Most of us have zipped past the intersection of Canal and Broadway dozens of times without noticing a restaurant, but pause and gaze skyward toward the southeast and you’ll see a pair of neon signs glowing “BAR.” A forbidding wooden door provides ingress, and after persevering up a dusty stair you’ll arrive at a dining room with a psychedelic Egyptian mural painted on the ceiling. The view from the booths along the L-shaped frontage is spectacular, with the hurly-burly of two great thoroughfares at your feet. Claiming to be the only Bulgarian restaurant on the eastern seaboard, 416 B.C. bills itself as a mehanata, or “little tavern,” a rugged country establishment that furnishes simple meals washed down with local wines.
If many of the dishes seem Turkish, why not? Bulgaria was occupied by the Ottomans for five centuries. Witness kyopolu ($3.99), a fragrant puree of roast eggplant, red peppers, tomatoes, parsley, and garlic. Unfortunately, only cottony kaiser rolls are provided to ferry this magnificent concoction mouthward. Equally desirable is “snowhite,” a dip studded with cucumbers, garlic, and walnuts that showcases 416 B.C.’s excellent homemade yogurt. If you’d rather slurp than scoop, try tarator—a dilled and chilled cucumber-yogurt soup with a name like a Japanese superhero.
Unmistakably Russian appetizers reflect the Bulgarian fondness for the nation that liberated them first from the Turks, then from the Nazis. Smoked fish salad ($4.99), a mayo-dressed mix of sable, potatoes, and pickles, would win plaudits in Brighton Beach. “Chicken livers—country style” often contains hearts, gizzards, and other innards as well, cooked in about a stick of butter and blizzarded with paprika and garlic. The lake of grease remaining on the plate is the best part. There are uniquely Bulgarian starters, too, including lukanka, a crumbly sausage seasoned with an oregano-like herb called chubritsa, and burek ($6.99), a pair of breaded and fried red peppers stuffed with kashkaval cheese. Harder to love is lutika, a firm pillow of kashkaval whipped with yogurt and dotted with chopped egg. The bizarre dairy richness makes it tough to eat more than a bite or two.
As throughout the Balkans, grilled meats are popular main courses. Bulgarians dote on ground-meat kufte and its cumin-laced cousin kebabche, both included in the generous mixed grill ($10.99), which also contains a couple of pork cuts, decent fries, navy-bean stew, and ajvar, a sprightly pepper paste. But more interesting is the kavarma omelet ($13.99), an outsized egg crepe wrapped around a delicious pork stew sweetened with peppers and onions. The goulash filling can also be ordered on its own, delivered in a lidded brown crock called a gyuvech. The customary stuffed cabbage, here rendered with a rice-and-ground-meat interior and drenched in creamy gravy, is one of the tastier versions I’ve had lately. Skip the hunters chicken, a thin cutlet smothered in mushrooms and bad ham. If you still crave yogurt, drob sarma is a pie of rice and ground lamb topped with well-browned béchamel and sided with a cloud of the white stuff, which provides a much needed moistness.
Desserts are nothing special, but after so much food you won’t care. Instead end the meal with good grape brandy ($4), served in a glass that’s almost a tumbler. Back home, a Bulgarian friend informs me, this tipple is served before the meal, with a chopped vegetable salad crowned with shredded cheese that turns into dressing when vinegar and oil are applied. But drinking this much brandy, you might never make it to the appetizers.