While it might be a slight exaggeration to say that our recent trip to Bulgaria was organised entirely around our desire to eat at Dieci Boutique Restaurant, it wouldn’t be far from the truth either. We had arrived in the Black Sea resort of Varna, and were slowly making our way across the country to the capital, Sofia, with our two Bulgarian friends who had designed the itinerary for us. We stopped in the small town of Arbanasi, and one evening a driver collected us and drove us just over half an hour into the hills to a tiny village where Dieci was established just over a year ago. Gianfranco and Anna Chiarini, already with vast experience in the restaurant business, have launched a project to explore, revive and reinterpret traditional Bulgarian cuisine with modern techniques.
The weather was pleasant and we had a chance to look around the grounds where the chef has planted some of his ingredients.
The maximum capacity of the restaurant is ten diners (hence the name), but following a cancellation we were privileged to have the entire place to ourselves. Gianfranco and Anna welcomed us into the converted school which has been restored and decorated in such a way as to make it very cosy, informal and welcoming. In the entrance hall there was a small exhibition of paintings by a local artist.
Considering the complexity and quality of food we were served that evening it was amazing to me that everything was done by the couple themselves with only some help from a trainee from a local college, and that they worked in a kitchen not much bigger than ours at home. Many Michelin-starred restaurants of the same level employ dozens of staff and work in enormous spaces.
There was one single tasting menu available.
A ball of plum and nut as amuse-bouche.
A spicy pickled radish with kashkaval (a local cheese) gelée and rosehip mayonnaise. This was a favourite of everyone at the table. More on it later…
Paté with porcini crumble, orange jam and balsamic vinegar. This was nice but the crumble made it a bit dry.
Foie gras, bacon and pistachio.
The pasta (the chef is Italian, after all…). Strozzapreti with pulled lamb shoulder and a confit of lyutenitsa, which is a very common condiment in Bulgaria made from tomatoes, aubergine and red peppers.
Raw scallops with trout roe mayonnaise and smoked breadcrumbs.
At this point there was a twenty minute pause in the proceedings. Gianfranco and Anna sat with us on the sofa next to the tables and we chatted for a while about food and travel. In a normal restaurant of this kind the chef might come out at the end just to say hello and ask if you enjoyed the meal, but this was an entirely different and richer experience as we got them chance to know them both better and understand the work they’re doing.
We briefly went outside for some fresh air and to explore the grounds, and Gianfranco mentioned that some of the game he uses in his dishes was shot by him personally with a crossbow. Back inside he showed us one of the leather placemats which still bears the scar from where the arrow entered the animal’s body:
A spectacular red beet risotto with kiselo mlyako yoghurt.
Duck with persimmon rakia compote and a powerfully flavoured black shallot.
Beef tongue, grilled fennel and gremolata pesto.
Marzipan with lemon chocolate ganache.
Honey ice cream with custard and “edible stones”. Gorgeous and I could have eaten three portions.
The inevitable post-meal limoncello. Except that, this being Bulgaria, it was made with rakia.
Our hosts joined us again at the end of the meal for some more chat. We mentioned how much we had enjoyed the pickled radishes and I spotted a large jar of them in the kitchen. Eventually they relented and gave us a small jar containing four or five of them to take home. We also bought a copy each of two of their books. Later this year they’ll publish another about the first year of Dieci and I can’t wait to get a copy.
The meal was spectacular from start to finish, and if Michelin ever publish a guide to Bulgaria, Dieci is a shoo-in. But two things made it an extra special experience. One is the intimacy of the setting. By restricting the number of diners, the Chiarini can create a genuine and much more personal connection with their guests. And we did feel like guests who had been welcomed into someone’s home, rather than just passing customers. Secondly, and equally important, was the chef’s insistence on researching and developing dishes based on local ingredients and traditions. This was where it came in handy to be visiting with two locals: while we could enjoy the food on a sensual level, our companions could access another layer of experience through nostalgia and sense memory, and we enjoyed the meal all the more through seeing how it made an emotional connection with them and their roots. Gianfranco said that some diners have been moved to tears by his versions of dishes which guests may remember from their childhood. Mention was made more than once of the iconic moment from Ratatouille.
In spite of the distances involved we definitely plan to return so as to see what the Chiarini can do with the ingredients different seasons will offer.