Good riddance, 2012…

31 December 2012, 8.53am

For some people I know 2012 has been a good year. But for most people I know, 2012 has been a rather bad year — from heart-breaking relationship splits to financial woes, from work-related stress to stress-induced health issues. I think for many people, they can’t wait to see the tail end of 2012, especially as us in the US are likely to fall off into some type of a cliff…

For me personally 2012 has not just been a terrible year, but it has been extremely challenging. Readers of this blog and my Twitter followers know of my painful and difficult journey this year, including passing into “midlife” when I turned 40 in September. I don’t need to rehash anything, but it has been a rocky year to say the least. Even someone like me, who is usually as crafty and nimble as a mountain goat, has fallen like not just fish out of water, but fish in outer space…

However, I look at 2013 as a major opportunity. I shed so much baggage and encumbrance in 2012 I feel 2013 will give me a chance to start many things anew. And for the first time in many, many years — I think since 2004 — I am actually going to celebrate when the moment happens. For previous years I’ve usually either gone to bed at 10pm and slept thru things or was on a plane to Europe (passing into the new year at some indeterminable moment in the skies). But I really want to drink 2012 away…

Sure, this means for the first time in ages I’ll have a New Year’s hangover, but it’ll be worth it. Waking up on 1 January sober for years has not done the trick, and the last time I drank into the 1st of January (2003/2004) gave me one of the best year of my life (2004). Oh, I wish I can tell you how good 2004 was for me, not just because it was the year I met the now-gone love-of-my-life but overall it was a damn, damn great year. I’m hoping to replicate this in 2013!

However, I really don’t want to be around people, so I chose to just sit at home quietly. I really need to give 2012 this middle finger in private… So I have a nice bottle of Gruet sparkling wine from New Mexico — one of the few bubblies I actually like drinking. I still have half a bottle of douro, and quite a bit of vodka. I’ve been doing some infusions for days now that will yield me about 2-3 shots from each of the infusions: first is blackberry, second is kumquat, third is Hunan peppers. That should carry me into 2013 in fine spirits!

So I want to wish everyone here a happy, safe and wonderful celebration into 2013! My Oz friends have gone over already, but for everyone else…

Happy New Year!!
Head Uut Aastat!!
Felice Anno Nuovo!!
З Новим Роком!!
Ein gutes neues Jahr!
Laimīgu Jauno Gadu!!
Щастлива Нова Година!!
Boldog Új Évet!!
Bonne Année!!
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!!
Godt Nytt År!!
¡¡Feliz Año Nuevo!!
Šťastný Nový Rok!!
Καλή Χρονιά!!
Onnellista Uutta Vuotta!
Sretna Nova Godina!!
Bon’annu Novu!!
Štastný Nový Rok!!
Laimingų Naujųjų Metų!!
Feliç Any Nou!!
С Новым Годом!!
Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!!

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Review #2: Hakata Tonton

20 December 2012

Just as the holiday season approaches, I’ve been eating rather low-key at home these weeks since getting back from my last trip. I have to say, I have been feeling more at peace these days, so the trip was really worth it. Though it has messed with my schedule, as I am getting up at 3am daily and doing my hard gym sessions at 4am, and going to sleep before some people have dinner. This makes me a little anti-social…

But on this evening I was gonna let loose back in the City, with a much anticipated return to my favourite restaurant in NYC, Hakata Tonton. Every visit to this humble little place in the Village has been a major treat. I’ve not been back since August, when I introduced food guru Simon Majumdar to this little gem. It was hard to snag this booking, but my stomach was ready.

