7-29-16 / Istanbul Sofra / Pittsburgh, PA

Friday night, my wife and I joined my parents for a meal at one of my favorite local Middle Eastern restaurants, Istanbul Sofra. A nice, small restaurant, with a well-curated menu and outstanding hospitality and service, this is one of my favorite local restaurants. Teeming with heart and outstanding quality of food, I love going out and supporting establishments like this.

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No trip to Istanbul Sofra is complete without sampling their incredible dips, so we started with the small cold appetizer. On the far left was the Piyaz, a navy bean salad with tomatoes, onions, red pepper, parsley, and earthy Turkish spices. The beans were cooked perfectly, smooth and creamy with a slight outer bite to keep them separate from the tart elements of the tomatoes onions and red pepper. Light and refreshing, with a nice earthiness from the beans. Between each salad/dip were delightful marinated carrots, pickled to the point of softness, but not beyond to the point of becoming a soft jelly, the carrots were still sweet, but carried that nice pickled tartness that could cut through the heavy flavors of the dips.

Next to the piyaz was the Baba Ghanoush, a traditional puree of smoked eggplant, with tahini, olive oil dill, yogurt, and copious amounts of garlic. Baba ghanoush is one of my favorites, in all forms, but Istanbul Sofra goes for a far rougher chop than most places, allowing the crunch of the eggplant seeds to lightly pepper the smooth and creamy dip. To the right of the baba ghanoush is by far the best known dip, hummus. They make theirs traditional to a “t”, with mashed (not pureed) chickpeas, lemon juice, minced garlic, olive oil, and tahini. The nice chew of the chickpea is a wonderful textural addition to the garlicky spread.

Next to the hummus was the Haydari, a thick homemade yogurt dip with chopped walnuts, garlic, and dried mint. The earthy walnuts break up the tart and sour yogurt, with the garlic and mint notes further enhancing the vibrancy. A very nice break from the garlic-heavy (but who’s complaining?) hummus and baba ghanoush. Finally on the far right is the Tabbouleh, one of my personal favorites growing up. Comprised almost solely of parsley, tomato, white onion, and mint, with small grains and tossed in olive oil. I love how the vibrant parsley stands up against the sweet tomato and bitter white onion.

All of the dips were served with baskets of hot, fresh pita. The pita was extremely soft and pliable, with a gentleness to the pull, rather than a sharp tear you might be used to with thinner, flatter pita breads. These were more pillowy soft, like pizza or gyro shells, than the thin and dry standard middle eastern pita bread. Hot and fresh from the oven, they were perfect on their own or topped with a scoop of any of their fresh dips.

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My father went with the Doner Kebab, the traditional marinated lamb, cooked on a skewer, and then thinly sliced before serving over their traditional jasmine rice, pickled cabbage, and chargrilled peppers and tomatoes. The meat was perfectly tender and moist, with a wonderful crispy bark around the outside. The rice was equally fantastic, with traditional Turkish spices cooked throughout. The pickled cabbage was bright and only lightly acidic, providing a wonderful counterpoint to the fatty lamb meat. The fresh cucumber yogurt, far thinner than one might be used, also helped to bring out the lightness within the dish. The char grilled notes of the tomato and pepper built nicely upon the strong foundation of the generous portion of sliced lamb meat, allowing you to build your own pita sandwiches or enjoy all of the elements separately as you wished.

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My mom enjoyed the falafel platter, again served with the excellent jasmine rice, pickled cabbage, and grilled tomato and peppers, with her dish featuring more of that bright and fresh tabbouleh that we had in our appetizer. Istanbul Sofra, just like every other dish they offer, took the standard expectation of falafel (crispy outside, heavy dense inside of chickpeas, spices, and garlic) and enhanced them at every turn. Rather than a crispy meatball, these patties become more of a set of veggie burgers. The smooth puree of chickpea and spice is evenly distributed throughout, with a wonderful spicy kick making these far more daring than a standard falafel. The creamy tahini sauce becomes a wonderful addition and balance to help deal with the heavy garlic and spicy spices found throughout the falafel.

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My wife went with the chicken kebab, charcoal grilled chicken cubes marinated and cooked with traditional Turkish spices, served with their wonderful rice, cabbage, grilled tomatoes and peppers, and cucumber yogurt sauce. At a lesser place, the sauce would be a necessity to deal with the overcooked and dry chicken, but here the chicken is perfectly cooked, with a wonderful char around the outside and still-moist and flavorful chicken within. The choice of fresh chicken makes a huge difference in quality of the flavor and is utilized skillfully by the chef in the back to produce one of the best kebab I’ve ever had.

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I went with the whole Dorado, char-grilled and served whole over a salad of arugula, olive oil, tomato, and lemon on one side, and iceberg lettuce, tomato, and lemon on the other atop the house-pickled cabbage. I hadn’t done whole fish in a long time and the last time was a disaster, so I decided to attack it methodically and slowly, picking at chunks with my fork and using my fingers to pull out the small, delicate bones. The fish itself, a very mild and dense white fish (extremely similar to Mahi Mahi), was outrageously fresh and wonderfully cooked. The crispy skin held within it a flakey and wonderfully sweet fish. The skin was simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and olive oil, allowing the fresh ocean flavors to shine through the smoke and crunch of the excellent skin. The fish collar, as well as the cheek, offered beautiful strong flavors of fish, which were in wonderful contrast to the mild sweetness of the filet and belly. I worked my way through the half of the fish using the biology to guide me, easily traversing the spine without going too deep through. As soon as I’d finished half, I was able to pull out the entire skeleton in one motion, to enjoy the second, lower half almost bone-free. It’s a testament to the quality of ingredients and skill of their chef that they can offer fresh, whole fish every single day and still produce this kind of quality of flavor. I would have no reservations ordering whole fish here again.

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We finished the meal with the baklava, probably the best-known Turkish dessert. Layers of crispy phyllo dough, brushed with butter and honey, over honey soaked layers and fresh walnuts. The top half was crispy crunchy and light, while the bottom half was fully-saturated with a sweet honey sauce and nuts. It became much easier to eat when it was flipped, using the flaky dough as a base, but the whole piece was sweet and crunchy and salty and just everything you might want from a baklava. The homemade whipped cream actually added a nice balance to the sweet honey and sweet nuts, bringing the sugary notes down a few pegs.

 

One of my favorite parts about going to Istanbul Sofra is the visit from the manager. He’s come over every single time we’ve been there to earnestly ask us all how we’re enjoying our meals, to ask about a specific element, or to point out his favorite parts of the dishes we might be trying that night. He’s warm and open, making you feel like a regular even on your first visit. Any questions you might have, he’s there to answer with a smile. The waitstaff, too all take great pride and care in their demeanor and service. They all truly care when they ask if you’re enjoying your meal, if they can get you anything, and if everything is to your liking. It’s one thing to take quality ingredients and create exemplary, traditional dishes, but it’s another to cook for hundreds of people a day and make each one of them feel like an honored guest. Do yourself a favor and get transported to another part of the world through authentic cuisine and friendly, outstanding service.

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