Editor's note: St. Louis has always been a brunch-y town. Lately, though, it seems the number of places offering it have expanded geometrically. And in a move that is more than logical, we’re starting to see it on Saturday as well as Sunday. In this ongoing series, Ann Lemons Pollack will be investigating brunch options in St. Louis—and an occasional breakfast joint for good measure.
Aya Sofia has been offering St. Louis Turkish cuisine since 2005. It’s never been a Big Deal restaurant, but a steady, low-key spot, with a lot of regular patrons. Their brunch has been mostly below the radar; that meant it was time for an investigation.
Two outdoor eating areas snuggle up to the building, and we may yet have some days for eating outside, so consider that advantage. But the important thing here, as it always is with some of us, is the food. They offer some standard American breakfast food, things like a Benedict and its cousin the Florentine, as well as biscuits and gravy. Still, in a Turkish restaurant, most of us want to know about the Turkish food.
A chowhound pal who’s visited Turkey and who was with me, describes peynirli gozleme (above) as street food. For both of us, that’s an attraction, food the ordinary person might be knocking back. Turns out, gozleme are sort of like quesadillas – but the flour rounds that they’re traditionally based on are considerably different than tortillas. It’s a yeast dough that contains yogurt, said to keep the dough tender. The filling can vary by region and cook, as is the case with so many stuffed doughs. Here, the kitchen (which may be using lavosh as a substitute bread) fills them with feta, ricotta, and goat cheese and spinach, folds it into a half-moon shape, seals the edges and grills them. These are big guys, perhaps 9 inches across, cut into 4 wedges, so the order is easily shareable, but that assumes the eater is willing to share. These are so good that hands may get slapped for reaching for a second. Alongside comes a tomato sauce that seems to have roasted red pepper in it as well, but it’s pretty unnecessary for these crispy, melty pieces of lushness.
What’s called Turkish macaroni and cheese (above) is quite different in appearance. That same red sauce surrounds a generous serving of nicely gooey mac and cheese, more cheese sprinkled atop it all. Pleasant enough although better for the cautious eater – some black pepper brought it more up to speed.
Some people argue that the skillet concept–the multi-ingredient breakfast dish, not the pan in which they are theoretically cooked–is an attempt to make casseroles respectable. (Myself, I’m waiting for casseroles to be retro-ed up to the front of the nostalgia line. Should be any year now.) The words “housemade (sucuk) Turkish beef sausage” caught my eye as an ingredient in the Turkish Skillet (below). A fortunate thing, too – this is a remarkable dish, only one quibble short of totally impeccable. The sausage is link sausage, firm and dense. Small chunks of it are introduced to fried potatoes, onions and a few bits of tomato and green pepper. Kasar cheese, much like the Greek kasseri, is generously sprinkled in, and the whole thing topped with a couple of eggs, in this case, perfectly fried over-easies.
This may be the best potato dish currently on a public St. Louis breakfast table. These are sliced potatoes that are pan-fried, the vegetables cooked along with them so the flavors can mingle. The sausage adds more flavor and a change in texture, the cheese chimes in with a little salt and a nice richness, with the egg yolks acting, in effect, as a sauce. It’s nothing short of blissful. That solitary quibble I mentioned above? I was surprised at the amount of grease in the bottom of the skillet. But if you’ve ever melted down a real cheese like, say, cheddar, you know that for many cheeses, the butterfat separates out and you indeed get the soft, gooey part – and the oil, separately. I don’t think it was poorly drained, I think it’s the nature of the dish. I would still find it very hard not to order this again. Alongside came a very good biscuit that had been split in half and warmed in a little butter on the grill, a smart treatment for this comparatively fragile bread.
Beverages? Cherry juice, from tart cherries, is common in Turkey, I understand. Aya Sofia offers it with orange juice, or as part of a take on a mimosa. The result is a nice dry, sippable drink with a little bitterness to it, quite nice. And the coffee here – the American coffee; the Turkish-style will have to wait until the next time – is very good, fresh and hot and flavorful.
Very charming service, spontaneously offering a different table when the sun became glaring, good with explanations, and patient with a certain amount of indecision over the various lures of the brunch menu.