As we were seated in the coveted corner counter spot, we sensed this was going to be even better than usual. On my right was our old friend:

piggy

My friend stuck with beer all night, but I went with a duet of cold sake and Rikuzenkataka cider (which I raved about in the previous review). Chef Koji came out to say hello and he sent out a little treat for us to start, the black pork pâté in spicy oil.

pate

This was a treat, as the pâté melted in my mouth with a kick from the spicy oil. Thank you, chef! Nice start. We then ordered a half dozen dishes and enjoyed the many treats of the night. Now this is a major feast…

After some good conversation and drinks the food began to appear. First to show up was a dish we almost always order, the veal liver sashimi.

veal_liver_sashimi

To be honest, it just didn’t work that well tonight for some reason. Good, but not great. Maybe because the previous pâté was so good it already set my tongue for more aggressive flavours? But soon I was rewarded when 2 dishes appeared, the fried “soft shell” prawns and the whelk sashimi — both new dishes. Wow…

prawns_whelk

The whelk was delicate but textured like many of its clam-y cousins — of which I love eating sliced and raw. But the prawn was the winner here, eating them whole with shell and head. Amazing flavours here!!! Both new dishes are total winners!

Just as we continued to enjoy the flavours, the next dish came — the grilled scallops:

scallops

Nice and tasty, with a uni-based topping, it really added some complexity to the simple but wonderful tasting scallops. We were pretty much in seven heaven when the next dish showed up, another of our “usuals” — the fried motsu:

motsu

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the motsu (intestines) were extremely flavourful. Maybe not fried as well as usual, but still extremely tasty. My favourite dish here always. Around the same time the last of our dishes arrived, the tonsoku:

tonsoku

The namesake of this restaurant, the trotter, was done in a fabulous garlic sauce. I can eat these things like wings or ribs all day! Tangy and sharp, it really was a nice way to end “round 1” of this eating fest!

We took a break and chilled out, watching other people enjoy other dishes, such as the various hotpots in which this restaurant also specialises. But knowing we’re meeting up with some people over cocktails later, we decided to fortify ourselves with a few more dishes. The first was the grilled squid:

squid

This was a very simple dish, which was good after all that complex stuff that was in the earlier session. And finally, we concluded with the humble grilled mentaiko:

mentaiko

This grilled spiced pollock roe was fantastic, and helped us prepare for the night of drinking coming up. We would have stayed and order more but we had to be somewhere soon, so sadly we concluded the dinner. I could have had a few more dishes!

Chef Koji came out to greet us as we headed out, and we thanked him for yet another fantastic evening of amazing food. Wow, this really was an awesome last feast for 2012 — which has been a fantastic year for feasts. Wow, wow, wow…mmm…

Hakata Tonton
61 Grove Street
New York, NY 10014

Review: Die Quadriga

27 November 2012

After a stressful, busy, and warm (read: heat in U- & S-Bahnen) afternoon running around Berlin, I was looking forward to three things — a cold shower, a good kip, and a good dinner. I was certainly not looking forward to my 7am flight out of Tegel and the subsequent 8 hour layover in London the next day. Thank goodness I have booked a table at Die Quadriga — a restaurant that is growing quickly in reputation.

I left my hotel after the much needed cold shower and took the 15-minute stroll past Ku’damm towards the Brandenburger Hof hotel, where Die Quadriga is based. It was a chilly night, but I enjoyed the walk sans coat (much to the amusement of fellow pedestrians).

The layout of the restaurant is very interesting, strewn around the lobby oasis of the hotel. This separation of space gives the ability to craft a few private dining areas. I was led to a nice table at the back in a rather quiet night in the restaurant. I couldn’t fathom why it was not more busy, because every review I’ve read about Die Quadriga is that on food terms it beats most of the Michelin and San Pellegrino places in Berlin (if not all of Germany).

With a nice glass of Talisker to start, I perused through the interesting menu. I had thought about doing the seasonal menu, a grand goose-based feast, but decided with my early morning it’s better not to overdo it tonight. So I chose to go a la carte instead. Compared to my lunch at Fischers Fritz this was a bargain…

After I placed my order, I began my journey through several wonderful German wines, starting with a crispy white from Mosel. And in no time the first of my trio of amuse bouches arrived, and this was a visual treat to say the least…

Die-Quadriga_amuse1_27-11-12

I foraged through the cute selection modelled after the German’s love of the forest, enjoying the cured meat on a stick to the chopped crudo in the cone, from the wild flowers to the baby radishes and so much more…almost everything was edible (no, not the birch bark) and I did what I usually do — ate nearly all of it! My waiter told me lots of people ignore the flowers and root vegetables, which is a shame. They were fresh and flavourful as were the featured items. A very photogenic start!

