Balkan Bites

We were ecstatic about joining the Balkan Bites food tour.  The tour is free, and runs everyday at 2PM.  The meeting point is always the same:

There was about 15 people on the tour.  A bunch of people from New Zealand studying in England was there, and also a Belgium woman and her Canadian boyfriend was there.  The boyfriend is living in Sofia as of now, and they purchased a rose farm in Bulgaria.  How awesome is that?!!  And we had a camera following us as we were going to be featured in the news that night!!

Watch Video for the News!

Our first stop is Supa Star.  It is a traditional Balkan soup shop.  The decor in the shop was very cute.  It was colourful, fun, and very cozy.

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They serve a variety of cold and hot soup.  We tasted a soup made out of yogurt.  Balkans is known for their yogurt, as they were the original inventors of yogurt.  In fact, Bulgaria is one of the largest exporters of bacterial cultures for yogurt fermentation.  This cold yogurt soup is made simply out of water, dill, cucumber, walnuts, garlic and salt to taste.  It was delicious, and very refreshing.  I think I would try to make this again in the summer.

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Our next stop was at a placed called Lubimoto.  They are a traditional family restaurants tucked away in the corner of a building.  Here we tried the Shopska salata.  It is a traditional salad that is commonly served at dinners.  Usually consist of white cheese, salad, olives, and tomato.

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We also tried Bulgaria’s national drink: Rakia.  A clear alcohol similar to brandy, made by the distillation of fermented fruits (grapes, plums, apricots, pears, apples, cherries, figs, quinces).  The alcohol content is approximately 60% which makes it the drink of choice during the winter season, and summer parties.  It is meant to be sipped slowly, but our New Zealand tour-mates decided that bottoms up was the way to go.

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Feeling all warm and fuzzy from the Rakia we had, our next destination was Sun Moon.  It is a bakery/ soup and sandwich shop.  We tried various homemade jams with bread.  The soup looked very tasty, and Ru and I actually came back here for dinner.  She ordered a bean soup and I had a latte.  So that was the end of our free food tour and we gave a generous tip to our guide as the tour was very fun and informative.

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Other tasties in my tummy from Sofia included:

This Chinese hot dog bun looking thing.  It tasted like one, except the sausage was Bulgarian style and so was the bread.  The bread was so soft and chewy.  Very fresh.

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We had a fish crepe. The crepe was very thin, and it was served with a side of tomatoes and cucumbers.  The sauce in the middle was made of potatoes.  It was slightly sour, tasted a bit like sour cream.  The crepe itself was fresh, chewy.  The mouth feel is a bit different from the ones you get in Paris (which is the standard used when assessing crepes).

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And elder flower fermented tea.  Slightly sweet carbonated tea.

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Misty Sofia

We arrived late at night in Sofia, Bulgaria.  Exhausted from our long journey we took a taxi to the hotel, Central Park Hotel. (Cost: 60 Euros per night. Major credit cards accepted.)  The taxi only cost 8 Euros, as the airport was only 15mins away from city centre.   But you will find in Sofia that many shops do not take coins in Euros -they only take bills.   So we ended up paying the taxi driver 10 euros, which was way more than what we should have paid.

When we arrived we were welcomed by a friendly gentleman at the front desk who spoke English -such a relief.  We told him that we were only planning on being in Sofia for 1 day and will be taking an overnight train from Sofia to Belgrade.  He paused and stared at us.  His pause was long and the silence left a dreadful feeling in me.  In his exact words he said, “The overnight train from Sofia to Belgrade is not recommended”.  The dreadful feeling sank a bit lower in my empty stomach.  During our trip planning stage, we struggled a little to find a way out of Sofia.  We read on forums that an overnight train was possible, and the next best method was to take a private bus.  However, there was no specific details provided on how to book a bus and the departure times available.  Still shocked, I asked him why and whether if it was unsafe or if there were boarder crossing issues between Bulgaria and Serbia.  He said that it is not unsafe, but the ride is not pleasant and it would not be recommended for us.  We asked for details of how to book the train ticket and if there were alternatives, and all he managed to tell us was to go to the train station early in the morning around 7am to try to book a ticket.

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A little shaken up, we decided that it would be best to take his suggestion.  We got to our rooms, took  a hot shower and the feeling of being really excited that we are in Bulgaria finally kicked in.  With all that excitement, we couldn’t possibly sleep.  We grabbed our cameras and decided to go canvas the city.   The streets were lit for the holiday festivities.  Cozy restaurants were filled with locals unwinding on a Friday night.  After an hour or so of wandering, we were finally tired.  We headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

Waking up bright and early the next day at 7am, we were welcomed by a pleasant surprise.   The city  looked like it was under a spell: the same kind of spell that I would imagine was cast over the whole kingdom in Sleeping Beauty.

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We headed out quickly, because we wanted to get information about the overnight train.  We hopped on the tram, which only cost 1 Bulgarian Lev.

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We were a little confused as to what stop we were suppose to get off at.   I approached a middle aged lady for directions and with all the English she could muster, she told me that she was also going to the train station and to follow her.   Later on, we found out that she spoke French.  Ru, who is well versed in the French took over.   We asked her how the night train was like from Sofia to Belgrade, and if it was safe.   She said she has never taken it before, so she is not sure.  She said that generally Bulgaria is a pretty safe country to be.   She mentioned that children in Bulgaria learn English as well as another language in school.   She chose to learn French, but German and Spanish was also options.

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Stepping into the Sofia Central Station was like stepping back in time.   Manual train schedules were hung on the wall, benches lined the waiting area, and everyone was bundled up because there was not heat.  A morbid looking evergreen tree with tinsels stood tall in the center.

