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Take the three-month-old Bulgari Ristorante in Hollywood. Just off the I-95 ramps on Hollywood Boulevard, the place bills itself as Italian and Mediterranean. Many consumers will obviously make the connection between the restaurant's appellation and the Italian luxury-goods designer. The foregone conclusion? High-end eats from the expensively tooled part of the Boot.
Ah, but remember the Bad News Bears' motto. Making assumptions may not necessarily qualify you as an ass, but the habit could lead you to some fairly dreadful dining experiences.
In truth, Bulgari does serve antipasti, pastas, and pizzas. But it shouldn't, and not just because Italian items like the pappardelle rustica are watery, tomato-based creations redeemed only by chunks of zesty sausage or because the flabby portofino pizza, layered loosely with arugula, taste as if they should have a starring role in the "delivery or De Giorno" commercial. Bulgari itself is a double- entendre. Like the folk-music ensemble of the same name, Bulgari actually is Bulgarian. And in these origins lies its novelty.
Walk into the outwardly shabby establishment, originally a Howard Johnson's lodge and most recently a failed Mexican restaurant, and you'll be pleasantly astonished by the attractive, crushed red velvet banquettes and medieval weapons hanging from the walls. (Particularly if you parked in the dark and forbidding lot in back of the restaurant, where you can be sure at least one employee will be hanging out smoking near the garbage bins.) Ask the European waiters for a wine list and you'll be surprised again when they start hawking Bulgarian vintages (which, quite honestly, have few redeeming qualities but at least verify the menu claim that "all our foods and wines are imported from Europe.") Then turn the menu facedown and you'll be intrigued by the list of Bulgarian dishes on the back, ranging from tripe soup to stuffed peppers.
Just don't ask for the specials of the day unless you're really determined to sample the authentic goods. One server was hesitant to list them for us, given our lack of European accents and the conspicuous absence of nicotine stains on our hands. (The clientele here, largely younger club types, makes your average chain smoker look like one of those "Truth" kids.) "You're not going to like them," he warned. With a setup like that, of course, I felt obligated to order whatever he was so reluctant to reveal -- in this case, filet mignon paired with sautéed chicken livers and fried veal brains. The elements were presented like a sandwich and designed like a boat, with layers of slightly gamy but tender steak alternating with toasted slices of garlic bread. The brains were a deep-fried patty resting on top, pierced with overcooked, tooth-picked chicken livers; the whole dish was speared, oddly enough, with a paper umbrella along the lines of a tropical drink prop. As it turned out, the veal brains were the best element on the plate, tasting like a cross between pâté and sweetbreads, with a consistency more like the latter, while the more familiar chicken livers were bitter and pungent.
You don't have to indulge in organ-based dishes; plenty of so-called "normal" Bulgarian fare awaits sampling. Alas, Tikvichki, fried zucchini served with a yogurt-garlic-dill sauce, was soggy and insipid, with the yogurt dip especially disappointing given that All Along the Danube cookbook author Marina Polvay calls Bulgaria "the undisputed center of yogurt production." But the Bulgarian cheese, also reputed to be among the finest in the Balkan region, did indeed shine. One chuska burek appetizer, baked and skinned red peppers stuffed with sheep's-milk cheese and eggs, was uniquely tasty, if a bit on the cool side in terms of temperature. A traditional shopska salata (salad) was also wonderfully fresh. Similar to a Greek salad, the composition of chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and onions was enhanced by a pure, white drift of grated feta cheese. The distribution of the cheese in shavings instead of chunks allowed for a softening of texture that was a terrific complement to the crisp vegetables.
Because Bulgarian cuisine is not a staple of our national diet the way Italian food is, you might be a little confused about how Middle Eastern stuffed grape leaves can exist on the same menu as Eastern European fried smelt. The answer lies in Bulgaria's history. A nation originally occupied by native Slavs, it was later settled by a tribe from Central Asia and then taken over by the Ottoman Empire. The culinary result of all this history is a dish like guveche, a rich, flavorful casserole of Bulgarian sausage, hot peppers, tomatoes, onions, feta cheese, and egg -- a curious mixture of East and West.
Given that the Bulgarian culture draws most heavily from Turkey, Greece, and Russia, most diners would find it easier to identify Bulgarian foodstuffs by way of comparison. For instance, you might not know kufte, fried meatballs with onions and spices, but you may be familiar with kafta; pileshki shishcheta may sound a bit foreign, but fret not: It's only shish kebab. Unfortunately, the latter could use a little seasoning here. While the skewered chicken was juicy, the accompanying tomatoes and onions did little to flavor it. Some marinating might help. Likewise, salt and spices would be a great assist to the musaka, a bland casserole of ground meat, onions, and tomatoes lidded with potatoes. The Russian influence is most heavily seen in the side dishes that partner main courses: vinegary potato salad, spears of pickles, firm white beans tossed with dill.