I continued to enjoy my German whites from Mosel (very, very underrated) as this restaurant has a dedication to fine German wines. This I applaud wholeheartedly. My second amuse bouche appeared soon to my amusement.

Die-Quadriga_amuse2_27-11-12

Yes, it is a tasting of grape. But look at the top set carefully, it’s actually filled with foie gras! Wow…mmm…very tasty! The two inside are real grapes, and it was a nice little post-savoury treat. A very cute dish!

I didn’t drink the wine as fast because I can’t overdo it (thanks to that crazy 7am flight tomorrow), so nursed the wine into my third amuse bouche…

Die-Quadriga_amuse3_27-11-12

This presentation of crudo and smoked meats was again a nice little treat to tempt the palate before the main course. After the first two this was a little anticlimactic, but nevertheless prepares the brain for the upcoming starter. BTW in the background you can see the nice bread selection (sorry no picture) served with salted butter, herb butter, and goose fat spread! Mmm!!

I relaxed and really took in the restaurant. It has so, so much potential once more people know about it. Berlin fine dining is not all stiff, Parisian-styled; rather, Die Quadriga is pushing German cuisine and produce hard, with results that easily match many Michelin and San Pellegrino places around the world.

I enjoyed another glass of wine from Mosel as my starter arrived, and I was just taking in the aroma of this wonderful presentation of eel…

Die-Quadriga_eel_27-11-12

After my disappointing eel from 2-Michelin-starred Fischers Fritz during lunch, I was really looking forward to this. The generous chunk of eel, a delicacy in the north of Germany, was flavourful and tender, and without the heavy adulteration that takes away from the wonderful natural taste of the eel. If lunch was Parisian French in flavour and style, this was Hanseatic German at its best. Awesome eel, some of the best eel I’ve had since the huge oily ones I’ve had on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.

I was now totally enjoying this dining experience, my final one on this crazy trip. I’ve had questionable dining experiences in Berlin in the past, but now I am totally sold on this booming city. This city is so, so livable! With London dining so disappointing lately, will it replace London as my travel focal point?

I switched to a German Blaufränkisch red for my main, which needed a bit more fortification. I was still enjoying the taste of the eel in my mouth when my main course appeared, a wonderful rib of beef:

Die-Quadriga_beef-rib_27-11-12

Cooked perfectly pink and topped with an overdose of herbs (much in the true German nature), this little slice of heaven melted in my mouth. Not many people come to Germany for beef, but this really hit the spot.

Mmmm…this was such a good meal so far, it’s pretty much overtaken La Vision in Köln as my favourite restaurant in Germany. This place certainly deserves at least 1 Michelin star in the next guide, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on the San Pellegrino list too — once more people in the food world knows about this awesome place!

With a splash of dessert wine, a palate-cleanser arrived before my dessert — a seasonal tasting of pear:

Die-Quadriga_amuse4_27-11-12

This was a brilliant take on the pear, from the tangy sorbet to the refreshing juice, it really brought me in the mood for the dessert phase. And as my dessert wine ran down, I switched back to a Talisker for the final opus, my dessert:

Die-Quadriga_dessert_27-11-12

This cute presentation, based around coffee, summed up my mood at this point of the night! I’m gonna let the picture speak for itself here, as I was just giddy happy by this point.

I skipped the post-dinner chocolates and truffles they offered as I was too full, just enjoying the environment. This restaurant has so, so much potential. The creativity of its presentation, the solidness of its cooking, and the efficiency of its service makes it a prime candidate not just to be one of my Top 10 restaurants around the world, but easily up the Michelin and San Pellegrino lists next year.

As I walked out into the cold night back to my hotel, thinking about when I need to set my alarm for that bloody 7am flight, my facial expression still matched the dessert. Pedestrians, still puzzled on why I had no coat on a cold and windy night, now also puzzled why I had a gigantic grin on my face. I really advise everyone to check this place out — it’s worth a quick trip to Berlin!

