Experiment, Enjoy Tastes of Bulgaria

Waiter Dimitri Angelov in Bistro Bulgari's dining room, which is decorated with traditional costumes of Bulgaria.
Waiter Dimitri Angelov in Bistro Bulgari's dining room, which is decorated with traditional costumes of Bulgaria. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Washington area residents tend to flock to exotic or foreign food tastings. There usually are long lines at church festivals featuring Greek, Slovakian or Ukrainian food. The Smithsonian's Folklife Festival food demonstrations draw huge crowds. But many people seem more hesitant to commit to a sit-down meal of a foreign cuisine.

One such worthy foreign dining experience in the Washington area is Bistro Bulgari, a sliver of a dining space on 23rd Street in South Arlington. On recent weeknight visits, there have been only a dozen or so diners, a result, I think, more of unfamiliarity with the cuisine and a shoestring operation than the quality of the food coming out of the kitchen.

Bulgarian specialties such as Shopska salad and banitsa aren't exactly household terms. Bulgaria, influenced by its neighbors in Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe, combines aspects of each to form its own national dishes.

Peter Kostadinov, one of the chef-owners of Bistro Bulgari, owned a restaurant near the Black Sea resort town of Varna before he came to this country in 2000. He spent the next four years working as a waiter and at Starbucks, to learn about America and earn enough money to open his own place here. He and fellow Bulgaria native Tlamen Hristov opened Bistro Bulgari in May 2004 in the midst of the beach-style restaurants that line South 23rd Street in Crystal City.

There is a small patio out front and a long narrow dining room accented with traditional Bulgarian costumes hanging on the wall. The lights are a little too bright, but the Bulgarian music playing in the background livens the space up a bit.

The main excitement is the food.

Although much of the menu might seem familiar -- there are stuffed grape leaves and versions of moussaka, schnitzel and cheese pies -- none of these dishes is exactly what you might expect. Probably Bistro Bulgari's renditions are better.

Shopska salad is the most traditional and popular salad in Bulgaria. It's primarily chopped tomato, peppers, green onions and cucumbers with what looks like a snowfall of grated Bulgarian feta cheese on top. The cheese, known as sirene (white brine cheese), isn't nearly so sharp as Greek feta.

The appetizer of stuffed grape leaves ( lozovi sarmi i snejanka ) is reminiscent of Greek versions, but the rice stuffing is milder, almost silken, and instead of runny tzatziki, the Bulgarian version uses yogurt that has been strained for three days before it is mixed with garlic, cucumber and oil, creating gentle mounds.

The cheese Shoppe style ( sirene po Shopski) appetizer combines the marvelous Bulgarian-style feta with peeled tomato and herbs, which are topped with an egg and baked. The result is an individual casserole of earthy cheese, meltingly soft tomato and a perfectly cooked egg -- and all the flavors and textures meld beautifully.

A trio of Bulgarian cheese pies -- similar in taste to Lebanese or Turkish favorites -- aren't enclosed in pastry, but open faced, more like a quiche, but thinner and with phyllo dough as the base. One is just feta, another cheese and spinach and another leeks and cheese.

Even the dry salami-style sausage is different. It's lukanka , a spicy pork sausage that looks more like a meat loaf than the usual round version.

Two soups on the menu are a chicken noodle with a milk base ( pileshka supa) and the heartier monastery-style bean soup ( bob chorba po manastirski), a thick vegetable soup with broad beans.

Main courses tend to be heavier with meat, with some chicken preparations and a lone rainbow trout selection.

Kostadinov said the most popular main course on his menu is the Bulgarian trio -- a stuffed green pepper, a stuffed cabbage roll and a serving of Bulgarian moussaka. Again, each is slightly different from the versions known in other cuisines. The moussaka contains ground meat, like the Greek version, but it is spicier and has chunks of potatoes, carrots, peppers and onions. It is topped with yogurt and beaten eggs and baked.

The stuffed green pepper ( palneni piperki) is spicier than most American versions, with ground meat, tomato, onions and rice. And the stuffed cabbage leaves (zelevi sarmi) contain ground meat, rice and herbs and are served with a creamy sauce.

The schnitzel Viennese style (shnitzel po Vienski) is pork rather than veal; the breading is fried golden brown, and the meat is fork-tender. French fries, dipped in a batter that gives them an unusual crispness while retaining a tender interior, accompany this and other main courses.

Perhaps the most traditional main course is the grilled Bulgarian meat rolls ( kebapcheta) with ground pork and veal, seasoned with cumin and herbs, rolled into sausage fingers and grilled. They come with a roasted red pepper/tomato spread, known as lutenitza , and a white bean salad, plus those luscious french fries.

The only disappointment was the roasted lamb, which was overcooked to my taste, but the accompanying spinach rice pilaf was heady with garlic and alone worth the price of the dish.

Save room for dessert. The milk banitsa is similar to Italian panna cotta , but it has phyllo dough on the top and bottom and is topped with a rich vanilla pudding icing. The pumpkin strudel is especially good warm on these cool fall nights, and the baklava is a somewhat heavier version of the Greek/Turkish/Lebanese favorite.

The small wine list features Bulgarian wines, which are tasty and inexpensive.

Pretend you are going to a food festival and take a ride to South 23rd Street. It's worth the trip, and lot less expensive than a flight overseas.

Bistro Bulgari, 509 S. 23rd St. (just off Route 1), Arlington, 703-979-7676. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Appetizers, $3.45 to $6.95; main courses, $10.95 to $18.95. http://www.bistrobulgari.com/ .

If you have a favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis atlewisn@washpost.com.

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