We walked in and made our way to the train ticket counter.  Located on the right far corner -it was a little difficult to find.   There was one lady at the ticket counter who spoke English, and French.  She told us that in order for us to reserve a Private Berth, we need to arrive precisely 1 hour before the train departs.  It cost 55 Bulgarian Lev per person for a Private Berth.  The train departs at 8:30pm every day.  Only Bulgarian Lev is accepted.

Relieved that we could book a ticket, we left the train station.   It was still early around 10am in the morning.   We decided to wander around town and slowly make our way to our tour meeting point.

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The small streets were very beautifully lined with neat rows of trees.   Standing tall and straight, reminiscences of the past glories of the Bohemian empire that once flourished.  The mist was still lingering in the city, but the rays of light form the sun shone through.
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We walked down the street and couldn’t help notice that a lot of the shops were deserted.   There was a lot of graffiti on the walls, buildings were very run down.  The buildings hint at a story of the difficult past this country had during the communist regime.  Where all property was seized and everything was rationed.
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 We continued to wander until it was time to meet up for our tour.
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2:1

Ru and I were out again on a hunt for yummies around downtown Toronto.  After an hour of battling traffic, we finally made it downtown to our first destination: Ematei.  With 88% rating on Urbanspoon, I had high hopes for this place.  Around 8pm, the restaurant was packed.  We waited for a bit and was finally seated.

Short of dying of hunger, we quickly ordered.  Up first was the Tacowasa.  This is raw squid with a touch of salt and wasabi.  Tasted like how it was suppose to taste.

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Ru had ordered the ramen and unfortunately I didn’t get to take a photo before she started eating. The broth was very rich and had this veggie taste in it.  I also tasted a hint of butter, I’m not sure if there was actual butter in the broth or it was something else.  The noodle was a bit more al dente than we liked.  You could taste that the noodle was from a package and in fact we it tasted a bit like plastic.  The pork was over cooked and not fatty enough to make it soft and juice.  Overall verdict, not worth it.

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Then we ordered a grilled black cod.  The fish tasted very sweet and it was very smooth.  Normally I would say fish does have that sweet fresh taste to it, but this sweetness is way too sweet.  It almost felt like it was marinated in a sugary sauce.  It tasted yummy, but I question if it was from the sugar.

We were still hungry, but decided that it was really time to go as food was not that great.

Where: Ematei
Location: Toronto, Ontario

What: Tacosawa, Ramen, Black Cod
Verdict: Overrated.  Will not be back.

Ematei Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Unsatisfied, we decided that we should hit up a restaurant with higher rating.  Richmond Station was on our list for a while and since neither of us have been we decided to head over.  At around 10pm, the dining room was packed.  We tried to get a table for sit down but was told that it would be a 20 min wait.  We decided to hang out at the standing bar and have a drink.  One look at the wine list and it was unimpressive.  The selection was so small, that I probably had a bigger selection of wine at home.

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Upon the waitress’ recommendation we went with the 2011 Roussanne.  The wine was too dry without food.  It had average balance with hints of lemon, honeysuckle and floral.  Not really my glass of wine.

After being sick of waiting, we decided to order an appetizer to see how the food is here and if it was worth continuing to wait.  We debated between the smoked trout rillettes and the corn and scallop pakoras.  I love scallops but I find that it is rarely done right, so I always stay away from it.  But since Richmond Station received a lot of raves and praises on Urbanspoon, I decided to give it a shot.

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And here it is.  The sauce is spiced yogurt.  One bite into it and I could taste zucchini, a bit of chilli, coriander, chutney and corn.  But where’s the scallop?  I don’t think I need to go on to say how disappointed I was with the pankoras.  The scallop was in small tiny pieces, over cooked, and all the other ingredients over powered the taste.  Fail.  We were so disappointed, we got the bill and left.

Where: Richmond Station
Location: Toronto, Ontario

What: Corn and Scallop Pakoras
Verdict: Overrated.  Will not be back.
Richmond Station on Urbanspoon

At this point, Ru and I were thinking what is going on?  What a horrible night and such epic fail.  We thought that we should hit up one more place to round the night out.  No more disappointments.  We waved down a taxi and headed to Darwin.  We were missing the wine there and was craving the avocado shrimp.  Ru and I were here a few weeks ago for the first time and was really impressed.  We know they recently launched a bar menu on pilot and thought we’d give that a go.

When we arrived the place was still lively.  We took up our favourite table by the french windows.  Perfect for a beautiful night.

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We ordered the avocado shrimp, and was as impressed as the first time we had it.  Very delicious.  We also wanted to give the shrimp taco a try.  The taste we very fresh and unique.  I’m not sure if shrimp taco is always with deep fried shrimp, it tasted good but it might taste better if it was grilled instead.  Healthier, in my opinion.

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At the compliment of the owner, we got a nice treat.  Yucca fries.  It was my first time having yucca fries and it has this starchy, crispy texture.  It went well with the sauce which was a bit spicy and creamy.  I think this would go very well with beer.

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Then we had ratoutille wrapped in phyllo pastry, which was also a compliment of the owner.  At this point we were super full already, but thought we’d give it a taste too.  It tasted like a samosa. The concept is very unique.

After being disappointing by 2 restaurants we were finally happy with our food and hung around Darwin for a while.

Where: Darwin
Location: Toronto, Ontario

What: Avocado Shrimp, Shrimp Taco, Samosa, Yucca Fries
Verdict: Great food and wine.

Darwin Bistro & Bar on Urbanspoon