Die Quadriga
Eislebener Straße 14
Berlin, Deutschland

Review: Fischers Fritz

Berlin,
27 November 2012

There is something about the winter air in Germany — anywhere in Germany — that makes me happy. And nothing in the world brings me to smile so carefree as a traditional German Christmas market. And that’s where I was this late November morning as the market near Alexanderplatz churrned to life. I feel like the proverbial kid in a toystore here…

It wasn’t cold enough really (about 7c) to be having Glühwein, but I enjoyed a nice one (without the ‘extra’ mind you, as it was not even midday) watching the stands slowly set up. I took a stroll and just took in the aroma of grilled Krakauer and roasted nuts, and looked at all the things I’d buy if I didn’t have to cart it all the way back across the Atlantic. If I was still living in Europe, I’d be carrying a huge back out of the market…

Oh, I love Germany so much…

But the point of the morning was to have lunch at the much-heralded Fischers Fritz, which boasts a hefty two Michelin stars. Usually that is a turn-off for me for lunch, but I figured why not. The menu looked interesting, so that was the plan of the first half of my only full day in Berlin. Plus I needed to be fortified for a busy afternoon.

As I wandered from Alexanderplatz towards Friedrichstadt via Unter den Linden, crossing the Spree brought me to yet another Christmas market at Schinkelplatz, so I enjoyed another Glühwein and wandered the stalls again. It was so tempting I had to leave after a few minutes…oh, I can spend days in these markets… I left with a huge smile on my face.

As I was still a little early for my booking I took a lap around Gendarmenmarkt, which boasts the Konzerthaus flanked by the two cathedrals Deutscher Dom and Französischer Dom (Wikipedia has a great panorama picture). Then I got to the Regent, the hotel that boasts Fischers Fritz.

As I walked in, there was no doubt this is a 2-star Michelin establishment. Just the appearance gave the aura of glamour and, sadly, stiffness. The restaurant was rather empty, but probably expected for a Tuesday lunch slot considering the menu prices… The lunch menu was reasonable, but the a la carte is pretty crazy even for Berlin standards.

I was put in a nice side table and enjoyed the fine service, which began with a nice glass of grey burgundy from Baden. I explored the menu and, despite how nice the a la carte menu looked, the prices were a little outrageous and not fitting for lunch. So I decided to go with the lunch menu. I usually don’t quip about price, but this was a little over the top with starters in the 40s and mains in the 70s…

I was enjoying the wine and quiet atmosphere when the amuse bouche arrived, a nice piece of salmon.

amuse

A tasty little treat to help the palate, and I asked for another glass of wine. I was looking forward to the starter, which was the tartar of smoked eel with horseradish and apples.

eel

I have to admit it was a little boring. I enjoy eel very much, but this seemed a little unsubstantial. Beautifully presented, but it just felt too sterile for me. Even the horseradish was extremely mild. If anything, the strongest flavour here was the apple, which should not be dominating if looking at the main components. Oh well…

By now I asked for a recommendation and a fine red was brought to me. At this point I must say the service has been utterly fantastic, not obtrusive but very attentive and friendly. The wine pourings have also been generous.

I needed something with more kick for my main, which was the Duroc pork belly. Wow, this looked nice when it came out. I love Duroc pork, this breed is one of the nicest tasting out there, and I cook with it all the time.

duroc

The chunks of belly, sized just perfectly, saw a combination of all that we love about a good piece of belly — succulent meat, heavenly fat, and crispy skin. The red cabbage helped the overall flavour of the dish, as the belly pieces are larger than you would think (the picture may be a little misleading). I was very full and happy after this dish.

However, as I had a set lunch menu, I had a dessert coming. After a palate-cleansing sorbet, my dessert appeared: pudding of passion fruit and star anise.

pudding

This combination dessert was very tasty, from the smooth pudding to the fabulous macadamia foam on top (I did scoop more of this fabulous preparation). In addition, a cardamom chocolate ice cream on the side closed this meal perfectly.

