Who else has learned to hate the overproduced restaurant website? The skippable Flash intro highlighting sleek design and high-definition pork chops, the soft jazz soundtrack that sends you in search of the mute button, the menu you can only view as a downloaded PDF. And where are the address and the phone number?
No such slickness affects the website for Philippopolis Tavern, which delivers this basic theme through a barrage of images:
“COME TO SMYRNA TO EAT BULGARIAN FOOD!!”
And these messages:
“We’ve got poker! Cocktails! Karaoke! Meat on swords!”
“Lunch specials! Dinner specials! Delivery!”
“Truck drivers, park your rigs! We’ll come pick you up!”
Pictures of sexy blondes!
I have never hightailed it to a restaurant so fast in my life. Mostly because the menu enticed with images of house-made Bulgarian cured meats, bodacious kebabs and enormous piles of salad. But also because of the sincere sense of entreaty on this website: These folks really, really, really want you to give Bulgarian food a whirl.
So do I. While I couldn’t describe Philippopolis Tavern as a destination, it offers a fun and often tasty change of pace for those food explorers out there who want to dig into Balkan cuisine.
Owner Jay Yovchev, cooking from his grandmother’s canon of recipes, offers dozens of dishes — some new to me, some kissing cousins to Greek or Serbian dishes, as you might expect from Bulgaria’s geography. Philippopolis is the long-standing name of the ancient city, not far from the Greek border, that now goes by Plovdiv.
While revelers supposedly rock the house on Friday and Saturday nights, other dinner services and lunch are quieter. The drably brown, sprawling, tile-floored dining room is little changed from its days as a Brazilian steakhouse. A bar and lounge off to the corner pours everything from neon mixers to Pliska ($2.99), a Bulgarian brandy that goes down like caramel firewater and comes with a crystal bowl of ice for you to use at will. You should also check out the Eastern European beers, including pint bottles of Bosnian Nektar ($5.75), which tastes a bit like a pilsner with wheat beer envy. I like it a lot.
Get a drink and settle in with a cured meat and cheese platter — the bar-none joy of this menu. A Bulgarian sausage maker prepares a number of dry salamis, including dark babek ($3.50), soft and mild, with enormous pockets of pure fat that melt on your tongue like lardo. Pair it with lukanka ($3.50), which has the spice and tang of good Genoa salami. On our waitress’ recommendation, we also added slices of Bulgarian feta ($3) dusted with paprika.
You know good Bulgarian feta? It’s really the best in the world — sheepy and crumbly and so lightly brined that your tongue can feel the seesaw of rich butterfat and sour-salty tang, as the cheese rocks between a fresh flavor and a preserved one. (This is a weird analogy, but if you look forward to perfectly cured mackerel in a sushi bar, you may know the sensation.)
We eat the cheese and bread with our fingers (rather than cottony bits of bread) between slugs of beer. We also pick without much enthusiasm at trushia salad ($6.50) — stridently pickled hunks of cauliflower and red pepper that makes me recall (without much fondness) three bean salad from a vintage salad bar.
No, if you stick to foods identified by the word “sausage” on this long menu, you’ll have a lot more fun. A combo grill ($17.50, with two sides) is a good place to start. It offers a shareable tasting platter of many porky goodnesses. Mild patties called kufte, lengths of coarsely ground kebache (a “naked,” i.e., uncased, sausage) and — best of all — mainichka, reddish with a hearty dose of spicy pepper and garlic. A dryish chicken/onion kebab waits patiently for you to eat all that good stuff before you turn your attention to it.
A side of crinkle-cut fries doused in snowy shreds of dried feta tells you nearly all you need to know about the sides. I would skip the heap of shredded raw carrots and cabbage in favor of lutenitca — a sweet red pepper relish that does yeoman’s duty as a ketchup stand-in for both the fries and the meat.
I shared one meal here with a friend who had taken a long bike trip through the Bulgarian countryside and said she saw crimson red peppers hanging to dry from every cottage. Whenever her group stopped in a village for a meal, lunch was invariably a kebab and a heap of shopska salad — chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with feta cheese. Here it’s a plain affair ($7.50), with cruets of oil and vinegar on the side.
Also quite bland: a crock of traki feta ($8.50), which we open to find is a soupy melange of diced tomatoes, juice, sausage slices, unmelted feta minichunks and an egg that should be setting merrily but in fact comes to the table quite raw in its tepid broth. Beef tripe soup in a mildly milky base ($3) comes with red pepper flakes and vinegar to give some oomph to the jiggly bits of stomach lining. When Yovchev comes to the table to inquire after our meal, I ask about the broth. It is, in fact, milk.
“Do you like this?” he asks incredulously. “Me, I can’t stand it, but Balkan people, you know, they want it when they have a hangover.”
I’ll remember that. But in the meantime I’ll stick to pork kavarma ($9.65), a wonderfully sludgy stew of fall-apart tender meat and vegetables that has developed layers of flavor from a long time on the stove.
I’m not sure I’d crave this stew from across town, but whenever I’m in the area and looking for good, stick-to-your-ribs cooking, I’ll know where to go.
And, seriously, if this gig as a food critic doesn’t work out and I find myself driving a long-haul rig down I-75, I know who to call.PHILIPPOPOLIS TAVERN 1995 Windy Hill Road, Smyrna, 678-383-6164 Food: Bulgarian kebabs, stews, salads and salami Service: Very good, especially that great American waitress who really knows and explains the food. The kitchen will back up a bit with multiple tables. Best dishes: Salami, mixed grill, pork kavarma, Eastern European beers Vegetarian selections: Quite a decent selection Credit cards: All major cards Hours: 10 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays. Children: Not a problem Parking: In attached lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate most times, but weekends gets rowdy Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes