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Sep 16, 2008 09:55 AM

Sofra, mixed review

Does the Watertown/Belmont/Cambridge three corners really need a precious, pricey Middle Eastern "Market" themed lunch place. Judging by the Cambridge "ladies who lunch" crowd filling the joint I suppose so.

The vibe is a cross between Hi-Rise and Plum in the South End with just a hint of a Middle Eastern for good measure.

The $4/lb onions and summer squash for sale were looking a bit peeked. Don't think they are selling a whole lot of produce ;-).

Prices range from reasonable to ridiculous. The little tubs of Ana Sortun dipping apps in the cold case were laughably tiny portions, literally 3-4 tablespooons per tub for $4 each. You would need 2-3 tubs and some bread to give an even moderately-hungry person lunch. I imagine they are the usual sortun tasty goodies but the portions...

The baked goods look very good, some pricier then others. I had the sesame cashew bar which was delicious, and at $2.50 the bargain of the day. The other baked goods do look very good, but they have some of the usual $1.50 for a smallish cookie pricing. The chocolate chip and spice cookies (free samples) were not exceptionally yummy. Some of the other stuff does look delish. The $4 blueberry tart will be on the list next time I go.

For lunch I had the lamb shawarma with tomato confit. For $8.70 or so including tax I was underwhelmed. The lamb was soggy with none of the char that shawarma should have. The flavors of yogurt and the confit were nice and they toasted the sandwich on a curved morrocan ceramic oven that is really meant for baking pita. For an $8 sandwich it was a tad small. Fordees or demos would win this battle of the sandwich for sure.

Bottom line everything was intimidatingly precious. I am sure the Cambridge crowd will have tea and crossaints, but if you really want to eat, the place isn't really about that.

Afterwards I hit Arax just in order to ground myself. In my book, I'd rather hit Arax or Sevan any day over Sofra. But for those who like their Middle Eastern grocery store sanitized, and pricey, Sofra might hit the spot.

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  1. Wow, SG. That's really interesting, and nice detail in your post. I've only heard such great things about Sofra so far, and wondered if it all might be too good to be true, though I think a place like that is sorely needed. As for Sevan's and Arax? They're great, but there's no place to sit down and have some coffee with your honey-almond-type nosh.

    1. Interesting review, and of course you're right about the preciousness factor. It's definitely a spot for David Brooks' "bobo" set. But since I reluctantly have to admit I fall into that bucket, I think I'll occasionally wink at the vibe and prices and focus on the good, occasionally stellar chow.

      I'm curious: I haven't been to Fordee's or Demo's -- do they (or does anyone else) make their own flatbread? When I had lunch at Sofra, the fresh bread was the element that slammed it out of the park for me.

      I also agree that the (pricey) desserts are great, although I was less impressed with the breakfast fare.

      10 Replies
      1. re: finlero

        SG's remarks are spot-on - I guess I've lived in Boston / Cambridge long enough to have grown accustomed to preciousness. The emperor has no clothes.

        But they are also a little too harsh, because Sofra is striving for more refinement in a cuisine that is usually presented in a very rustic manner. Which is not to say that it's bad chow, or superior to Arax - just not what it's about.

        Anyway, the breakfast pastries I tried on my visit were generally different than anywhere else (zaatar croissants are not offered at Arax as far as I know). And the Umm..Ali cake I had bested any homemade yummies from the Watertown markets.

        The overpriced organic produce from hubby's farm probably has to go. But it sure looked pretty.

        1. re: Bob Dobalina

          I hear what you are saying about being a bit harsh, and I really like Ana Sortun's food overall and Oleana in particular, but the precious vibe in the place from the server's to the miniscule amounts of dip, to the tiny portion of pancake I saw someone served really all added up to offputting to me. I would not feel I could sit down, relax, and enjoy the food in such a place.

          1. re: StriperGuy

            I can totally see that. I have the same reaction to Hi-Prise. $1.50 for an oreo...?!

