Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bulgarien: Eine von Viele

As much as I've tried to keep this project orderly, the B countries refuse to get in line (alphabetically that is). I've got Bolivia and Bosnia in the works, but Bulgaria pushed it's way forward (Brazil is just behind it) and that's just how it is. Maybe the C countries will be less chaotic....

I was pleasantly surprised to find a good handful of Bulgarian restaurants in Berlin to choose from. As a matter of fact, for what it's worth, there appear to be more Bulgarian restaurants in Berlin than in New York City. Luckily, a friend with a Bulgarian boyfriend offered to take me to her favorite: Pri Maria (Bulgarian for Maria's Place) in Friedrichshain. Inflamatory as this statement may be to certain passport-holders, the flavors found in Bulgarian food are not dramatically different from those found in Turkish food (they do share a border after all), which means that a Bulgarian meal in Berlin (home to a bazillion Turkish restaurants) doesn't really provide a new and exciting palate to explore. That said, it's always interesting to explore regional or national variations and Pri Maria offers very good versions of these familiar dishes at very reasonable prices.

We shared a small mixed appetizer plate, a schopska (the Bulgarian version of the more familiar Greek salad), and an order of Sirene natur (Bulgarian sheeps' milk cheese (think feta)). The appetizer plate included a selection of speads: eggplant, red pepper, yogurt-cucumber, along with some marinated vegetables. While many places in Berlin offer a near-identical mixed appetizer plate, at Pri Maria they are clearly made in-house and taste notably fresher and more distinct than what you most often come across in this town. My chief complaint regarding the appetizer plate is that it doesn't include any feta, which we had to order separately. The feta is very good and not expensive (3.20 Euros for 6 or so slices), so it wasn't a huge problem in our case, but if I were dining alone or with a cheese-phobic companion, I might not want a whole plate of it. Seeing as it is listed under appetizers and the mixed appetizer plate is described as "a little of everything," it seems that a bite or two of feta wouldn't be out of place. Another issue is the bread. While it's perfectly edible white bread and provides a necessary vehicle for the many spreads, it's nothing special. Alas, I don't know enough about Bulgarian food to know if this is the sort of thing one might be served in a cafe in Sofia, but the very good spreads would have really been elevated had they been served with homemade pita (!) or even a purchased bread with some actual flavor. The schopska is an excellent example of how making a small change - in this case, grating the feta instead of cubing or crumbling it - can give a familiar dish a very different feel. My complaint regarding the schopska is a familiar one: the tomatoes in Berlin are almost always bad, particularly if you are buying cheap ones, which most inexpensive restaurants here do. Maybe in late August you can find a few good ones, but this year has been especially, depressingly bad. If you've ever eaten a Greek salad with tomatoes and cucumbers fresh from the garden, you know that one made from grocery store produce just isn't the same. Still, I liked the "concept" of the salad. If I ever get my hands on a tomato with any flavor, I just might make my own schopska, though I am craving a tomato sandwich on toasted bread with basil mayonaise so much these days, that would have to take precedence......but back to Bulgaria....The meal ended on a very good note: yogurt with honey and walnuts. This dish has so much potential to be blah, but Pri Maria's version was anything but. The yogurt (whole milk, of course) was thick and creamy with just the right amount of tang. There was just enough honey so that somehow you managed to get some in each bite without it being cloying. And the walnuts - they weren't just tossed on as an afterthought, but were caramelized, giving each spoonful the most delicious, toasty crunch.

Because Pri Maria is in Friedrichshain, they also serve crepes and gallettes (is there a neighborhood law that one cafe per block has to serve these?)and a few Russian dishes (there seems to be a Russian involved somewhere - married to the owner perhaps?), but at heart Pri Maria is a Bulgarian cafe with a complete Bulgarian wine list! My glass of red wine was pretty generic tasting, but still - it was Bulgarian! They also host wine tastings (and randomly, offer bike rental), so maybe there are some gems on the list. It would be nice if they pumped up the Bulgaria a little - the decor is pretty generic. The cheesy painting of a cappuccino and some oddly squid-like light fixtures didn't do much for me. Similarly, I was much happier listening to the Bulgarian music (which can only be described as raucous) than the forgettable pop that was playing when we first came in. I can imagine the owners might prefer a more modern look, but I'd like to think that proclaiming themselves as a place to have a distinctly Bulgarian experience would be a real selling point. Having said that, the place doesn't seem to be lacking for customers: the food is good and the price is right.

Pri Maria
Boxhagener Straße 26

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