In our area of New Jersey, we are awash with Italian restaurants. Just about every strip mall has a pizza joint/restaurant. Plus, there are Italian restos housed in free-standing buildings. And they continue to proliferate. Our reaction when we hear of a new Italian spot opening? “Yup! Just what we need! Another Italian!” So, I think you can understand that when there is news of a new restaurant that is NOT Italian, we become excited. Of course, that excitement is always tempered with the knowledge that this new arrival might turn out to be a disappointment with regard to the quality of the food. But hope inevitably springs eternal.
Sofra Turkish Cuisine opened on March 19th. It’s located in the CVS strip mall, at the corner of Ryan Road and Route 79, in Marlboro. It’s actually not the first Turkish restaurant in our area. Back in the early 00’s (before I began taking food photos), there was Mamara, in Manalapan. After a few years, it was sold and became Kuzu. (Here’s a photo set taken at Kuzu in 2010.) Alas, Kuzu closed and moved down to Howell. We never managed to make it there. Early last year, it closed for good. At Mamara and Kuzu, the décor was quite attractive, seating was comfortable, but most important, the food was well-prepared and delicious.
We usually avoid going to newly-opened restaurants, preferring to allow them time to work out the kinks. However, curiosity about Sofra’s food got the best of us, so we went there for dinner on Thursday evening. I had actually stopped in briefly on the day it opened. I happened to be passing by coming back from Delicious Orchards and on the way to Wegmans, so I decided to have a quick peek inside. Hmmm… Not bad. I picked up one of the take-out menus hanging outside near the door and left.
Sofra’s interior is spacious, there is some wall décor, and tables are covered with white cloths. The fluorescent lighting is awful. We were told later by Serdar, one of the owners, that there are plans to replace them with lighting that will be less harsh. They are also still waiting for the formal exterior signage. Right now, there’s a temporary banner.
We received a friendly welcome and permitted to choose our table. Several were occupied. Pretty good considering they’d only been open a week and hadn’t begun to do any advertising. Still, it meant that word was beginning to trickle out.
Serdar proved to be an attentive host. He was interested in hearing our opinions about the food, especially when we told him that our favorite Turkish restaurant is Turkish Kitchen, located just a few blocks from our apartment. Over the years, we’ve had countless meals there – most recently in January – and the food is always excellent. Thus, it’s our “gold standard” for judging Turkish cuisine. As I’ve indicated, Mamara and Kuzu did a fine job of measuring up.
Our experience at Sofra began with a mix-up with regard to beverages. They didn’t have any sparkling water which Michael prefers, so he opted for ice tea. He was brought the Snapple brand, but it was not diet. When he was told there was no diet Snapple, he settled for tap water. Much later during the meal, Michael mentioned the problem with the drinks to Serdar. A few minutes later, a Diet Snapple Ice Tea arrived at our table. Turned out, Serdar had sent someone to a shop in the strip mall to get it. Now, that’s customer service!
While perusing the menu, we were brought a cup of Turkish olives and a basket containing whole wheat pita.
We prefer white pita to whole wheat. But what really surprised us was getting Greek pita instead of Turkish pidah, which is quite different. When we commented about this to Serdar, he immediately whisked away the pita and brought out a basket heaped with pidah. Much better! (I neglected to snap a photo.)
We started the meal with three of our favorite mezzes: sigara boregi (fried filo scrolls stuffed with feta cheese), babaganoush (eggplant), and grape leaves stuffed with rice. We also ordered the classic shepherd salad. Our waitress asked us if we wanted it with feta. Although we’ve had salads served with feta only at Greek restaurants, we said, “Sure! Why not?”
Portions turned out to be huge, definitely much larger than they are at Turkish Kitchen. But that’s not too surprising because diners in our area expect huge portions and would feel they were being cheated if portions were small. We practice portion control, so there were plenty of leftovers.
The filo scrolls were a trifle disappointing. Though the feta stuffing was fine, we’re used to the scrolls being more tightly wrapped and fried longer resulting in a more golden brown crust. Also, these were a bit greasy.
A hefty amount of garlic in the babaganoush gave it the kind of zip I like. However, the balance between the eggplant and the tahini was off — too much of the latter — and there was an overdose of oil garnishing the plate.
The stuffed grape leaves were fine. Frankly, I’m not big on them, but they are one of Michael’s favorites.
The shepherd salad was tasty. The feta was lavishly sprinkled on top rather than being served in a block as is usual in Greek restaurants. I would like to have seen better quality tomatoes. Yes, I know it’s not tomato season; however, at Turkish Kitchen, they use hot house tomatoes which are actually quite good. I hope when we are in tomato season Sofra will kick this salad up a few notches by using luscious Jersey tomatoes. One other small quibble. The use of a rectangular plate instead of a bowl proved a bit of a problem because as we spooned salad onto our individual plates, some kept falling off the side of the serving plate and onto the tablecloth.
Before deciding about the main course, we asked our waitress how many lamb chops were on that plate. She checked with the kitchen and reported back that there were five. Definitely enough for us to share one order. There was a choice of sides: white rice pilaf, bulgar pilaf, or mixed greens. We opted for the white rice pilaf. Just after we placed our order, Serdar came by. When he heard that we would be sharing the chops, he said he’d add a sixth chop “to make an even number for sharing.” Not necessary, we told him, but he insisted.
The plate that arrived looked inviting. In addition to the chops, there were sizable portions of both the rice and bulgar pilafs, plus some chopped greens and red onion, a roasted plum tomato half, and a small piece of roasted hot pepper.
Unfortunately, when it came to the chops, looks were deceiving. All except one were overcooked, quite burnt on one side, dried out, and tasteless. (Michael got the one decent chop.) When Serdar made another of his regular stops at our table, this time to ask how the chops were, we were honest. At that point, there were two chops left. After apologizing profusely, he said he was going to have two chops freshly grilled for us to take home. Despite our protests, he went right ahead and did it! First the iced tea followed by the pidah. Then the extra chop, and now this. Have I mentioned his impressive customer service?
Overall, while the quality of Sofra’s food was not as high as Turkish Kitchen, Mamara, or Kuzu, it does show promise. And the fact that Serder, as well as the other owners and the staff, couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating is a huge plus. There are many other dishes on the menu we’re eager to try, so we’ll give Sofra a month or two to settle in and then go again. Since it’s a BYO, next time Michael plans to bring along some wine.
As I mentioned in my review, there was plenty of leftover mezzes and salad to start this meal.
For the main course, there were the two chops. And I didn’t need to prepare any sides because Serdar had instructed the kitchen to include generous portions of the two pilafs along with a small container of yogurt sauce. What a guy!
To heat up the filo scrolls, I fried them in oil — which made them more golden brown – and degreased them on a paper towel. A decided improvement.
I plated the babaganoush, the stuffed grape leaves (one for me, two for Michael), and the salad together…
…and accompanied them with some warm Toufayan pita.
Concerned that one chop apiece might not be sufficient, I made two small lamb patties using a recipe from The Great Book of Couscous, by Copeland Marks. I cooked them on the indoor grill where I also heated up the chops.