            If I spent a week in Philly or Baltimore, I would end up hating just about every place in Boston for a while.

          2. re: Bob Dobalina

            Just curious - how does one define "overpriced" for organic local produce? It's not like organic farmers are delivering their goods in Bentleys. Overpriced better defines former Lehman Brothers' shares, whose CEO very well could drive a Bentley - on his severance alone. I may or may not be willing or able to pay for it, but I gotta respect the price.

            1. re: almansa

              Are you saying organic local produce can never be over-priced? I have a $45 head of lettuce I'd like to sell you.

              Even by local farmer's market prices, which are probably 40-80% over supermarket prices, the onions at Sofra are absurd at $4 a pound. I know at least a dozen places to get local, organic onions for < $2/lb. Therefore, Sofra is WAY over-priced for produce.

              1. re: StriperGuy

                No - I'm saying he charges what he thinks he needs to. We don't know his costs, but I imagine whatever doesn't sell goes to Oleana at a discount. And I buy tomatoes at the farmers' market for $1.10/lb which is well below supermarket prices.

                1. re: almansa

                  Actually the way capitalism works, you don't "charge what you need to," you charge what the market will bare which may or may not having anything to do with the cost of producing an item. See an interesting company called Microsoft for more on charging what you can get away with as opposed to what your overhead cost structure is.

                  My point being that even if the market will bare $4/pound onions, it borders on thievery and they are clearly not selling a lot of onions at Sofra.

            2. re: Bob Dobalina

              Hey Bob Dubie !

              Your channeling me bro...
              thats fine but attribution, please!
              ---------------------------------- From the 8/31 post-------------------------
              THE EMPEROR'S NEW BAKERY ?

              Its always uncomfortable being the lone voice of dissent on the boards
              so I'll be careful (like our friends @ Fox to be 'fair & balanced' (sic)...
              but I do think perhaps too much may be being made of Ana's new baby.
              As with Oleana, while one can sometimes get unusual and extraordinary
              dishes, sometimes they are simply unusual, and ordinary.
              After my 1st visit to Sofra, (Jammed at sunday 1pm)
              I'm hardly able to give a complete review. B u t my
              "hot spinach & cheese on flat-bread" yielded a spinach filling
              (just like mom would make at home (IF she withheld all seasoning)) a nice white cheese, less intense than feta, served on a cracker like flatbread about
              15% as delicious as the fresh flat bread at Helmand.
              Granted, we can't expect her to have a tandoor on the premises.
              but a six dollar sandwich, it wasn't
              I do give Anna & her team props for trying out things
              that no one else does!
              and admittedly, generally doing a good job of it.
              Just, lets face it kids, lots of the product
              is just OK.

              The Dude (of the Ab Goosht variety)

              Permalink | Reply
              Ab Goosht Dude Aug 31, 2008 04:10PM

              The Dude (Ab Goosht variety)

              1. re: Ab Goosht Dude

                LOL! Nice catch. I don't know if I read your post and spit it back out subconsciously, but you definitely get to plant the metaphor flag on that one. My clever wit has no clothes!

            3. re: finlero

              That's funny. I'm a very big fan of the Hi-Price. I love their inventive sandwiches and their breads, in particular their moist vanilla bean cake. However, I just can't stand the clientele, they drive me batty with their bobo chatter, and the oh so precious yummy mummies with their irritating, over-pampered, SUV-sized-stroller-riding spawn and emasculated husbands in tow. Shoot me! (or better, shoot them). And this is from somebody who's right at home with the Cambridge intelligentsia, I have lived on and off in Cambridge for 26 years, and that crowd still gives me the shpilkes.

              At least they have the good sense to outlaw cell phones, and the outdoors seating at the Harvard Square location is broad and spacious enough for me to pleasantly wallow in my misanthropic juices.

