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12/10/08 Sofra, Cambridge Report

Finally made it here today, a grey rainy wednesday, 4pm. No lines so food was ready quickly. We had a mezze plate and 2 sandwiches and some sweets.

I must say, I was expecting a handsome comfortable room ,but NOT. For all Ana's talents, she is just not a good interior decorator or hirer of interior decorators. In fact, my guess is that interior decorators were never involved here or at Oleana. We found the hard banquettes w/ tiny copper tables uncomfortable and very awkward ( we felt the same about Saint.) Like Oleana, the decor just doesn't make it. Boring. boring boring. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods are vibrant , as are the decorations and fabrics of those cultures. So why are the tones here and at Oleana so dull . What a shame. And the spatial layout is bad- none of it works: where you sit, where you stand in line, where you pay, where the food is displayed. There is a large variety of baked goods produced every day, but there's almost no place to display them. Consequently, each variety has a tiny spot allocated for it ,and an entire counter display is located BEHIND the cashier/server; you just cannot see it. DUMB. Meanwhile, there's a skinny island in the middle of the room which does nothing. This place just screams out for an M.I.T. architecture studio to tackle it and make it work.

The food: I was really wowed by our 2 sandwiches- the potato, chickpea,labne , and the sausage w/ feta butter and turkish peppers. Enclosing these unusual multi-layered -flavor fillings, was the the day's major WOW!-a hot , freshly griddled thin 'flatbread/pita' unlike any bread I have had before; astounding- flaky, crispy-edged, toothsome. Please sir- I want some MORE!!! These 2 'roll-ups' were $6 each and quite extraordinary. But even w/ the mezze plate ,I was hungry 1/2 hr. later.($9 for 1/4 c. portions of 5 different mezzes[your choice] w/ 2 little fingers of bread; the extra bread we got was $1.)
Our fav mezzes were the Walnut w/ green olive , the Smoky eggplant , the Lentil and the Beet.I did not care for the boring focaccia like bread served w/ them; next time i'll get the crispy crackery flatbread I sampled there.

I'm extremely picky with desserts ( and I dislike honey and rose water)so there were many I didn't try. Excellent were the chocolate cookies sandwiched w/ 'milk jam' (i.e. dulce de leche) and the Choc. earthquakes. Zaatar and cheese filled croissant had , strangely, no flavor.

Take away case has nice offerings. We got a cup sized portion of the green olive walnut spread for $4.

All in all ,I think Sofra has a very high quality line of very unusual (not found elsewhere)and often delicious foods of small portions and high prices.

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  1. Thoughtful post, and I wanted to agree with you on the space - I have eaten there once, perched on a little stool, hunched over a small table trying not to lose the contents of my delectible flatbread sandwich. I'm a small person, and I was very uncomfortable. I came home to report to my husband that "we must never eat AT Sofra." He is over 6 ft. tall and uncomfortable at a lot of places - this would drive him over the edge. There is no place to wait easily when it's crowded in there - and your order does take a few minutes b/c they make it all to order - a plus, but you're constantly jostled and jostling while you wait. And yes, you can't see stuff behind the counter very well at all. Because it's so crowded, it's hard to take in the entire array of choices - I have often missed delicious looking daily items b/c I felt so hurried and couldn't see things until after I had ordered and paid. I think the location is good from a geographic/demographic perspective, but the space is not at all right for them. All this place makes me want to do is escape as quickly as possible w/my goodies.

    That said - we live very closeby and we do takeout frequently . . . the food is just delicious and although it is pricey, I think it's worth it b/c I really enjoy it every time I go.

    1. Funny thing is that physical space was fairly large and they dedicated way too much of it to the kitchen. Do they really need the gimicky domed pita warmer? Sandwiches could be prepared on a way more useful griddle and dedicate that space to the dining area.

      My general feel is some tasty or even exceptional food, careful what you order or you'll leave hungry, take it to go.

