A Taste of the Balkans

Three nights a week, an Oakland pasta joint goes authentic Bulgarian.

Sheep’s-milk feta tossed with olives. Air-dried sausages crusted with spices. Roast eggplant blended with peppers and garlic. The overflowing appetizer platter could feed four or five, not two, but Martin and I pick through it dutifully, each item a unique twist on a dish we’ve eaten a thousand times. I peer over his shoulder at Coke machines and a bank of steam tables. Over mine he watches our waiter doing deep knee-bend kicks to the sound of the bagpipe.

We’re dining in the Sybil of the restaurant world. By day, it’s the huge, bustling cafeteria-style Pasta Cuisine. But on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, it’s Bulgaria at Night.

The East Bay’s first Bulgarian restaurant can’t do much to romanticize its daytime decor, which was designed to be easy to wipe up. But with dimmed lights, white tablecloths, wineglasses, and enough Bulgarian Americans to fill half the room, the owners get serious points for effort. The crowd thickens near the corner in which a drummer, a gaida (bagpipe) player, and a couple of sopranos interweave the sinewy, sinuous sounds of Bulgarian folk music.

Chef Hristo Kolev, who trained in culinary school in his native country, has cooked for Pasta Cuisine owner Lee Bendig for almost a decade. Kolev has been at the center of the network of recent immigrants from Bulgaria who have staffed the restaurant for years — “I’ve had doctor and lawyer busboys,” Bendig says, laughing. “Little by little, I have gotten involved in the Bulgarian community here.”

Kolev finally persuaded Bendig that the community had grown large enough to support a restaurant, and the two launched Bulgaria at Night in a location that Bendig freely admits is horrible for nighttime business: Oakland city center. After two months of being open, the restaurant still depends entirely on local Bulgarians for business. On my first visit they appeared in force, but on my second, they obviously had something else to do; the house musicians serenaded my friends and me, since we were the only patrons in the place. On nights when traveling performers from Bulgaria come through on their circuit of major US cities, you need reservations to get a table (for upcoming performances, see www.bulgariaatnight.com).

I had never tried Bulgarian food before my two visits, but as the appetizer plate revealed, what I found looked and tasted surprisingly familiar. As a friend once said of Afghan food, you can clearly see the influence of geography. There’s a little Greece, mixed with a little Hungary and more than a little Turkey — not so surprising, since Bulgaria was subsumed into the Ottoman Empire for almost five hundred years.

But our meal starts with an exotic, uniquely Bulgarian touch: a hunk of crusty peasant bread served with two tiny ramekins of spices, one reddish, one greenish. “This is miradia,” explains our server. “It’s a Bulgarian herb called chubritsa mixed with salt, and the red one also has a little paprika. The Bulgarians eat it with bread instead of butter.” Though it lacks an English name, chubritsa clearly belongs to the thyme-oregano-marjoram family. I quickly become addicted to miradia-coated bread; my companions don’t.

The appetizer platter is a resounding success: Green peppers, tomatoes, and garlic lend the kubolo, puréed roasted eggplant, a snappiness that many versions of eggplant caviar lack. We dip the feta and slices of pita into it. Warm, freshly rolled dolmas filled with seasoned rice shed their blandness when dunked in a pot of tangy, herb-flecked yogurt.

The three dense, dark, thinly sliced Bulgarian sausages on the platter cast a weird, ancient spell. I find the salami-style sudguk the most immediately appealing, and grow to like the purplish, spice-rubbed lucanka after chewing through a couple of pieces. The file doesn’t win me over. Much like Armenian or Turkish basturma, file is spiced beef preserved by air drying. It’s fun to try, but without the benefit of nostalgia, the charm of the jerky-like meat dries up after a couple of slices. I would have loved it in its primal form, though, reeking with the gamy funk of old buffalo and the acrid smoke of a hundred hearth fires.

On my second visit we enjoy the Bulgarian national salad, shopska. Kolev spends the extra money to use deep-red hothouse tomatoes in February, which makes the dish. They are tossed with cubes of roasted eggplant, roasted green peppers, and fresh cucumbers in a bright red-wine vinaigrette, and the entire salad is showered with a grated white, salty cheese. According to the restaurant critic for the Sofia Echo, a Bulgarian weekly paper, you’re supposed to wash shopska down with glasses of high-proof rakia. Since the restaurant only has a beer and wine license, you’ll have to forgo that pleasure, but you can find a couple of lesser-known Czech lagers and one or two Bulgarian reds on the beverage list.

On my first visit, the entrées couldn’t satisfy the promise of the appetizers, though we might have already overstuffed ourselves on salads and cured meats. My companion picked at the vegetarian braised cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and carrots. The rolls had a homey, comforting consistency, but tasted as distinctive as a suburban strip mall, coated in a no-nonsense tomato sauce. My rotisserie half-chicken had been rubbed with paprika and herbs, giving the skin a good jolt of flavor, but the meat underneath tasted as if it had been braised first and crisped in the oven to reheat, and that fresh-roasted flavor wasn’t there. I stuck mostly to the crispy fries and grilled asparagus.

On my second visit, we went with the red meat. The herb-covered lamb kabobs were excellent, charred on the outside and pink and juicy inside. A dollop of yogurt made their meaty flavors pop. Shishche skewers didn’t absorb as much flavor from their spice rub, requiring us to slather the meat in a sweet, ketchup-like tomato-and-pepper condiment called lutenitsa. The lean pork pieces had toughened up on the grill, though the very center remained pink. For the Tatar kufte, Kolev mixed ground beef and pork with chopped onions and an oregano-like herb, then formed the meat around a hunk of Kashkaval cheese (similar to jack). The cheese melted as the meat cooked, keeping the savory free-form meatloaf moist.

I suspect that Pasta Cuisine reasserts itself on the dessert list, because I don’t think tiramisu is native to the Balkans. We weren’t impressed with the soggy phyllo enshrouding the baklava, the only dessert that seemed to come from the region. Keep some ice cream at home and spend your dessert funds on an extra appetizer.

Whether homesickness or curiosity drives you to this Brigadoon-like restaurant, Bulgaria at Night is worth an anthropological expedition. If you find yourself wandering hopelessly around deepest, most-forlorn downtown Oakland looking for it, don’t despair — just listen for the bagpipe.

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