Lamb – loving restaurant goers may remember Aya Sofya, the downtown Turkish restaurant famous for its delectable lamb dishes and atmospheric belly-dancing nights. The restaurant closed five years ago, but, happily, it’s back. The new version is a trendier, more casual bistro/café in upscale Barrio Escalante, on the east side of town. The lamb is still worth licking your chops over, but there’s also an updated Mediterranean-style light menu that will appeal to carnivores, calorie-watchers and vegetarians alike.
Aya Sofya Café and Bistro opened in June under the same management as the original restaurant and it’s already packing in students, businesspeople and “ladies who lunch.” By 12:45 p.m. on a weekday, every table is full. Partner Mehmet Onuralp, from Istanbul, describes the restaurant’s new concept with a wider focus on Mediterranean flavors: “You can sit and have a coffee and pastry in the morning and plug into our Wi- Fi, eat a light snack, settle in for a long lunch or pick up a meal to go.”
The café’s design is simple and clean. There are just five square wooden tables for two on the tiny front terrace and four tables inside a small dining room, brightened by two plate-glass walls. Apart from a mural of a domed Turkish skyscape, the only other designer touch is the restaurant’s logo: a stylized rendering of the famous Aya Sofya mosque in Istanbul, printed on paper place mats and menus and emblazoned on the waiters’ polo shirts. A sinewy, minor-key soundtrack of Turkish drums and woodwinds adds some Asia Minor atmosphere.
The most exciting part of the decor is the display of freshly baked breads, muffins, cakes and fruit tarts you can see through the window. Under the baked-goods counter, glass shelves showcase an eye-catching array of colorful mezze (appetizers and salads). They all look so tempting, you don’t know where to start. Luckily, you can have them all, by ordering the Plato Aya Sofya (¢4,800/$9.20) for two.
The large, square, white plate arrives at the table looking like a painter’s palette, with artistic dabs of red, green, ecru and white. The eight “salads” include dollops of: haydari, creamy yogurt made from goat’s milk and flavored with herbs; baba ghanoush, smoky, roasted eggplant puree; kizartma, a colorful and tasty mélange of marinated eggplant and zucchini strips; kisir, the Turkish version of tabbouleh, with a hint of mint; hummus, nicely textured and nutty; roasted red peppers; deliciously marinated black olives and crunchy, chestnut-stuffed green olives; and, finally, rich, creamy goat cheese marinated in olive oil and herbs and topped with tomato and basil. It’s a feast fit for a sultan.
All the salads and dips are accompanied by freshly baked pita bread. This Turkish version of pita is delightful, leavened with yeast and egg and baked at a very high temperature. The result is a richly browned round of bread, crusty on the outside and airy but chewy on the inside, perfect for soaking up dips and sauces.
After trying all the appetizers, you can zero in on your favorite(s) and order each item separately. The portions are about 150 grams and cost ¢900 to ¢1,500 ($1.70 to $2.90) each, and come with pita.
You could stop right there and be satisfied. But there’s more. Daily specials written on an acrylic board might include falafel in pita with tahini or yogurt sauce (¢1,900/$3.70), cannelloni with ricotta cheese and spinach (¢2,300/$4.40) or grape leaves stuffed with raisins, pine nuts, dill and parsley (¢2,000/$3.80). There’s also a Monday to Friday executive lunch that includes salad, rice, a fruit drink and coffee or dessert for ¢2,500 ($4.80). The main course might be a huge beefsteak tomato stuffed with mushrooms and ham and topped with Parmesan cheese, or meaty chicken thighs baked in wine and chicken stock, with a yogurt sauce.
The Mediterranean-style sandwiches and salads (¢1,800-3,100/$3.50-6) evoke an eating odyssey from Barcelona to Istanbul via Marseilles, Rome and Crete, featuring roasted or marinated vegetables, grilled fish or chicken, pesto and yogurt. Sandwiches are served on your choice of whole-wheat or white ciabatta bread, pita or baguette, all baked on the premises. More Mediterranean flavor notes pop up in the sauces spicing up the sandwiches: a catalana sauce of fresh tomato with almonds and hazelnuts; a bordelaise of red wine, chicken and beef stocks; and a remoulade of homemade mayonnaise laced with anchovies and capers.
With veteran Aya Sofya chef Oscar Miranda at the helm, the kitchen shines brightest when that most Turkish of foods is on the menu: fresh lamb, ordered from a farm in Cañas, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. My lamb-loving partner and I both ordered the day’s lamb specials. His grilled lamb chops (¢4,400/$8.50) were a hefty threesome, marinated in garlic and herbs and cooked perfectly. Tinfoil handles on the bones made it easy to pick them up and get at every delicious morsel. My grilled lamb meatballs (¢2,800/$5.40) were disks of ground lamb, spicy and smoky, hot off the grill. They were delicious, if a little dry. But after I dipped them in a small side dish of haydari yogurt sauce, the meatballs scored a home run. Both lamb specials came with jasmine-style rice, properly steamed and slightly buttery baby vegetables, and a mixed-leaf salad with marinated onions and thin cucumber slices and tomatoes.
Dessert lovers won’t be disappointed here. Pastry chef, baker and partner Hasan Yildiz, from Istanbul, bakes baklava (¢1,500/$2.90) daily, using the traditional Greek ingredients: phyllo dough, honey, rose water, walnuts, cinnamon and cloves. Yildiz also turns out lovely French-style fruit tarts with butter pastry, custard and strawberry or kiwi and peach slices (¢750/$1.40), tiramisu (¢1,500), pecan pie (¢1,500) and his own invention, mini Aya Sofya mosques, towers of vanilla or chocolate cake covered in orange, coconut, almond or chocolate icing (¢1,200/$2.30).
On the bakery counter, there are tasty German-style stollen loaves and rolls, studded with candied fruits, as well as orange, chocolate or marble cupcakes. All of the sweets, along with the freshly baked breads and savory dips and salads, are expertly packed para llevar, to take home. To go along with the fresh breads, the café also sells jars of homemade green olive pesto (¢2,900/$5.60) and sun-dried tomato paste with walnuts and olive oil (¢2,600/$5).
For aficionados of Turkish coffee, Aya Sofya offers Coffee Arabe (¢800/$1.50), thick coffee made in the traditional copper pot, with or without cardamom flavoring. Remember, though, it is not good to the very last drop – steer clear of the coffee sludge at the bottom of the cup.
It’s early days for this new version of Aya Sofya, and partners Onuralp, Yildiz and Oscar Raventos from Barcelona have big plans for expanding the restaurant terrace and holding special cultural events, such as belly dancing or flamenco nights. They also offer a full catering service. Most importantly, they are applying for a liquor license, following Omar Khayyam’s dictum about a loaf of bread and a jug of wine; you’ll have to bring your own “thou” along, and while that liquor license is pending, you are also welcome to bring your own wine.
So far, the restaurant is open only until 7 p.m., so a late-night dinner is not yet on the menu. But this is a great spot for a leisurely late lunch after the lunch crowd has gone, or a light pre-theater dinner, if you’re aiming for the CostaRican-NorthAmericanCulturalCenter, just a short walk away.
Location: Across from Intensa language school in Barrio Escalante, 150 meters north of Bagelmen’s.
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Phone: 2224-5050, email@example.com.
Full catering service offered. The café has Wi-Fi and is available for special events.