By now, the room was not much busier and there was an annoying person on the other side of the dining room yelling into his mobile…surprised he was not being told by the staff to ‘halt die Klappe’. Maybe too much courtesy? In any case, I headed out and thanked the staff for their fine service and good lunch.

I must say it was a good lunch, and reasonably priced with the set menu. The eel was a bit of a miss, but everything else excellent — especially the service. I can see why this place has 2 stars. Onto my busy afternoon, but after that meal I am still dreaming about the Krakauer grilling in the market…

Fischers Fritz
Charlottenstraße 49
Berlin, Deutschland

Nach Berlin, durch Wien

26 November 2012

My soul-cleansing weekend trip to Varna had drawn to an end, and it’s time to head out. As Varna is not served well by air connections during the off-season, I was forced to endure a lengthy layover in Vienna en route to Berlin. After my day and bad dining experience in Vienna before Varna (I didn’t even detail how bad my hotel was there), I’m not too thrilled about this 3+ hour stop.

I headed to check out of this really good Hotel mOdus (I really, really recommend this place) and lo and behold, the stunningly gorgeous girl who did my check-out has the same name as my ex… What a way to mark my departure…

It was a bit of a mess at the tiny Varna Airport, as the scheduled flight to Sofia had been massively delayed. We were taking off at 1.30pm for Vienna, the Sofia flight was due to take off around 9am, and when we left they were still there… Geez… The flight to Vienna had been uneventful, but when I arrived, I thought — should I run to the centre or just sit at a bar here?

But after a few minutes of enduring the ridiculous heat inside Schwechat Airport (why are Austrians so intent on blasting the heat to a pass-out level?), I decided to hop on the quick train to Wien-Mitte. The fast direct CAT train is fast, but when it’s only 2 per hour it defeats the purpose. So my stop to the centre turned out much more of a rush than I had planned…

I got to Wien-Mitte and jumped off the boiling hot train and decided to go somewhere close for a quick meal. A good mate had recommended Plachutta for Schnitzel, so I thought why not, as it was only a few blocks away. I got there and was seated in the empty restaurant (as it was like 3pm). I told them I was in a bit of a rush and just bring out some Grüner Veltliner and Schnitzel for me. It came rather quickly…

Schnitzel

I have to say the service was good, and they appreciated the rush I was in. However, this Schnitzel was probably the worst I’ve ever had. I’ve had better in my school cafeteria. Even the refectory at Aberdeen University had better Schnitzel (even the one we couldn’t ID the meat inside as pork, chicken or fish) was more tasty. It’s like this was a throw-away piece, and they forgot to season it at all. There was zero flavour in the breading and meat was pounded so thin that half of the Schnitzel was breading only (I opened it, I know).

I sense this was due to it being middle of the day. I paid and left unhappily, cross also on being forced to pay for all the extras again that I did not order — like on Friday night. I just didn’t have time to argue, as I had to take off back to Wien-Mitte for the airport. Back to the same boiling hot train… I really detest Vienna…

Was covered in sweat when I got to the gate thanks to the ridiculous heating at Schwechat. Short flight between the imperial capitals was uneventful as we landed at Tegel. I miss Tempelhof so much (it was so damn convenient), and I will so miss Tegel also when it shuts next year… Berlin is making a HUGE mistake with this airport plan for Schönefeld… It’s like closing JFK and La Guardia and expanding Newark…

I got to my really cool and utilitarian hotel in Berlin between Ku’damm and Zoo, making it totally convenient. I never got a reply from Facil for a booking tonight (they said they had server issues), so just wandered around looking for food. I was knackered and didn’t want to do much, so found a small, unassuming place named Sachs.

This cool little cafe-bar was exactly what I needed. Relaxing and friendly, with excellent service and tasty food. The servers were amazingly good here, so cheery and helpful — a 100% difference from dreary and dour and stuffy Vienna. I always liked Berlin, and this just reaffirmed my like of this city. I wasn’t too hungry so aside from a few beers I had the Brandenburger Rotwild — the excellent local venison.

Sachs_Rotwild_26-11-12_edited

The venison was very tasty and cooked deliciously pinky-red. The vegetables were a wonderful addition after too many days of meat, butter, oil, offal. I was tempted to have a little more, but I was knackered, so it was time to turn in this Monday night.

