As many of us know, when foreign guests come to visit, a traditional-themed restaurant is in order. So when the time comes to go through the list, it is beneficial to have an additional option.
It is thus that we ended up at Manastirska Magernitsa earlier this summer, housed in the former home and garden of Bulgaria’s first post-Liberation literary critic, Krustyo Krustev. I had first been at the restaurant three years ago, and found the atmosphere charming, the service better-than-decent and the food memorably good – not to mention the 31-paged menu, hilarious in its descriptions and tales of each dish. (Unfortunately, the English translations add another layer to the off-the-wall menu, though not in a good way.)
Inside the restaurant, seating is divided, given the house floor plan, which allows intimacy and a sense of being na gosti. Also, there is a nice spit that roasts meat over live coals.
Food is traditional, based on the monastery kitchen (which, by the way, is what "manastirska magernitsa" roughly means), with many dishes that would be uncommon elsewhere, including some with creative names like "male courgettes against divorce". We were scared to ask.
Reservations are recommended for evenings, particularly on the weekend. When I stopped by one morning to do so, and to look at the menu, the excellent reception by the waitstaff was a surprise: the waiter offered me a chair, set out the menu, asked if we wanted anything to drink...
That evening, it continued to be excellent, responsive, polite and cheery, but not acting like your best friend. Though it did seem, at times, that our waiter had disappeared.
To our table, as with the others, was presented a two-tiered wooden stand with incredibly tasty, tender, puffy chunks of white bread, and sharena sol (spiced salt for dipping, a Bulgarian tradition). Along with this was something the waiter later described as the chef’s speciality: "gris", he called it, a homogenised mixture with the consistency of paste, white, with a hint of onion, like tarama, but without the fish.
Well, when this was all delivered, we were kind of surprised, so I asked my friends if anyone at the table had ordered it while I was away; the waiter said: "It’s something we do for our special guests." Suspicions arose on my part, like, did he know that I wrote reviews?
It turns out that, at the end of the meal, this bread and gris was included in the bill, at 2.50 leva per person. We asked the waiter, out of curiosity, about it, and he said that he was new there, and that it seemed like a strange thing to him, but that was what his bosses had told him to do. He said that we were the second party during his shift that day to question the charge, and that it had been brought up by at least five or six other parties as well.
Anyway, the food that night was excellent. We each ordered a salad platter (about seven to nine leva each), good-sized with mixes of salads like shredded carrot and cabbage, cubed cucumbers and tomatoes, roasted sweet peppers, sweet peppers stuffed with katuk (feta cheese mixed with yoghurt) seasoned with raw garlic, izvara (ricotta cheese) seasoned with paprika (yum), and a sprig of fresh basil. Very nice.
By then rather full, we decided to share the "quail in the nest" (about 14 leva), braised pieces of quail surrounded by a ring of fresh vegetables: cucumber, olives, tomatoes, lettuce, with slices of lemon: the nest! It was so cute, and the quail was delicious.
While our waiter had recommended crème caramel for dessert, because it was fresh, we opted for the tiramisù.
We had Zagorka (bottle, only Kamenitza on draught), herbal rakiya and cherry rakiya (mini-sized, 1.50 leva each), and a large gin & tonic (about 9.40 leva), and left overall satisfied.
Folk music there was, and at a good, quiet volume, but I was a bit perturbed because it came from a folk TV channel, and not live musicians.
Recently there for a Friday lunch, the reception was a reverse of the previous visit: after waiting around in the pretty stone-paved garden for five minutes or so, during which we admired the artefacts, one of us went inside the house to find an employee: all the available tables had "reserved" signs on them. It turned that they were not reserved for lunch, and we took our seats.
And waited some more.
The (sole) waitress eventually returned with the menus and we eventually were able to order: a green salad with eggs (3.70 leva), a salad of cabbage and celeriac (2.80 leva), a Thracian salad (5.70 leva) and one of the mixed salad platters, the pastirska (8.50). To go with this were three large Troyanska Slivova rakiyas (3.80 each), an ayran (1.10 leva) and a glass of tap water, for which we got charged 39 stotinki.
The salads, copious, eventually arrived, and were nice and fresh, though the Thracian salad (ie, snezhanka, five scoops of thick yoghurt mixed with chopped cucumbers and plentiful amounts of dill) had been described as being abundant in garlic, and it was not.
When the main courses eventually arrived (notice a trend here?), the waitress had mixed up the order for grilled veal fillet (18.40 leva) and brought grilled chicken instead; she righted the mistake, but did not ask how the beef should be cooked. Otherwise, we had decent grilled pork liver (7.70 leva, described in the menu as being "peppery", which it was not), small juicy meatballs (11.60 leva), made with real beef and each served on its own mound of real mashed potatoes (the kyufte were pale, and could have been better grilled), and chicken in garlic sauce, which came with pan-fried slices of potato. Here again, the garlic was understated.
At least the waitress asked if we wanted the bread: no.
Something else: we were excited that there was Turkish coffee: do not order it. It is made with espresso-grind coffee and leaves grit in your teeth.
So. Personally, I like Manastirska Magernitsa, and find its food to be among the best when it comes to traditional restaurants, not to mention the fabulous menu. Again, though, with such variable levels of service, I would hesitate to take someone I really wanted to impress there.
Price $$$ ($ up to 12 leva a person for three courses; $$ 12 to 20 leva pp; $$$ 20 to 35 pp; $$$$ 35 and over pp)
[[map:67 Khan Asparuh Str|67 хан аспарух, Sofia|]], Sofia
Tel: 02/ 980 38 83, 02/ 980 33 03; 089/ 994 94 00
Open: Mon-Sat, 11am-midnight
Credit cards: yes