Ana Sortun’s new Middle Eastern bakery and café Sofra specializes in morsels of a certain variety. (The kind that’s impossible to stop shoveling into your mouth.)
Chef Ana Sortun plays with textures and fragrances—the crunch of phyllo against smooth cream, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses in a green olive and walnut salad, lemony za’atar in an otherwise plain-Jane zucchini and rice soup. It’s only appropriate, given that her cookbook is called Spice and that she sells it bundled with little jars of her favorite Turkish and eastern Mediterranean flavorizers. The contrasts are seductive. And so it goes at Sofra, her terrific new bakery-café in Cambridge. But proceed with caution: Having food from Sofra around the house—as you will, because it’s geared toward takeout—can drive you mad with desire.
Sortun introduced Cambridge and Boston to her Turkish bent at Casablanca, where she designed a menu so good that many of her dishes are still on it 12 years later. Her own award-winning Oleana remains high on everyone’s favorites list, including mine, eight years on. Now she and two cooks who have been with her since her Casablanca days (Maura Kilpatrick, her pastry chef and here a full partner, and Wilton Osorno, her Colombian-born sous-chef at Oleana and here head chef) have carried over Oleana’s eastern Mediterranean ingredients and techniques to Sofra’s soups, sandwiches, meze (the regional version of tapas), and pastries. The way Sofra resembles Oleana makes it unlike any other bakery or sandwich shop here, or perhaps anywhere in the country: The flavors and dishes are complex and unfamiliar to most diners (let alone takeout-shop customers), and require a lot of time and labor.
Sofra has another selling point: a link to a local farm that’s about as direct as it gets—Sortun’s married to the farmer. The menu is built around what husband Chris Kurth has been picking at Siena Farms (named for their daughter) in Sudbury—or, as the weather gets cold, around the sauces, pickles, and preserves that Sofra’s cooks have put up for the winter. All the food is available to take away, and a big, open refrigerated case offers prepacked meze, produce from the farm, and some favorite ingredients and homemade preserves, too.
The menu’s savories—the flatbread sandwiches, shawarma, meze, and börek (filled phyllo pastry)—play on traditions that might be familiar to the rest of the neighborhood around Mount Auburn Cemetery, where Sofra commands the prominent art deco storefront long occupied by Violette Wines. The Armenian and Greek communities in nearby Watertown have already discovered it, as have throngs of self-consciously open-minded Cantabrigians. But the flavors and even the forms will be new to many, and there is such a wealth of unexpected, subtle combinations of tastes and textures that you’ll want to try everything on the menu, which over four or five visits I did. (Some of the pastries carry through the eastern Med theme, but generally the bars, tarts, and turnovers are standard American bakery fare.)
The stuffed flatbreads and shawarma do look familiar—vaguely resembling wraps or filled crêpes—and are the closest Sofra comes to main courses. Together with a platter of five meze (so far Sofra’s bestseller) and a soup, they can make an abundant supper. Most are built on a fresh, flaky flatbread called yufka, like a flour tortilla but thinner and not as rich, folded and warmed on a saj, a griddle common in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. I was taken with the spinach-and-three-cheese option ($7)—which called to mind a nongreasy spanakopita—but the one meat-filled stuffed flatbread best showed Sofra’s interplay of textures and sweet-hot flavors: homemade sausage spiced with cumin and orange zest ($7), the meat crumbled with chopped green olives and the filling spread with creamy whipped feta.
Best of all is lamb shawarma ($8), lamb shank braised with cumin and red wine till it’s melting, spread with labne (strained yogurt) mixed with sesame tahini—like mayo gone to heaven—and folded crêpe-style in veil-thin Lebanese flatbread. Sortun adds sweet-and-sour braised cabbage, reminiscent of sauerkraut on a street vendor’s sausage sub, only fresh and a lot better. I thought I’d break off a little piece to taste when I got home. I kept licking the delicate meat and the labne-tahini spread off my fingers till there was no supper left.
I should acknowledge that Sofra is out of my usual review range. There’s no table service, and what tables you’ll find are copper drums of the kind seen in Middle Eastern cafés, with carpet-covered benches along the wall and low molded-wood benches stacked for ad hoc seating (“sofra” is an Arabic word for a picnic or a rug). The café, geared toward breakfast and lunch, closes at 8. But the distinctive style is new and deserves special attention, and the farm link merits both attention and emulation—the other local trailblazers in that category are Lionette’s in the South End, and City Feed in Jamaica Plain, and they could use some company.
Some of the meze offerings at Sofra ($3/bowl, $9/platter of five), like beet tzatziki, bean and walnut pâté, and (fabulous) smoky eggplant purée with pine nuts, are familiar from Oleana. But others are new, including the bean plaki. Osorno has an innate knack for beans; the accompanying simmered tomatoes and carrots are so sweet they taste like candy. (I devoured two plastic takeout containers of plaki, also meant for supper.)
The frequent sweet-savory mix shows especially well in the cheese börek ($7), the ubiquitous Turkish pie you buy in squares cut from big sheet pans. Sheets of yufka are layered with an egg-milk mixture and cubes of fresh mozzarella made in Somerville by Lourdes Fiore Smith (she delivers regularly, and you can buy several of her cheeses from the grocery case). As Sortun notes, it’s a lot like kugel.
Kilpatrick, who oversees the kitchen, has been given free rein with pastry, and she, too, straddles the sweet-savory line, soaking pieces of brioche in espresso sugar ($3 each) for breakfast or sprinkling a brioche roll with sesame and za’atar to go with soup. Homemade croissants (a bit heavy and buttery for me) have either za’atar ($2.50) or chocolate ($3) inside; Kilpatrick even makes crackers ($1 for two), which are like a big fresh version of those buttery Dutch cheese crackers in tins. Her take on the Oreo—called a “Maureo” ($1.50)—is square and filled with milk jam, something like dulce de leche, and, of course, there are several phyllo-wrapped pastries and baklava, including the one that has become her bestseller: chocolate-hazelnut with cocoa honey ($4). My favorite was a flaky turnover made from a rugelach-rich cream cheese dough and filled with pumpkin preserves ($4). Whenever the cashier put out samples—and, luckily, there are a lot of free samples—the dish’s contents vanished in what seemed like seconds. (I think I was blocking the register.) As with that lamb shawarma I unwrapped for just a moment, I’m not quite sure how it all disappeared.
One Belmont St., Cambridge, 617-661-3161.