- Photo by Heather Mull
- Manti Turkish dumplings
On a prime corner in Regent Square, graced with outdoor dining across from Frick Park, a likable local restaurant recently pulled up stakes. Alma's pan-Latin offerings will be missed, but happily, they have been succeeded by the Turkish cuisine of Istanbul Sofra.
The space within hasn't been changed so much as embellished. The walls have the same teal-and-terra cotta color scheme, which manages to be both bold and relaxing at the same time. On the walls are pictures of Turkey, ancient and modern, and an arresting collection of gleaming copper casserole lids. Brilliantly colorful mosaic-glass lamps and beautifully woven fabric covering tabletops and menus complete an atmosphere that's just shy of opulent.
Surrounded by all these rich colors and textures, we were at first brought up short by a menu that featured mostly kebabs. Mind you, we love kebabs — grilled, seasoned meat, who could complain? — but we had hoped for a more varied picture of Turkish cuisine and feared that this fare would be too familiar to make much of an impression.
Our first mistake was to underestimate the appetizers. The falafel was dark brown outside with a fluffy chickpea mixture within and accompanied by an especially nutty tahini dip. Mucver consisted of grated zucchini mixed with herbs, egg and flour into a soft batter and fried in triangular cakes that were deeply browned outside, yet creamy and fresh-tasting inside. In a town that fries a lot of zucchini, Istanbul Sofra's mucver are exceptional.
Borek, scrolls of filled phyllo nicknamed "cigarettes" for the visual resemblance, also looked a bit like elongated spring rolls, but their wrappers were pastry-tender with just a hint of flakiness. One version, filled with feta and dill, was savory and rich, while another, filled with spinach cooked with onion in olive oil, delivered bright, garden-green flavor. A piyaz salad of navy beans, tomatoes, onions, red bell pepper, parsley and Turkish spices took on notes of olive flavor from the oil of its dressing, although only one actual olive garnished the plate. It was a substantial and satisfying starter.
The entrée list features three mixed-grill platters: lamb, chicken and Sofra. The latter offered an almost dizzying array of grilled meats: lamb kebab, lamb kofte, doner, chicken Adana and lamb chop. The chop was thinly sliced, which didn't detract from its moistness or mild flavor, but its slenderness did seem to prevent it from gaining as much char as we'd like. The cubes of the kebab suffered no such deficiency; they were tender, juicy and flavorfully charred. Kofte, a ground lamb patty that in lesser hands can taste like little more than a hamburger, is here a thick cake that emphasizes the meat's juiciness and tenderness, with mild spicing and more smoke than char from the grill.
Then there was Adana kebab. We'd never heard of it, but our server recommended it highly. A specialty of the southern Turkish town of Adana, it turns out to have an official Protected Designation of Origin, like Champagne, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. True Adana is a kebab of spiced ground lamb and requires fat from a lamb's tail, smoked Turkish peppers and sumac, a wonderfully distinctive spice that offers hints of lemon. Istanbul Sofra's version is made from chicken: After imbibing the traditional flavors via marinade, the meat is formed into a long, flat patty, following the shape of the broad skewer on which it's grilled. This form allows it to cook through very quickly, resulting in an extraordinarily tender interior that still has some of the snap of a good sausage. Served with Istanbul Sofra's plump, flavorful rice, grilled vegetables and tangy herbed-yogurt sauce, this dish was a supremely satisfying version of the classic chicken-and-rice combination.
Along with all those kebabs, the menu has a small but worthy vegetarian section of falafel, grilled vegetables and manti. Described as "Turkish dumplings," these are fingertip-size pouches of pasta in paired sauces of mildly spicy tomato and cool yogurt, seasoned with plenty of dill. The manti were appealingly shaped like tiny pieces of abstract sculpture and clearly intended to be chewy, but we found them perhaps a bit tough. The dish seemed better suited to a role as a side than to commanding a plate by itself.
With its glittering ambience, warm and attentive service, and excellent variety of Turkish specialties, Istanbul Sofra is a wonderful new place to meet friends and share lots of delicious dishes.