I headed out happily, giving the staff a good (and much deserved) tip. I took a stroll around before going back to my hotel, enjoying the cool breeze. I can’t but help but reflect how Berlin and Vienna are 180-degrees apart. Berlin is such a city I could live in. I never contemplated that, but now…

And for the first time in a long time, my mind was not pre-occupied by something (read: someone). My soul is being cleansed, first on the Black Sea and now on the Spree…

Plachutta
Wollzeile 38
Wien, Österreich

Sachs
Knesebeckstraße 29
Berlin, Deutschland

A Soul-Cleansing Journey to the Black Sea…part 2

25 November 2012

I woke up my first morning in Varna with a nasty hangover, as expected from last night’s excess of rakia from the local Varna region and down the coast in the Pomorie area. A bad sleep as expected, and felt rather lethargic with a healthy dose of headache. A shower helped, as did the entertaining Bulgarian television morning programmes. I realised I understood much, much more than I thought…

But in a significant symbolic move, I took a pair of scissors and cut my goatee… As some of you know, the length of this goatee (grown originally to mark my 40th birthday) had become ridiculously long. So I slashed it and trimmed it to a “presentable” length and saved the longest strands (at almost 13cm/5in)…

As a non-breakfast eater, I just relaxed and tried to catch up on some tweets (roaming, so had to be conservative…hotel wifi still down). But in keeping my slow pace, I did not emerge from the room until about midday when I headed into the centre of town and explored some of the town’s best known sites.

Varna has some life in late November, but in the centre. But still, it’s a sleepy town, and the residents are clearly dreaming of the warmth of summer and hate the cold. It’s only about 5C today, and many are walking quickly from door to door, from shelter to bus. I enjoyed the chill as I walk by beautiful iconic buildings and Orthodox churches. Take a look at the Wikipedia page to see some of the beautiful sites (better than my pictures).

After nearly 2 hours I was getting hungry so I looked for something appetising around town. By now I was just wandering aimlessly and decided to hop into one of the country’s best known chain restaurants — Happy Bar & Grill. I know what some will say — why a chain — but it is a darn good chain. I’ve had their food in Sofia before, and I’ll happily eat here all the time. But being on the seaside there were more treats here. So for lunch was a plate of fried sprats…mmm…

sprats

I love sprats, not just stuff from the Baltic, but also these. Fantastic, from head to tail, all washed down with some nice local beer. It was a nice rest and the friendly service showed that chain restaurants, when done well, can be very satisfying. I ate a second plate of the fish fry before taking off appreciatively.

I then slowly strolled back towards the seaside and headed to the beach again. I treaded on the sand going out to the water. The air is so nice, it really is cleansing. And as a symbolic gesture, I took out the long strands of my goatee, and let it go in the wind at the shore of the Black Sea…as if I’m letting go of something very dear to me here…

blacksea

Surprisingly, no tears fell this time, just some heavy baggage. The strands of hair flew in all directions, some took off, some fell in the sand, some were seized by the water. But I felt relieved, and although this was a symbolic act, it made an unexplainable difference in me. It’s like I’ve finally made peace with everything relating to the last 7 1/2 years, and it’s time for me to start to be myself again. This is priceless.

I left the beach and walked up the promenade and just strolled around the busy pedestrian areas just north-west of the beach. So this is where all the residents of Varna are! It was busy with people shopping, strolling, and just people-watching. It’s easy to do as Varna is full of very beautiful people. Eventually I headed back to the hotel to chill out for a bit.

I didn’t manage to head out again until way after dark. Unfortunately it is Sunday night, and it’s not easy to find good food. I was going to go down to the beach, but decided to go for something in the centre instead. Wandered around and after about half hour of fruitless search, I almost gave up, and ended up (in utter capitulation) in Armenia — which, not surprisingly, serves Armenian food.