      13 Replies
      1. re: StriperGuy

        That domed griddle is essential to making certain types of flatbreads.
        Hete's an Indian version called Rumali Roti (literally, handkerchief bread)
        being made:

        http://www.anothersubcontinent.com/fo...
        http://www.anothersubcontinent.com/fo...

        1. re: FoodDabbler

          Yes, only they don't make the flatbreads on it.

          They just buy the flatbread from outside and use the griddle to heat sandwiches up.

            1. re: Bob Dobalina

              Yes. There is just no way using those two little things they could bake enough flat bread to keep the place going with their volume. And there are so many decent flat bread producers in the area. Those griddles are just used to heat the sandwiches cause they look cool.

              1. re: StriperGuy

                So they don't use those griddles for making bread - which is super-annoying and reinforces my negative feelings about the place (like the ridiculously pricey precious produce) -

                But the inauthenticity meter goes off the charts if this bakery is not somehow making the bread on the premises. ("All baking done on premises" sign conspicuously absent?)

                1. re: Bob Dobalina

                  They bake everything else there. All the sweets, etc.

                  And I'm not 100.00% positive, but there is NO WAY they could bake enough flat breads on those tiny things to keep up with their volume. And I've never seen them baking bread on them.

                  No they are largely for show.

                  I have, in the middle east, had flat bread fresh off of a huge ceramic lined oven in a hole in the ground, sort of like a tandoor oven. And the bread at Sofra is nothing like that tangy, hot, wondrous stuff.

                  No, the Sofra bread tastes like the usual garden variety, semi-commercial flat bread. Probably baked in Mass. but nothing at all special to a man (me) who takes his bread pretty seriously.

                  If you want to try some really amazing flat breads, hit Arax on a Tuesday which is when several of their drivers arrive from Montreal and elsewhere with truly amazing stuff, literally baked that morning, tangy, and wonderful. I swear one time I was there as they unloaded the truck at 8:30am or so and it was still warm. Bread is a great insulator and a whole truck full of it held it's heat for the 6 hour drive down, amazing.

                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      This.

                      I've been lucky to get that bread warm off the truck from Montreal too, and I almost wept. Like, real tears and all. Word on Arax.

                        1. re: StriperGuy

                          This is what I've seen in the middle east. Though the oven is even bigger and really underground with the hole only projecting up a foot or two, but the bottom of the oven being perhaps 8 feet underground:

                          http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_-zvK9ibLcb4...

                      1. re: StriperGuy

                        You are wrong. Sofra makes all it's flat breads except for the Mountain bread which is used for the Lamb Schwarma. It is grilled in the morning on the sajj, so that's why you haven't seen it being made.

                        1. re: VTtoMAtoCAfoodie

                          I've only had the lamb Schwarma, which explains it.

              2. re: FoodDabbler

                Hmm, it appears that I may have been wrong about the Sofra flatbread.
                It's not essential to this discussion, but my links to the Indian flatbread
                being made don't work. Here (for the principle of the thing) are new ones
                http://www.freewebs.com/thedabbler/In...
                http://www.freewebs.com/thedabbler/In...

            2. Does anyone know if Ana's book includes her recipe for the Walnut green olive and pomegranate spread?th you.

              4 Replies
              1. re: opinionatedchef

                Not exactly but p. 334 has an Armenian Bean and Walnut Pate that has pomegranate seeds. Green olives would work with that too so it could be a variation.

                1. re: BostonZest

                  thanks much, bz! you know, i can't believe that NO ONE answered this question on the HomeCooking board! Appreciate your help.

                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                    I was flipping through "Turquoise" (Turkish cookbook) and came across a recipe for walnut/green olive/pomegranate salad. Might be worth a try until Sofra comes out with a cookbook.

                    http://gourmettraveller.com.au/green_...

                2. re: opinionatedchef

                  Wish I knew how to make this a new topic so it won't be lost or maybe this should be moved to home cooking?
                  ....I'm glad Emily replied as it reminded me I'd meant to post in Deb....Paula Wolfert has a great recipe for Cracked Green Olive and Walnut Salad on page 148 of "The cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean". It includes both fresh pomegranate seeds and pomegranate molasses. She says it's Turkish so maybe it's similar to the recipe in Turquoise. It is truly delicious.

