Friday, May 23, 2008

Bulgarian Fare in Carroll County

My perception of the culinary scene in Carroll County, Maryland, hadn't envisioned the possiblity of encountering Bulgarian cuisine such as the kavarma that's pictured above. The restaurant was Amante Pizza and Pasta, at 21 Liberty Road near Sykesville.

This sole east coast franchisee of a Seattle chain includes a long dining room atop a well-appointed bar and lounge space with two television screens and welcoming vibes. Though this past Tuesday was a bit too wet and chilly for it, outdoor seating is also available. Amante's dinner menu consists of mostly mainstream Italian American selections with a few exceptions like nachos, chicken wings, and Greek salad, beneath which is listed the Bulgarian specialty shopska salad. Describing it as a "salad without lettuce," the menu lists the ingredients, most of which are also present in its Greek salad. No mention is made that shopska is the Bulgarian take on it.

Not on the menu, but featured on a chalkboard hanging in the dining room was the kavarma, a Bulgarian delight prepared singularly and specially for "Mediterranean Night," which at Amante is every Tuesday. The dishes of Bulgaria are pretty much a subset of Mediterranean cusine. Most Bulgarian dishes incorporate a composite of Slavic, Greek, and Turkish influences. Thus, the featured special could just as well have been moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, or any number of items. Kavarma, however, like shopska salad, is specifically associated with Bulgaria. Though often made with pork, chicken works just as well, as it did this past Tuesday.

Credit "Mediterranean Night" to Amante's extraordinarily industrious franchisee proprietors, Ivelin and Daniela Kostadinov. The couple emigrated from Bulgaria in 1993. Daniela also styles and cuts hair (Mrs. Yi's and mine included). Though Ivelin devotes the thrust of his energies to Amante, he also owns and is responsible for two other businesses. Ivelin and Daniella's smiling faces, their unbounding positive energy, and the ease with which they greet everyone has won them a lot of American friends.

As we enjoyed a Manhattan featuring Maker's Mark and a fuzzy pear, shopska salad arrived as our first course. Aside from bearing no lettuce, the presence of red peppers rather than pepperoncini was one item that differentiated it from a classic Greek salad. The homemade vinaigrette dressing, however, was the clincher. Mrs. Yi and I loved our shopska salad. The portion was large enough that the "half order" that the two of us split could handily have served as many as four people.

Next was a bowl of lentil soup, which is very popular in Bulgaria. In what could have been a spirit of Bulgarian/Chesapeake fusion, it came seasoned with Old Bay or a related seafood spice mix, which for me was more a distraction than enhancement to a preparation that otherwise would have been memorable.

The kavarma main course delivered no such distractions. It consisted of abundant tender chunks of tender and juicy chicken breast in a broth created with tomatoes, onions, red peppers, white wine, a bay leaf, and other minor seasonings. The broth was hearty, yet light enough that ultimately, I requested a spoon with which to savor every last bit. Think like what Grandma, regardless of nationality, used to make, only better. The wonderful smooth and neutral homemade quality was outstanding. For both my palate and spirit, this Bulgarian kavarma was the ultimate chicken stew.