A Taste of Bulgaria
By Karl Wells
Black Sea restaurant an excellent addition to fine-dining scene.
Black Sea Restaurant (The Franklin Hotel, 193 Water St., Newfoundland, Canada) serves Bulgarian-inspired cuisine. Chefs and owners Gregory Bersinski and Tony Velinov were born and bred in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria shares a border with Romania in the north, Serbia in the west, Greece and Turkey in the south. Its eastern boundary joins the Black Sea. Now you know why Bersinski and Velinov’s latest venture is called Black Sea Restaurant and Bar.
Bersinski and Velinov have many years of experience in the restaurant trade, and it shows in their new eatery at the Franklin Hotel.
Bersinski was one of the chefs who helped put Bianca’s on the map. Afterward, he — and later Velinov — were involved with the Vault and both currently have an interest in Bistro Sofia.
Velinov told me, “We wanted to open a second restaurant that was a little step ‘up’ from the bistro, but still casual. Not so much in the food, but in the atmosphere. The bistro is a classic bistro, but Black Sea is somewhat closer to fine dining.”
The space in the Franklin has been home to the original Gypsy Tea Room and Duck on Water.
The Gypsy was a great success, but Duck on Water never did take to Water, so to speak. I enjoyed Duck on Water, but I suspect John Franklin didn’t enjoy being a restaurateur. (I’ve met few who seem to love it.)
The last time I spoke with Franklin, he told me he wanted to remove the wall separating the restaurant from the bar. That happened, and now Franklin has removed himself from the business. He has negotiated a deal whereby Bersinski and Velinov will own and run the business: hotel, bar and restaurant. Essentially, Franklin, as owner of the building, becomes landlord.
Having the word “black” in its name suits Black Sea. From the black awning and façade to the black tablecloths, partly black wall space and dark furnishings, it presents itself in the manner of “basic black” elegance. Think couture as opposed to dark, depressing rags.
To be fair, there are splashes of colour. One section of wall is burgundy, another fuchsia and another brick — actual brick. Several paintings create additional visual interest.
Our server was welcoming, attentive and, like much of the décor, attired in black.
It may have been inexperience, but Black Sea’s service was a little uneven. At one point the wrong dish was brought to our table and, when asked whether what was on a dish was couscous (it was Israeli couscous) she could not answer the question. Servers in restaurants should be able to answer questions about the menu.
Chefs, like all of us, need vacation time and while Tony Velinov and Vanya Velinova handled our meals beautifully, Black Sea’s undisputed premier savoury chef, Gregory Bersinski, was away when we visited.
While Black Sea’s drinks menu offered many classic cocktails, a few were obviously themed to the restaurant. There was Bulgarian Sunrise (Jagermeister, orange juice and grenadine) and Balkan Triangle (peach schnapps, spiced rum and orange juice).
I tried the Balkan Triangle, a drink with definite summertime appeal. Fruity flavours and rum always make a good match.
Bouillabaisse, or a reasonable approximation of same, is not difficult to make, but only a handful of St. John’s restaurants seem able to produce a good one. Now Black Sea can be added to the “good” list.
A successful Mediterranean style fish soup or stew must have a bold, flavourful broth tasting of the sea (real fish stock), saffron, olive oil, tomatoes, pepper, sea salt, parsley, onions and garlic. Black Sea’s was spot on and also contained mussels and very fresh cod.
A deft touch was evident in the second soup, too. Monastery bean soup with sausage had the slow cooked layers of taste and substance you’d expect in a fall or wintertime soup like this. It reminded me of a light — albeit liquidy — cassoulet. The sliced sausage appeared to be peppery chorizo and gave the soup a hefty lift.
In between my soup and main, I tasted Black Sea’s Mediterranean salad. It was a raspberry scented mixture of arugula and pine nuts topped with a handful (tangle?) of Lebanese string goat cheese.
String goat cheese is pretty run-of-the-mill as cheeses go, but I like it for its look and mouth feel. The mass of fine cheese threads combined with crisp arugula and pine nuts creates a good display of textures.
Kavarma is a traditional Bulgarian dish of braised meat or pork cooked slowly in a little liquid along with onions, herbs, tomatoes and sometimes root vegetables. Black Sea’s was mostly full of large cubes of beef with onions, tomatoes and mushrooms.
I was impressed with how well the beef had been cooked. It was so tender and the liquid in the bowl mirrored and trumped the “beef” flavour of the actual beef. The Kavarma was served with a few pieces of warm, fragrant flat bread that I used to sop up more liquid.
Black Sea’s blackened salmon (somehow you knew Black Sea would have to have “blackened” salmon) was the only clear misstep of the evening.
The piece of fillet, wearing its black cloak, rested on a bed of the aforementioned Israeli couscous mixed with grilled corn. A few grilled asparagus spears were laid across the fish. It can be a challenge to make blackened anything look good on a plate, so the effort was appreciated.
The real challenge here is to make sure that during the blackening or cooking, you do not overcook the fish.
I’ll accept that with this method there’s a fine line between cooked and overcooked, but, in this instance, the line was substantially crossed. I did enjoy the Israeli couscous and corn combination.
Velinov and Velinova are true masters in the field of chocolate making and pastry. I knew their desserts would not disappoint.
The Napoleon was a sandwich of absolutely smooth Belgian chocolate mousse sandwiched between and oozing outside the borders of layers of caramelized puff pastry. I wanted to pick it up and lick the sides the way I did with ice cream sandwiches when I was a kid. The slight “fine dining” vibe Velinov wanted (and has successfully achieved) is likely what restrained me.
Baklava is a dessert that some believe originated in the very general area of Bulgaria. It’s an irresistible marriage of ingredients and textures that most of us humans love: buttery phyllo pastry, nuts, honey and more honey. Black Sea’s baklava is made in a simpler fashion than ones I’ve tasted.
Rather than layers and layers of honey-coated phyllo painstakingly arranged atop one another along with the other ingredients, this version is more like a large spring roll where the phyllo is used to wrap pistachios, pecans and honey into a munchy package. It was good and not as intensely sweet as most.
Black Sea usually serves its baklava with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but we opted to forgo that particular enhancement.
Speaking of enhancement, there is no doubt that Black Sea Restaurant and Bar has improved the St. John’s restaurant scene.