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New England Regional

Sweet and Savory Souk

March-April 2010

A sampler of five, from more than a dozen, pâtés

A sampler of five, from more than a dozen, pâtés

Image courtesy of Sofra

Sofra’s mezze bar

Sofra’s mezze bar

Image courtesy of Sofra

A tart and cookies

A tart and cookies

Image courtesy of Sofra

Tired of flapjacks? Try a Turkish breakfast: soft-boiled egg, cucumber, tomato, olives, feta, seasonal “spoon sweets” like fig compote, and thick yogurt with honey ($8). Bored with ham-and-cheese?  At lunch, test-drive some mezze: smoky eggplant with pine nuts, feta cheese with apples, Moroccan-style goat cheese with cilantro, or Greek beet tzatziki, a dip made with yogurt and herbs. The sheer number and variety of dishes at Sofra Bakery and Café entertain both eye and palate. The name comes from an ancient Arabic word meaning dining table, picnic, or kilim, and one can well imagine rolling out such a carpet in a lush field and feasting on an array of the noshes and flatbread sandwiches this unusual establishment offers.

In urban America, it is hard to launch a truly original restaurant, but Ana Sortun, who opened Sofra in an unlikely area of West Cambridge in 2009, seems to have pulled it off. The James Beard Award-winning chef, who has operated the Mediterranean-oriented Oleana restaurant in central Cambridge since 2001, has a longstanding fascination with that region’s cuisine; Sofra (also a synonym for generosity or hospitality) draws its inspiration from the food of Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. It’s open daily for all three meals. The breakfast menu makes no nod to American standards: even something as basic as a doughnut is “Persian-spiced” here. Lunch and dinner are built around stuffed flatbreads, shawarmas,  and an elaborate “mezze bar” of pâtés and spreads; you can order a five-item sampler ($9), as we did, making your own selection from a dozen or more offerings.

There’s also a bakery that features cookies and specialty sweets like Syrian shortbread ($4) and chocolate hazelnut baklava with cocoa honey ($4), plus small cakes (vanilla and bay leaf, or almond rose, for example) and tarts. The menu even includes a “crackers” section—with four options. You’ll also discover beverages like salep, a Turkish steamed milk drink flavored with cinnamon and orchid root.

Sofra is small: its nine tables resemble squat, copper bongo drums. At busy hours you’ll find it challenging to get a seat, which may be one reason why the place does a brisk take-out business. Some eat their meals standing up at marble-topped counters; the blonde-wood décor feels clean and welcoming. 

Sofra’s lamb shawarma ($8), its shredded meat stuffed into a flatbread with pickled cabbage and a tahini yogurt sauce, was a generous wrap for someone in a seriously carnivorous mood. In a sausage wrap ($7) with cumin and orange, tangy green olives, hot peppers, and feta, the peppers struck the dominant flavor note. Kohlrabi pancakes ($5)—crisp, delicate, and blackened, served with feta and yogurt—went a level beyond potato latkes. The cheese börek was a savory, layered pie with cheese, egg, milk, and yuftra pastry that emerged from a pizza oven; topped with nigella seeds, it had the springy, chewy texture of a dumpling. From the mezze bar we sampled items like a delicious Armenian bean and walnut pâté involving ground kidney beans and pomegranate molasses, and the aforementioned beet tzatziki, whose crunchy beets played off beautifully against the smoothness of yogurt. It was a splendid indoor picnic.