Bulgaria Day 8: Last Day and Homebound

I’m flying back to Boston today, and it definitely feels bittersweet. I’m pretty exhausted from the last day we spent in Bulgaria and thinking about work at 7 a.m. tomorrow makes me want to cry. Regardless, a week has been a good amount of time, and I’m ready to go home and sleep in my own bed.

Before leaving Melnik for Sofia on Saturday, we went by the winery again for a few more tours and goodbyes. It was clear that many tourists were impressed with the underground caves, which act as temperature controlled wine cellars/storage. With a little internet marketing saavy, I think Villa Melnik has a really good chance of becoming a top tourist attraction in Bulgaria.

We returned to Sofia in the afternoon and went to the local shopping mall where I stocked up on my Milka chocolate and lutenitsa supply. What I’ll miss most is the fresh produce and groceries. Everything just tastes better and nothing is GMO’ed. I was trying to explain to Mili’s mom what I wanted to do in sustainable food, and the simplest way I put it was, “Help Americans feel comfortable with eating weirdly shaped tomatoes.”

Since it was our last night in Sofia and Mili’s birthday, I wanted to make the most of it. After a light dinner at The Apartment, a wonderful Tibetan-inspired coffee shop, we made our way to a few bars before ending up at La Biblioteca. It was a Top 40 club and oozed of Americanism. Most of the music were by American artists and the local Bulgarians sang the lyrics loud and proud. When “Turn It Down For What” came on, I got ape shit crazy hyphe and got some intrigued looks. God, I’m so American.

The evening wouldn’t have been complete without late night munchies after a night of drinking and dancing. In Bulgaria, it’s a thing to eat pizza with corn and ketchup… So, we went to a 24-hour pizza shop to get our fill, and in my opinion, I think I will pass from now on. As we strolled the streets of Sofia in the early morning singing “Mr. Brightside” and “Row Row Row Your Boat,” it was the perfect ending to an amazing week.

We woke up, had birthday cake, packed up, and said our goodbyes. Flying Lufthansa has been a really positive experience (minus the fact I’ve been on Airbus planes…). About to leave Europe for good as I’m posting this from the Frankfurt airport, but really excited to be home soon and see Jonathan again.

Bulgaria Day 7: The Best Fruit In the World

While in Melnik, we stayed at Mili’s place in Kapatovo inherited from her grandfather. In Bulgarian villages, it’s normal for each house to have fresh fruit and vegetable gardens, and so early in the morning, Mili’s dad took me through the neighborhood to pick produce from approved gardens.

I’ll be honest, walking through Melnik made me a little jealous of Mili’s childhood. It must have been so nice to be able to retreat to a summer house outside the city where you can pick figs from the trees in the backyard, have fresh grapes from the Villa Melnik vines, or know everyone in the small town because your family has lived in the area for many years. I am who I am because of my past, but one day I hope to have a summer house and garden of my own.

After eating the most amazing figs in my life (it really was a foodgasm), we hiked up to the monastery and sand pyramids. Like everything else I have seen, the landscapes were breathtaking. We hiked back down to the village, enjoyed some lunch, and walked through a 200-something year old merchant house. All the ornaments and details of the house were preserved to reflect the lives of that time. I loved the mosaics on the ceilings and the beautiful carpets and tapestries that lined the floors and walls. Though it’s not exactly my taste in interior design, I deeply appreciated the time it took for each piece of that house to be put together.

All in all, it was a good day. Had good food, of course, and stayed up having late night conversations over tea. Tomorrow, it’s back to Sofia, and soon, back to Boston.

Bulgaria Day 6: The Mountains and Wine Country

Bulgaria is officially one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. Before leaving Bansko, we made a trek to the nearby Banderitsa mountains. The views again were stunning, and although Lena and I didn’t hike to the mountainous lakes, it was equally wonderful to sit in the fog, peacefully enjoying hot cocoa.

After a two and a half hour drive, we reached Bulgarian wine country where Mili and her family have been producing wine. We toured her winery, Villa Melnik, and enjoyed a complimentary wine tasting complete with oil essences to test our sense of smell.

The winery was an expanse of 150 acres with more grapes on the way. We were leaving just as the sun was setting, and looking out from the observation deck, I finally understood why wine was made for the gods.

The Almost Perfect Meal: Gordon Ramsay

Enough said.

Well, not exactly. To my friend’s joy, I forgot my cell phone AND my camera, so I could not embarrass him with taking photos at the table. So, my only mementos are the wine bottle and the receipt that I will eventually frame.

Dining at Gordon Ramsay requires ordering from a set menu tiered by different prices and dishes. And it’s quite extensive. We ordered from the A La Carte menu, in which I ordered the Ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon poached in a light bisque with a lemongrass and chervil veloute (starter); Loin of wild Highland venison with truffle braised celery, roasted Williams pear and smoked pork belly (main); Assiette de l’Aubergine (dessert). Whew, that’s a long list for three dishes. And for wine, we had the Chateau Bauduc, Ramsay’s exclusive wine for his restaurants.