                  It's not a spread but more of a salad or a relish than a dip.

                3. Great post. I went on Dec. 30th and was also struck by the contradiction between the completely addictive flatbread sandwich (I had a squash, walnut, sesame seed and fresh mozzarella version) and the tense atmosphere of the seating. It felt like the ultimate Belmont/Cambridge Stand-Off! But I still thought the sandwich made it worth it. I thought the mezze options were good, though they didn't differentiate themselves from one another as much as I would have hoped. Finally, I was a bit disappointed by the desserts. I had high expectations, but overall I thought they were quite rich (to the point of masking the flavors). For more photos and thoughts, I have a post on my blog: http://foodiemommy.blogspot.com/

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: foodymom

                    It's really a take out place...that would be an enormous space in a city like NY...just having the tables it has is a nice little bonus..
                    and its decorated tastefully...vibrant flavors doesnt mean it should have loud vibrant colors on the walls...I think she does a great job there one of the true jewels of the city

                  2. I just walked over from work to buy a salad- crunchy romaine lettuce, a few green olives, and carrots and wonderful plain lemon vinaigrette- and I was eating it when I came upon this thread. Sofra's is a foodie paradise, but I usually go there to buy an addition to a meal, some yummy desserts, one of the addictive sandwiches or an unusual spice. Then I eat at my desk. It is too uncomfortable to eat in their space. I noticed today that they are opening a wine store addition (it would have been nice to have real tables and chairs in the extra space) and that they put a few uncomfortable chairs with the some low tables outside for nice days.

                    Some of the things that I love there are the earthquake cookies, the donuts, the sesame biscuit, the lamb flatbread sandwich, the cheese borek, the salad, the molasses cookies, and the lemon tart. I was less excited about their basturma humas and some of the mezzes.

                    1. Yes yes yes. PLEASE, do take out from here. I encourage you in that instinct wholeheartedly. And then, when you do takeout, I can have your seat. ;)

                      In all seriousness, I love the food and atmosphere here. It's crowded, yes, and sometimes I give in and give up on getting a spot on a banquette, but I find it doesn't require a ton of hovering to get a seat usually. And it's all worth it for the lamb shwarma and spice brioche.

                      FYI, the space next to the dining area is going to be (last I heard from the Oleana folks) a wine bar. Wooo!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: litchick

                        The space next to the dining area is the now reopened Violette Wine.

                      2. I agree-the food is fantastic, complex and different from the typical items that are found at other food places. If you try to avoid the height of the rush, you can also grab a seat, but once the warm weather is around, take out and hang out by the Charles. The flatbreads are unforgettable, and the mezze bar has some wonderful offerings. For people with children, it really does offer an alternative to fast food, which was one Chef Sortun's goals.

                        http://foodiemommy.blogspot.com

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: foodymom

                          After having been there a number of times, I've come to the following conclusions:

                          1. Calling ahead and doing takeout is the way to go. Otherwise it tends to be crowded, seating is uncomfortable, and it takes 10-15 minutes to get your order.
                          2. The flatbread sandwiches are the only consistently great thing on the menu. Everything is good, but those are the only menu items that I get really excited about.
                          3. But! The flatbread sandwiches need to be eaten right off the grill for the full effect. If you take out, by the time you get them home they've cooled down and the bread has softened a little. They still taste good, but they're more like regular sandwiches. And since they're cooler, the cheese isn't as melty any more and you notice how much of it there is.

                          1. re: Pia

                            I got takeout from there on Sunday afternoon - it was very busy at 2:30. I had the sesame flatbread, my DC had the lamb schwarma. Both excellent. I also got an earthquake cookie which was unexpectedly delicious since it looks like a fairly standard chocolate cookie.

                        2. I'm surprised that with the exception of the OP, no one else mentioned how small the portions are? I'm not a big eater, but the flatbread portions are pathetically tiny for $8-$9! I'd rather they charge $12 for a sandwich but give customers a decent serving.