            4. I am a Watertown person, so at least I can shrug off the "Cambridge crowd" criticisms... but I really do like Sofra. I always get takeout, so the vibe doesn't mean that much to me. At this point, I have tried most of the menu. I love the fresh flatbread and the tasty vegetarian sandwich fillings, the bourek, and the carrot kibbeh. I like the beet tzatziki from the meze bar, a nice mix of sweet and tangy. The fruit tarts are great. Everything else I've tried has been good, but not worth going out of my way for (rest of the meze and warm appetizers, greens, tuna sandwich, chicken shwarma, various cookies and cakes). The smallish portions don't bother me. Most of the flatbread sandwiches are around $6, which I think is a decent price. And I have bought some produce there -- a pint of cherry tomatoes for $2, and a carton of little potatoes for $2, neither of which I found too pricey.

              Arax and Sevan are my neighborhood stores and I love them, but I think Sofra has a place here too. The main things I like about it are that it has lots of excellent vegetarian options and that you can grab a quick, hot, reasonably priced and fairly healthy lunch.

              1. Place link:

                1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                1. Personally, I am a huge fan of Sofra. It was actually one of the only places that I 've been able to find that sells green tomatoes. Now I can make one of my favorite southern treats, fried green tomatoes.

                  I find the flavor combinations really interesting, especially in their pastries. The "1.50 oreo", is worth it in my book, I love the milk jam filling, most of my friends purchase several each time they go. The morning brioche are fabulous, the perfect blend of sweet and savory.

                  I have Anna's cookbook and many of things at Sofra are in the cookbook. These recipes are involved and require many specialized ingredients. After making a few recipes myself, I've decided that it is probably better to just purchase the ready made version from Sofra, in some cases I might even save $$ and I certainly save myself some frustration.

                  I will admit that Sofra is expensive, after my first trip I remember commenting to my husband "for that price we could have gone to Oleana." However, now I know what my favorite are, and those are definitly worth the price and trek over from JP.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Boston Betty

                    I was in the area today around lunchtime, so to treat myself I stopped in to get something to go. There were no spare tables, so takeout was about the only option. I ordered a meat borek, a meat pie basically. Somehow I assumed this was ready to go. Five minutes went by, and to me it looked like nothing was happening at all. I got frustrated and left. I think I can never go there on a work day. Or did I just hit a snag? I agree it's a tad precious, but I do love Ana's food. I got the cookbook as a gift for someone, and it looked really great -- plan to get my own copy.
                    Hey, about Demos -- that's the one in Watertown Square, right? If I'm right, the last time I went there it was just terrible. But perhaps I've got the name wrong.

                    1. re: Lucymax

                      Demo's is pretty terrible. There's one on Mt. Auburn in Watertown Square and one on Lexington St. in Waltham. Both very mediocre gyro shops with greasy tables.

                      I made the trek to Sofra on a Thursday afternoon just after 1pm. Too busy and as many others have said, no decent seating. We headed west on Belmont St to the School St. intersection and had a pleasant lunch at the Select Cafe (quiche, salad, and bread for $7!)

                      1. re: Spenbald

                        Demos actually rocks if you know what to order. Their lamb, chicken, or beef skewers either as a sandwich or a plate, or the black eyed pea soup. Everything is is not particularly worthy.

                      2. re: Lucymax

                        I've had the Cheese Borek, and it does take a bit to prepare. When I saw pie on the menu I was kind of thinking of something like an empanada, the borek is really more like lasagna with pastry instead of pasta and a creamy sauce instead of tomato. I think when it is ordered they cut out a large square and broil it for a bit to melt and brown the cheese, hence the delay.

                        I always get my food to go, and so I've never tried to get a seat. It is set up more like a carryout place, there is very little seating and no seating for a large group.

                        1. re: Lucymax

                          Other than the meze, everything is pretty slow. Best to call in an order. (And then you don't have to suffer through the preciousness.)