: lentils, spinach, and sweet pumpkin. I grabbed a spinach banitsa to have on the spot (a little under-salted, but acceptable for what it was) and a pumpkin pastry to take away. If you love pumpkin in dessert form then don’t miss this place.
On to Melnik
The reason I visited Melnik was not for food, but for its reputation as a winemaking stronghold in the Balkans. It’s a small town, only a few hundred metres in length, comprised of homes, wineries, and hotel restaurant complexes. I snacked at a few establishments, but I noticed that the menu (with some English) for the Mario Hotel had an EU allergen list, and had made efforts to go through their menu to mark the offenders in various dishes. The food was always adequate, and my favourite dish was the mashed aubergine with red peppers. There are also number vegetable and salad options on the menu.
The town of Melnik and surrounding areas house a multitude of wineries ranging from literal holes in the side of hills to modern facilities such as Villa Melnik Winery. Villa Melnik offers free tours every day (just turn up), and their wines are fined with bentonite (clay) and are hence suitable for vegans. At the bar, after the tour, you can taste a selection of their wines for a marginal price. All of the wines they produce are also for sale by the bottle to take away.
I bought two bottles, a 2014 Melnik 55 reserve (cherry, leather, tobacco) and a Syrah Viognier blend of the same year. With regards to the latter wine, a minimal percentage of Viognier (20% in this case), a white aromatic grape, rounds out the Syrah and imbues it with a floral perfumed quality. These are wines that would cost double or more the price for the quality from any Western European country, so if you love wine then Melnik is a must-visit destination.
Travelling at a vegan in Bulgaria, especially in the capital, is not difficult, and as a destination I recommend it. Especially for the wine. Definitely, absolutely for the wine.