Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sushi in Bulgaria

If up until now you’d been thinking that one couldn’t find good sushi in Bulgaria, I’m here (literally) to tell you:  that simply is not the case.  In fact I got a chance to wrap my lips around some notable sushi in a Sofia restaurant just last week.

But before I launch into my specific critique, I should tell you up front that every sushi dish I consume nowadays suffers by comparison to the best sushi on the planet, which happens to be served in a little sushi bistro tucked away in an otherwise non-descript West Hollywood strip mall.  I won’t say the name here because the cat’s already way out of the bag on this place.  Celebrity A-listers and their entourages can sometimes crowd the non-famous regulars out as it stands now.  I was one such regular when word got out, and soon I was having to call ahead to reserve a spot at the sushi bar, on weeknights no less; that’s how melt-in-your-mouth, fresh, and inventive the sushi there is.    

Obviously I haven’t been to every sushi bar on the planet, so perhaps my crowning of the West-Hollywood sushi place as the world’s best is a bit overstated.  But I have sampled lots of sushi across six different continents—from the northern-most American city in North America—to Japan, where it all began—to the southern continental reach of South Africa.  So I think I have a certain qualification to speak.

Sushi dishes for sale in Tokyo.

In writing this post, in fact, I paused to take a stroll down my global-sushi memory lane.  Here’s a quick snapshot of what I remember from a few select cities:

La Paz, Bolivia:  What can I say?  Nice try.  Good ginger.
Santiago, Chile:  Basic mall sushi; warm, plump shrimp-tempura roll; friendly chefs.
Adelaide, Australia:  Conveyer-belt at the “Sushi Train” too dangerous for a sushi fiend.
Tokyo, Japan:  In a word:  fresh; the 6:00 a.m. sushi “breakfast” at the famed Tsukiji Fish Market’s “inner market” was practically still moving.
Riga, Latvia:  A little fishy-tasting, but not too shabby for the Baltics; good miso soup.
Bergen, Norway:  Creative flavor combinations justified the extraordinary expense.
Jerusalem, Israel:  Totally kosher, both literally and figuratively.

Santiago, Chile

The Sushi Train in Adelaide

The morning's catch at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

The Philly Roll in Riga, Latvia.
Bergen, Norway -- fancy.
Heavenly sushi in Jerusalem.
And then there was Cape Town, South Africa, which, I think, merits its own couple of paragraphs.  The place looked decent enough, on the town’s main drag close to a waterfront reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  And the sign on the door certainly jumped out:  All-You-Can-Eat-Sushi-Buffet, Tuesday, for some incredibly low price.  When Tuesday rolled around I shuffled in, with my budget-backpacker mentality in tow, and spent the next couple of hours gorging myself on salmon and California rolls.

I think we know where this story goes.  I’ve never spent a sicker night in all my travels.  I don’t know if it was some bad crab, or the fact that the sushi had been sitting out, or just the sheer gluttony, but let’s just say that the true victims in all this were the other backpackers I kept up all night with my frequent trips to the bathroom.  Even still, the next day they graciously nursed me back to health with Sprite, crackers, and a good measure of genuine sympathy.  And that’s why travel never fails to bolster my faith in humanity.

Now to the sushi in Sofia.  Acting on a local tip, I settled on a place called Happy Sushi in the center of town.  The ambience was cool and classy, the Japanese-styled waitresses fawning, and the local Bulgarian clientele hip.  A framed certificate on the wall instilled confidence.  The resident chef, it announced, was voted “Best Japanese Cuisine Chef in the Balkans” just last year.

I was ready to taste something delicious, but I must say that the miso soup was a bit of a disappointment right out of the box.  A little too seaweed-y for my taste.  But I didn’t let that pre-judge what was to follow.  I picked two rolls from the seemingly-infinite choices—a couple of my usuals—the Philadelphia and the spicy tuna.  Both rolls exceeded expectations; the flavor, the soft, sticky, rice, the freshness; everything really.  I rounded out the meal with two pieces of sushi salmon, and while it didn’t quite melt like butter, it definitely stood as a welcome and tasty diversion from the cured meats that have been clogging my colon as of late. 

And the best part:  the price.  Along with the green tea and a couple of faux sushi-roll dessert bites, I escaped having spent only 30 Bulgarian leva, or about twenty bucks; cheap at twice the price, I'd say.  In the end, the Happy Sushi in Sofia lived up to its name.