Review - Aya Sofia
Pita and hummus are only the beginning at this Mediterranean gem in South City
By Dave Lowry
Photograph by Katherine Bish
You can’t buy raki in Missouri. This probably does not cause you to lose sleep. At Aya Sofia, though, that reality put a serious crimp in our beautifully arranged platter of meze—or appetizers—that are at the heart of a Turkish meal. Raki, a pungent, anise-spiked aperitif, is to meze what lips are to Jessica Alba. Its absence was all the more lamentable because the meze spread before us was impressive: a thick pancake-size smear of salmon-pink hummus for dipping; gooey, warm feta wrapped in crispy, fried phyllo-like yufka rolls; grape leaves stuffed with rice and beef; and a big dollop of minty tabuli, along with generous basketfuls of pide, or pita, for dipping. A glass of raki and a perfervid anti-American rally on the street outside and we could have been in Istanbul. There are a number of other worthwhile appetizers at this South City eatery, the only Turkish restaurant in the region. Börülce is a cool Cypriot salad of black-eyed peas and bread crumbs enriched with parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. Biber ezme is a purée of garlic and roasted red peppers with olives. Rings of fried squid are puffy and greaseless, with just a hint of garlic. The cacık is just as it should be, with a thin drizzle of olive oil not in but over the surface of the blend of cucumbers, mint and garlic so it can be swirled into the dip with a piece of pita. But the meze platter is an absolute must for beginning your meal at Aya Sofia.
Except for some dishes from the south, sulu yemek, or “home cookin’,” Turkish-style isn’t all that spicy, and many main courses here reflect that. Flavors come instead from a combination of lemon, mint and garlic and other simple seasonings combined with restraint and always highlighting the taste of one or two main ingredients. Iskender, a Turkish take on the gyro, does a good job of making that culinary point of Turkish cooking. The sliced meat, that familiar pressed combination of beef and lamb, is modestly seasoned here with pepper and garlic, then bathed with a tomato sauce–and–yogurt topping. The emphasis isn’t on the meat but instead, as it should be, on the pide. (That said, Aya Sofia relies too much on this tomato sauce; it appears in several dishes and is sometimes distracting.) A light lemon butter is all that flavors a fillet of swordfish, and it highlights rather than dresses up the meaty, dense taste of the grilled fish. Even the musakka that emerges from the kitchen is crafted so the eggplant and ground beef work together, and the mild cheese and tomato sauce play supporting roles to that end. This and sebzeli musakka (virtually the same dish, with sliced potatoes added to the mix) are far better than the mushy, overcooked casseroles passed off as moussaka in many Mediterranean restaurants.
A slightly different take on eggplant is karnı yarık. You’ll want to order it just to enjoy explaining to your dining companions that it means “split belly,” but you won’t regret the selection. Tubes of soft cooked eggplant are stuffed to near bursting with ground beef, onions, tomatoes and garlic. This and several other main courses are served with Israeli-style couscous. This hot culinary trend, introduced to the West in the last decade, differs significantly from its Moroccan counterpart in that it can be cooked like pasta. It has a nutty chewiness—think orzo—that adds a pleasant texture to the meal. The couscous is a rewarding side to the stuffed dolmas at Aya Sofia. A variety of vegetables—green peppers on the night of our visit—are packed with ground beef, dill, parsley and onion and slow-cooked into a tender, fragrant whole.
Two steaks, a New York strip and a center-cut filet mignon, are offered. The meat’s OK, but pay attention to the rice pilav it comes with—it’s a truly worthy side. It’s buttery-smooth, almost creamy, yet each grain is separate, an unmistakable sign that someone in the kitchen learned his craft in the shadow of a minaret. A Turkish pilav is hard to make, and this one is excellent.
When the Ottoman sultan wasn’t busy making life miserable for everyone in Asia Minor, he was riding herd on more than a thousand cooks in the old Topkapı Palace. Their work represents the most spectacular of Turkish cooking. Hünkar beyendi is a cream of eggplant puréed into a rich, slightly lemony paste. Here it’s mounded around a wonderful rich stew of beef chunks, tomatoes and onions, redolent of allspice and bay. Izgara köfte is the best-known of a variety of grilled ground meats, another recipe perfected by the sultan’s kitchen crew. This dish takes the shape of patties, something like a cross between a great burger and the best meatballs you’ve ever had, served with vegetables and that delicious pilav. (Try a glass of ayran, a slightly salty yogurt concoction, with the köfte. It’s a classic combination.)
Three salads are offered. Go with the most authentic—the shepherd salad. Consisting of chopped tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers, it’s an example of the zeytinyagli, or “olive oil,” course that’s a part of most Turkish meals. Dessert? One word: baklava. Need more? Aya Sofia is almost directly opposite the street from Ted Drewes.
The wine list is nice; the bulk of the selections are from Europe and well-priced, though one wonders why, with the legacy of the wines of the Anatolian peninsula, there aren’t any Turkish wines like the Yakut reds that go so well with lamb.
Stylish and spotless, the interior here is altogether attractive, with snowy linens and a combination of tables and booths. This is really a comfortable and stylish place to eat—and watch. Tuesday through Friday evenings, diners may be distracted by belly dancers. It would be churlish to observe that their gyrations are derived less from the sultan’s native Istanbul harems and more from Gypsy forms of the dance—a contribution to Turkish culture that still grates on the Turks four centuries later—but we’re OK with that. A small bar is conveniently located off to the side, cutting down on any noise in the dining area and offering a variety of embarrassingly silly martinis. And that raki? As it turns out, there simply hasn’t been enough demand to have an importer bring it in—meaning that we can’t completely enjoy our meze at Aya Sofia unless you patronize the place and keep asking for it. Seems like a small price for you to pay for our happiness.
Address: 6671 Chippewa
Average Main Course: $16
Reservations: Not a bad idea on weekends and a good one anytime for larger groups
Dress: The same way we like our raki: neat
Bottom Line: Turkish cuisine, reasonably authentic, in an attractive setting