                          I agree with the interior seating arrangement - seems to provoke maximum discomfort. I guess they want you to be so uncomfortable that you'll leave as soon as you finish, in order to open up room for the next customer. Fortunately, we were able to move to an outdoor table.

                          9 Replies
                          1. re: y2000k

                            Somewhere, perhaps another thread, I commented on the absurdly small portions. Not sure if it changed, but the little tubs of items for $4-5 are also just silly.

                            Head on over to Arax or Sevan for some real chow. This place is mostly Cambridge foofery.

                            1. re: StriperGuy

                              Now see, I completely disagree about the foofery. I do agree that the prices are high, but I feel like the food is well-executed and worth the splurge. And while I shop at Arax & Sevan & Eastern Lamajun all the time, I consider Sofra to be different - the others are more what I'd consider "tastes of home" (I'm part Lebanese), and Sofra is more an Ana Sortun take on the taste of home . . . more high-brow, but I'd argue, not foofy.

                              Now the seating and tables in that place . . . those are foofy. And the attitude of some of the people who work the counter, also foofy. But not the food.

                              1. re: gansu girl

                                gg, I agree. Ana is not a foofy person and her food could never be accurately labeled that. Like her friend Paula Wolfert, another non-foofy chef, she is a consummate researcher;has travelled extensively in arabic countries, written books and created two restaurants that have opened up arabic cuisines to better understanding in the U.S. This is called serious dedication. Also, to clear up an important point, Sofra's Arabic food is NOT highbrow; it is the food of the people; found as street food and in the average person's kitchen.

                                I do completely agree w/ Stripes and others that Sofra's food is overpriced.And IMO, it is not consistently yummy.I am really NOT a fan the baked goods, which I find sorely lacking and v. often dry and bland. Of all the mezze spreads/salads, one or two I really like; others are o.k. It's those roll -up sandwiches which nail me and keep me returning. I have to eat 2 of them to be satisfied at lunch, so it's an expensive lunch. But it IS a unique and delicious lunch, available nowhere else. So I Splurge.

                                1. re: gansu girl

                                  GG and OC, nice nuanced commentary. Well said. I agree that the food itself is not foofy, though as OC says below, much else is. For me the much else interferes with my ability to enjoy the place.

                                  I have been acquainted with Ana Sortun since the early 90s, and agree that at her best she is a superb chef. I just have trouble paying for lunch and not feeling like I actually ate it, and that seating is annoying as heck. Also per OC below I do not feel like Sofra consistently delivers deliciousness.

                                  In addition, while much at Arax is a bit more homey, at times they make things every bit as good as Sofra:

                                  For lunch today I bought a tub of eggplant with capers from Arax, one of the best things I have ever bought there and honestly on par with anything at Sofra. I also purchased a huge loaf of fresh locally (Lynn) baked Afghani style bread. Two English cucumbers. AMAZING yellow cherries, 7 local peaches, 3 gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, and 5 pieces of pistachio marzipan. What I purchased would have fed 5 or six people for lunch and cost $23. You would STRUGGLE to feed two people at Sofra at that price...

                                  1. re: StriperGuy

                                    I think Sofra succeeds best with its baked goods - expensive (but no moreso than Hi (p)Rise up the road (speaking of foofery) - but really interesting and different flavors that are great with a cup of coffee.

                                    1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                      I agree, I have (again hit or miss) had pastries there that blew me away and cried out for a good strong cup of black coffee.

                                      1. re: StriperGuy

                                        I love their earthquake cookies, molasses cookies, lemon tart, coffee cakes, Persian donuts!, chocolate tahini cake, and I am sure some other items that escape me as well. Once in a while the baked goods miss the mark, but mostly they are a strong suit at Sofra, IMO.

                                    2. re: StriperGuy

                                      StriperGuy, say more about that eggplant and capers--is it pureed or more of a chopped dish?

                                      1. re: newhound

                                        Not chopped, but sort of well cooked and mashed. No skin at all. Amazingly tasty.