Cafe Reviews

Bulgarian Rhapsody

A lot of what's appealing about greater Phoenix falls into the classic can't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover category. I don't mean the lusher parts of Scottsdale or the desert vistas out by Carefree. I mean just tooling about the city, parts of which, let's be honest, can be less than enchanting. Ours is not one of those metropolises that immediately stuns you with its beauty, like San Diego, Seattle or San Francisco.

Rather, I like to think of Phoenix as a sort of urban geode, those Earth-like balls of rock that from the outside are simply brown and round. But crack them open and you're rewarded with a wealth of sparkling crystals inside. Phoenix is like that. You simply must crack it open, which isn't easy. I mean, the town's not going to give itself up like a co-ed on spring break.

So it was during my first encounter with the strip mall wherein the first-rate Bulgarian-European eatery Mirage makes its home. In addition, this dirt-colored commercial cul-de-sac plays host to a check-cashing business, a Kmart, and a Cod Meister (a fish-and-chips place). It's not the first locale that comes to mind when someone utters the phrase "fine dining," but that should change now, as Mirage offers an intriguing menu in the sort of elegant atmosphere that's commonplace in New York or Los Angeles.

From the adjective "Bulgarian" one might mistakenly apply the popular misconception of so-called "ethnic" restaurants. That is, authentic grub in a sparse setting on par with the most modest of pizza parlors. Not so Mirage, which boasts travertine floors with marble accents, tables swathed in linens of dusky rose, a beautiful S-shaped bar of gold-flecked black granite, and a waterwall and inlaid sculpture of backlit orange-and-black onyx. The effect when wandering in from the dingy parking lot outside is startling. Here lies the gemstone in the geode, as it were.

According to Mirage's dark-haired, handsome owner Valentino Dimitrov, the design was not so much expensive as time-consuming. Dimitrov, 33, had a lot of help from friends and family in implementing his vision. He spent several months attending to every aspect of the decor, getting deals on materials wherever he could. "I wanted it to look so that it pleased me," says the perfectionist proprietor. "And no one else."

Dimitrov's been in the States for seven years now, and has worked as a bartender and manager at various restaurants. His 3-month-old eatery has quickly become the lodestone for Balkan immigrants in the Valley, as it serves beer and wines from Bulgaria, Germany, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the chow to match. The bill of fare is exhaustive, and includes such standard eats as calamari, schnitzel and filet mignon, along with Bulgarian dishes like cow tongue, sautéed tripe, and poached eggs over yogurt.

My experience with tongue is mostly from Jewish delis in Gotham, where I used to devour thick tongue sandwiches slathered with mustard and accompanied by bowls of pickles. As sandwich meat, the texture never failed to remind me that I was gnawing on some Bessie's mouth muscle. At Mirage, this bovine lingua comes as four filets of soft beef, sautéed in garlic sauce and olive oil. I doubt you'd know exactly what it is unless someone warned you ahead of time. Quite savory, it's easily the best tongue I've had, at least since I made out with Rachel Rothstein behind the bleachers after my eighth-grade gym class.

I inhaled most of the tripe brought to me in a small, cast-iron skillet, but I must admit it was a bit on the funky side, though it was sizzling in butter, lightly breaded on top and not at all chewy. I appreciated it, though I know I'll dwell in the minority on that one. However, I was blown away by the Panagurski eggs, named for a town in Bulgaria. The item featured three poached eggs over yogurt mixed with garlic, and topped with red pepper oil. Eggs and yogurt are surely an odd pairing, but what an exquisitely lip-smacking one, tart and palatable. Wonder if Yoplait's board of directors has ever heard of this combo?

Bulgarians are known for their tasty salads, and on the whole Mirage upholds the national pride. Best of these is the Shopska salad, Shopska being a reference to the residents of Sophia, known as Shoppi. Fresh chunks of tomato, cucumber, peppers and onion are mixed together and served like a little hill, covered with shredded Bulgarian feta, and crowned with a black olive. Terribly refreshing, as is the simpler tomato salad of sliced tomatoes served with slabs of the aforementioned fromage. Both of these are best when drenched lightly in the olive oil and vinegar provided.

The yogurt salad could have doubled as dessert, it was so rich: creamy, ice-cream-like scoops of yogurt mixed with cucumber and dill, and topped with walnuts. The Bulgars lay claim to first cultivating yogurt, and they eat so much of it that I'm willing to grant them that honor. The "Mirage favorite salad" could have used some yogurt or something, too. A hodgepodge of shredded cabbage, carrots, corn, and so on, it was a tad too dry, even after adding oil and vinegar.

Mirage's mussels were a real steal. A mere $6.95 garners you a huge, fresh pile of them in a white wine sauce perfect for bread-dunking. The Tatarsko kufte was another of my faves. Described on the menu as a "meatball," it's more like a hollowed-out hamburger stuffed with cheese and mushrooms. Why, it nearly exploded with juice as I plunged my knife into it! I was also quite taken with the roast lamb with a "special stuffing" (more like a stew) made with rice and chicken liver. Scrumptious.

For sweets, there's a nearly perfect tiramisu from which plenty of restaurateurs in town could take a clue. And a superb chocolate torte, which the waitstaff refers to as chocolate cake. But for something different, order the scalichka, or Bulgarian "mountain cake," which resembles a small, squat bowling pin with chocolate poured over it, and tastes like halvah (the Middle Eastern sesame-honey confection) or cookie dough, I can't decide which. Bravo to the Bulgars for creating it. And to Dimitrov for bringing his jewel of a restaurant to fruition in Phoenix, our town of hidden but worth-hunting-for wonders.