There is a good selection of restaurants along Angel Kunchev. Moroccan was out as I had had a bad experience in the Atlas Mountains with a tangine of "bag-pipe meat" a few years before. A la carte was not possible either because I am cheap, so when we stumbled across a new place, The Olive Garden, we decided to check out the inside and the menu.
Set in a beautiful old three-storey building, the ground floor had been renovated before opening six weeks ago. Hence the upper floors were still looking a little shabby from the outside but the interior was contemporary, well-designed and had a very laid back atmosphere. The English-speaking waitress smiled as we entered and asked if we had reserved; the fact we hadn’t was not a problem. I ordered a beer before sitting down which had arrived by the time I shook the rain off my jacket, together with a basket of complimentary hot (and fresh) rolls, butter and a garlic pesto dip. Nice start!
Inside the furnishing was solid wood with bench seating along a couple of the walls painted a light olive green. Alcoves in the walls housed antique wine bottles; around the windows the designer had painted detailed white shutters and candles dotted around the walls and flat areas gave off ambient light.
Menus were brought and on first inspection the choice seemed limited to a range of salads, a handful of appetisers, a good selection of pasta dishes and only nine main courses. My vegetarian girlfriend commented there wasn’t much choice for her but agreed to give it a go.
A sort of Mediterranean-fusion menu, it had a few interesting dishes which were well described in the accompanying text and, unlike most other Bulgarian eateries, where you are given a menu the size of the Old Testament, I found it quite easy to choose my main course – lamb chops with rosemary and Dijon sauce. This always appears to be a little challenging for a Bulgarian chef as the local lamb is seasonal (unless the owner has a Metro card) and most Bulgarians seem to like it incinerated way beyond the juicy pink I prefer.
The rest of the order consisted of tubule salad (an Armenian favourite of beloved – 5.95 leva), Humus with fresh pita bread (4.95 leva), spinach penne (9.95 leva) for her main, and of course the fabled lamb chops (18.95 leva) for me. A small bottle – I was pacing myself – of No Man’s Land red (8.99 leva) was also requested.
The starters arrived in good fashion and the bowel of humus was a huge creamy beige affair, served in a bowl with a splash of olive oil, a smattering of paprika and whole chickpeas for effect. I don’t really know why I ordered it as I don’t even like humus, but beloved had never tried it and I wanted to appear sophisticated and worldly, so I went for it.
I now like humus (much to my relief) but the size of the serving was about twice as big as it needed to be. If you order it, I suggest – unless you are very, very hungry – order between you. She said her tubule salad was the best she had ever had in a restaurant. Her only critique was that it needed more lemon juice. After we conveyed this to the waitress, she presented two whole lemons before beloved had taken her third mouthful.
Opting to leave nearly half the humus intact, we were asked by the smiling waitress if we were ready for our main dishes which were brought out a few moments later.
I’m pleased to say I was quite shocked at the care taken in presentation. My meal actually consisted of a properly dressed French rack of three chunky lamb chops with the light sauce drizzled all over. Next to this was a bed of crisp, lightly sautéed potatoes on top of which sat a few batons of freshly grilled asparagus.
My companion’s consisted of a large serving of penne pasta with four spinach balls at each corner of the dish and shavings of fresh parmesan sat proudly on top. After a mouthful or two she declared it to be "wonderful, but massive" and promptly stopped talking to me for the next 10 minutes. This was fine as it gave me time to start the delicate surgery of taking the meat off the bone. Once I had completed this I found that it was indeed pink and juicy and on tasting found it to be some of the sweetest lamb I have ever had.
The sauce was the perfect accompaniment and my only complaint was that I would have happily been served, and would have eaten, a second helping of the French rack. To cite a cliché from the 1980s, it really was to die for! Beloved gave up after polishing off all the spinach balls and only half the pasta, declaring she was too full for a dessert (this really does speak for itself).
In summary, atmosphere was good, food excellent but portion size seems inconsistent. Having said that, I am a greedy, 16-stone ex-rugby player who would eat road-kill if it was prepared properly by a good chef. And this clearly is a good chef. Considering the bill came to less than 50 leva, I have no doubt we will be returning and The Olive Garden will become a favourite of ours.
As we left I was offered the lunch menu to view by our attentive waitress, which consisted of some of the lighter dishes from the dinner menu plus a few other specialities which I would have liked to have seen on the evening menu, all about 25 per cent cheaper and smaller than its bigger brother.
Apparently the rear garden opens soon, so bring on the summer!
Overall rating: 5/6 Service: 5/6 Atmosphere: 5/6 Food: 5/6 Price: $$$ ($ up to 12 leva a person for three courses; $$ 12 to 20 leva pp; $$$ 20 to 35 pp; $$$$ 35 and over pp)
Address: 18 Angel Kunchev Street, Sofia Tel: 02/ 4811214 Open: Mon-Sun 11am to midnight Credit cards: yes
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