The menu didn’t list the smaller appetizers that came continuously throughout our meal, which was a pleasant surprise. My favorite was the Scotch Quail Egg, a quail egg battered with truffle shavings. There was also a selection of canapes and tasty rosemary bread.

To be quite honest, I was not that impressed with the food. Yes, let me emphasize that everything else in the restaurant was perfect - environment, service, and even the people, but the food was slightly disappointing for a twelve-years-in-a-row-three-Michelin-star restaurant. My friend ordered foie gras in his main course, and it was noticeably bland; I could barely taste the fresh taste in my lobster ravioli, their signature starter; and the venison didn’t pair too well with the salty pork belly in my main… but the celery on the side was good, should I give points for that?

Although I can’t say I enjoyed the starters or the mains quite much, I can give Ramsay a round of applause for the desserts. The Assiette de l’Aubergine was a tasting menu of all the desserts on the menu, in individual portions. And it consisted of the following (ones in bold were the highlights):

  • Mango and passion fruit yogurt
  • Chocolate truffles
  • Caramelised tarte Tatin of apples with vanilla ice cream
  • Marinated pineapple ravioli with mango and kiwi
  • Banoffee pie souffle (banana and salted caramel crumble)
  • Bitter chocolate cylinder with coffee granite and ginger mousse
  • Creme Brulee with prune puree
  • White chocolate strawberry ice cream truffle with dry ice
  • Turkish delight
  • Gingerbread cupcake with frosting

I truly truly truly wish I had my camera because each dessert was extremely photogenic - dessert really made my night. But as much as I loved dessert and the service, in consideration of the whole meal and the exorbitant price tag, I cannot say that I have fallen in love with the restaurant. I hold many fond memories of this dining experience (i.e. Clark scaring our waiter away by telling him that we thought he looked like Prince Harry), its creative menu, and ingredient usage, but I have had better food elsewhere without spending £401 for three people. If you are a foodie, Gordon Ramsay is a restaurant that you must dine in, and then you can judge for yourself if it’s worth returning to.

Being a Civil Carnivore: St. John Bread & Wine

For my 21st birthday, my loves and I went to St. John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields, one of the offshoot branches of St. John, which is known for its “nose to tail” dishes (eating every part of the animal). As for the roasted suckling pig pictured above, the dish can only be ordered with parties of 10 to 15 or more. Luckily, there were other birthday celebrations going on as well, so I got the opportunity to get up in the pig’s grill and snap a picture. PETA would assassinate me if they knew. Sadly, I did not taste the pig (the aroma in the room was swooning), but I had some other pretty awesome dishes!

First observation of the night: I literally didn’t understand half the menu. Piccalilli, ramson, kohlrabi, ticklemore, sea purslane… and most interesting, faggot?

Yes, it’s always wonderful to learn about new foods, but not knowing the ingredients of almost half the dishes on the menu? I was overwhelmed. When the waiter came over to the table, I interrogated him like a suspect, dragging every detail out of him. And if you were curious, “faggot” means a bundle, which was a meatball of offal.

For the table, we had some scrumptious bread and a pleasant Plume rose, which was quite appropriate since this branch specialized in “Bread and Wine.”

The dining style mimics a tapas style in which there are little plates of food rather than a straightforward three course meal. The dishes are meant to be shared amongst the table, but there are usually some main style dishes as well. Since everybody had different comfort levels for food, we decided to order our own dishes.

When I understood the menu, two of the small dishes really caught my eye. I made my friend order the Ox Heart, Celeriac, & Mustardand I ordered the Middle White Faggot & Swede so we would be able to try both.Like I mentioned before, the faggot is a meatball of offal, and the swede is a turnip puree. I loved the faggot dish! The sweeter turnip puree balanced the saltiness of the meatball, and one without the other made it either too salty or unsavory.

For a main, I had the Ox Tongue, Watercress & Pickled Walnut.Maybe it’s because I am Chinese, so I have been exposed to lots of exotic ingredients. There are lots of Chinese dishes that include ox and pig tongue, pig ear, intestines, and the like, therefore ordering ox tongue seemed nothing out of the norm. A few of my friends, however, couldn’t even bear the thought that I was enjoying it. Yet, my girlfriends who were open to trying new things, also really enjoyed it! The tongue paired really really well with the watercress, which was topped with a nice balsamic vinaigrette.

After lots of great conversation, laughs, and good food, we concluded the meal with some freshly baked madeleines.They were warm, spongy, and a perfect delight - they really made my night! We promised ourselves we would go back to Spitalfields, enjoy the market, and spend the afternoon with some more madeleines.

All in all, St. John Bread and Wine is a highly recommend. Although I was a bit disappointed at first when I couldn’t reserve a table at St. John, I am really glad we ended up at the Bread and Wine branch. It’s much less formal, cute and welcoming, with a jovial pub-like feel. All the other parties happened to be birthday dinners, too, so we all sang “Happy Birthday” multiple times. A wonderful birthday dinner indeed.

P.S. Thanks Jess for letting me use your camera!