From the blaring of Russian TV to the heavy smoke filtering through, I was about to leave. But they had brought me some plonk to drink, so I had to order something. It was not pleasant inside, and the other table of foreigners trapped there felt similar I think. I ordered a plate of veal tongue…

tongue2

Less butter, not as substantial nor tasty, but still good. They know how to do their tongues here. But the smoke was just too much, even though they had turned the TV off (knowing the guests were annoyed). But I headed out, now a little fortified, to continue my search for food.

I wandered around more in the old town and finally spotted some lights from a dining establishment, this time at a small square where the House of Architects was. I walked into Burjani — and was immediately smoked out the door…ugh…

It was an empty night so the staff was just chilling and smoking inside in the warmth. So I made due with the situation and chose to sit outside in the 3C temperature. They were shocked but accommodated me. Coat off, I enjoyed the subsequent meal in the cold, especially once the wine started flowing.

The server, freezing outside, tried to talk me out of my order, saying it was too big, but what the hell…it’s my last meal here. So, before everyone here goes yech, it began with a heaping plate of sauteed lamb intestines…no, it is not pasta! 😀

intestines

It was far too oily, but was quite good. This offaly good dish is a Bulgarian specialty (that they usually don’t talk about because of the squirm factor). Before I got about a third of the way done, my main came out…but they said they’ll put it back in the oven. I worked on this a bit more and I had to stop at some point. However, this is why I ordered more food than necessary…

By now two stray cats had appeared. One was just sad and not talking, and I fed it some of the intestines. It really liked it. But then another more dominant stray came, and was talkative, meowed a lot. But it kept trying to steal the other’s food, so I reprimanded it. And after a little while they were sharing and playing nice. Yes, I’m good with strays, as I said in the last post… I’m the cat whisperer…

When the server came out with my main and more wine, she was trying to shoo the cats away in disgust… But the dish was piping hot and it is the pork shank…mmm…

shank

It was huge, but I know the cats will help me. It was also so nicely cooked that at one point a fat bubble inside the shank exploded all over the table (and myself, burning me). Oh, what a treat… The meat was extremely tender and seasoned perfectly, and I slowly finished it, sharing it (and the leftover intestines) with the cats.

I pretended to keep picking at the food while the server, now wearing two coats, brought out rakia for me. Obviously she didn’t want to come out for awhile, so she brought me a large wineglass full of rakia! I enjoyed the cold, the strong drink, and feeding the two cats more intestine and pork. Other strays were nearby but they saw I was only feeding those two and talking to them in my own way, so…

Eventually I finished and was nice enough to bring all the stuff inside (so the servers didn’t have to go back out into the cold), and paid, and thanked them for a good meal. Outside the two cats were still there, but they didn’t follow me. As I walked away I heard meowing and I turned around. The second, dominant one that had been meowing to me had already gone. But it was the silent, first one that meowed for the first and only time, almost as if it was thanking me. And slowly walked away.

And so did I, with a big smile. I walked back to the hotel and enjoyed the rest of the evening with a few more rakia in the bar, which was dumb considering I have a long day flying tomorrow to Berlin with a long annoying Vienna layover. But I wanted to enjoy the last bits of my time here. And really, with all that’s gone on, all the emotions that flowed today, I felt more and more at peace…

Maybe this trip to Varna was a good idea after all, and my soul is being cleansed one sea breeze at a time…one meow at a time…

Happy Bar & Grill
4 Драгоман [Dragoman]

Armenia [Армения]
7 Архимандрит Филарет [Arkhimandrit Filaret]

Burdzhani [Бурджани]
10 Мусала [Musala]
Varna [Варна], Bulgaria [България]

A Soul-Cleansing Journey to the Black Sea…part 1

24 November 2012

For the weekend of my late November trip in Europe I brought myself to the “summer capital” of Bulgaria, Varna. Now why would I go there in late November, in the middle of its dead season? It was a journey to cleanse my soul…

As my readers know, I have been struggling mightily with my emotions over losing the love of my life. She has moved on so successfully; I have not. But I decided I needed to visit her home town (no, she’s nowhere near) and just to have the brisk air from the Black Sea ensconce me, to fully permeate my soul.

I arrived on the only off-season direct flight from Vienna and was promptly transported to a very chic hotel near the seaside. If any of you go to this little gem by the Black Sea, do check out Hotel mOdus — it is a really cool and good little hotel. As we rode there, the part of town near the sea seems utterly abandoned…

I wandered around the charming but empty town, walking around carelessly-parked cars (one of many diseases afflicting Bulgarians) and ramshackle housing, and noticed immediately, unlike the stray dog infestation problem of Sofia and so many other Balkan cities, Varna is full of stray cats…

Now I love cats, and strays love me. I remember when I lived in Estonia. The day I moved into my flat on Adamsoni, my window was open and a stray cat came in. I fed it and it visited me once every few days through my open window (even in winter, when yes, my window was still open) for more food. Then suddenly after a year it disappeared. But on the day I moved out of Estonia a year later, the cat came back one last time to say goodbye, like it knew I was leaving — and didn’t eat my food (as if it was sad). I have a strange affinity with strays. They talk to me, and they like it when I talk back…

So after wandering around, I went to the beach…abandoned on a cool day of about 7C except for some fishermen, I just stood and thought, standing on the same beach that my ex had spent so much time in her life…and the few tears that appeared was just blown away by the sea breeze…

By then I needed some food, so I wandered down the beach and found one of the few beachside cafes that was open — Makalali. I stopped for a few beers in the rather empty place (this place, as you can see from their FB page, is hopping when in season), watching a local footie match. Then I ordered a plate of their meatballs…wow. I have to say, having had meatballs in some of the most celebrated places around the world, this was one of the best I have ever had…

meatball

I know it looks boring and plain and normal, but the taste was just perfect. The blend of meats, the seasoning, the breading and so forth… It was damn good!

I was thinking of staying to have some other dishes like chicken livers or grilled sausages, but I had a big dinner planned and it was approaching 3pm, and I was still jetlagged, so I headed out. I walked back to the hotel and had a kip. This is a really cool hotel…so utilitarian and functional, and comfortable…

I woke up in time and got myself ready. I had made a booking (just in case) for the only traditional restaurant that was open around the seaside part of town — Pri Monahinite (At the Nun’s Place). Many of the other places doing traditional local grub in this part of town were shut, much to my disappointment. It seemed I didn’t need a booking, as the only other table was a quiet set of tourists from Romania…

The service was attentive and the wine flowed nicely. Bulgarian wine is underrated (often due to consistency issues, especially with exported wines and its pricing), but delicious on the ground. I began my feasting with the veal tongue in butter…

vealtongue1

You ain’t kidding this is cooked in butter. If anything, it was swimming in butter. I had a flash in my head of having to massage my chest after a ghee-heavy Indian meal… But the tongue was delicious (though had to drain it a little), extremely tender but flavourful. It was seasoned well enough to not need the butter. A good (if unhealthy) start.

With more good local red wine, I awaited my main course, the pork mixed grill with a side of grilled veggies. Now this looked darn good when it arrived, as the pork included shish, grilled loin, meatballs, and the traditional Bulgarian kebabche.

pork

The nice assortment of grilled veg (tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, aubergines) helped balance a heavy dish…oh sorry, stray piece of pork on the dish! 🙂

veg

Mmm… This was a nice feast, and I was full and happy by now. Had more wine and then switched to sample some of the local rakia. Burned going down, as does its cousin the grappa, but was wonderful and soothing. I had perhaps too many before I departed this cute little place.

To be honest I wished the menu was a little less touristy and more adventurous like I have seen in Sofia (lots of offal), but it was good. I tipped the server well, as they don’t get much biz this time of year but I appreciate them staying open and staying good. I wanderd back to the hotel and perched down at the bar and chatted with the bartenders until closing over many more a rakia…

My first day on this emotional weekend ends in a zonk…

(to be continued…with a mighty hangover…)

Makalali [Макалали]
Плажна Алея, До Кални Бани [Plazhna Aleya, Do Kalin Bali]

Pri Monakhinite [При Монахините]
47 Приморски [Primorski]
Varna [Варна], Bulgaria [България]