BY EDMUND MOKHTARIAN
I love the Boston food scene, but it can become a tad monotonous. While the general quality of food is great, I’ve found that the so-called “best” restaurants and eateries in the city always seem to fall into the same basic categories: seafood, Italian, gastropub, etc.
It’s a shame, too. Boston has so much diversity that you’d expect to find good eats from every type of cuisine imaginable. My goal this week, then, was to see if I could reach past the Boston stalwarts and all the stereotypes they carry with them to find something a bit out of the ordinary — something you’d never expect to find in a city like Boston.
And I think I may have just done it with Sofra Bakery and Café.
As an Armenian, I’ve grown up eating homemade baklava, lahmejun (Middle Eastern pizza), and different types of pound cake. Sofra Bakery takes those same types of Middle Eastern baked goods, retains the homemade quality, and either infuses them with exciting new ingredients or applies Middle Eastern ingredients to more traditional American treats. Expect creations like Egyptian bread pudding, morning buns with orange blossom glaze, and Persian spiced donuts. Trust me, I know what truly homemade Middle Eastern baked goods taste like, and Sofra nails it with its fresh homemade pita bread, its perfectly crumbly cakes, and its mastery of spice and seasoning. I’ll highlight just a few of my favorite treats from the shop.
First is the almighty baklava, the king of all Middle Eastern pastries. Sofra isn’t content with the traditional variety, soggy from an overflow of thick, viscous honey. Sofra decides to add some balance, introducing chocolate paste, hazelnuts, and cocoa honey into the mix. The cocoa honey has a bit of bittersweetness, while the mountain of chocolate and hazelnuts adds some complexity to the one-dimensional, ordinary baklava. The texture is fantastic, too: flaky on the very top, wet and slightly sticky on the bottom, and creamy and crunchy in the middle. Purists may be disappointed, though, as it does taste more like chocolate mousse than baklava.
Next is the fittingly named Earthquake, a cookie so good that it does, in fact, rock you with its bold flavor. On one level, it’s a very simple treat: a thick, rich, fudgy brownie, with a powdery crust of sugar. At the same time, it manages to achieve a fantastic harmony between two of my favorite taste sensations, the rich and the sweet. The cookie plays a ganache-like bitter chocolate off against the crunch, grittiness, and sweetness of the powdered crust. It can be just a tad sweet at the very beginning, and just a tad too rich at the very end as the crust of sugar gives way to the heavier brownie, but that’s a small price to pay for something so delicious.
Finally, I have to mention my absolute favorite dessert in the entire city: Sofra’s ethereal almond rose cake. It’s a gigantic behemoth of a cake, well worth the entire $7 that Sofra charges. Yet, for something so imposing, the cake is all about subtlety and nuance. As I cut in, I could immediately tell the quality: the cake offered no resistance, but it’s not buttery to the point that it melts in your mouth. It’s more akin to an excellent pound cake, retaining a satisfactory grittiness that leaves a decent, slight coating of butter across the mouth. The butter doesn’t come off as cloying, though, as the rose lightens its richness, leaving you fuming with a subtle fragrance in the aftertaste. Just as good are the few bits of extremely toasted almonds laid across the bottom, which further infuse the fragrance with a heavy smokiness, reminiscent of roasted coffee. Be warned, though: This is a very Middle Eastern dessert, focusing more on texture and nuance than on sheer flavor or sweetness, and it is not suitable for someone looking for a sugar high. Still, it’s true Middle Eastern pound cake done so well that it transports me back to my own childhood.
Sofra isn’t perfect, though, particularly when it comes to the savories. When I saw my favorite Middle Eastern snack on the menu, lahmejun, I knew I just had to try it. Typically, lahmejun is a thin, crispy pizza topped with a combination of meat, spices, and vegetables, though it may come in any number of flavors. Unfortunately, what I got at Sofra was an overwhelmingly oily piece of pita bread covered inch-to-inch with a blanket of overly bitter spinach. Only making the combination worse was the all-too-generous dose of salt. Surprisingly, though, even with the intensity of the oil, salt, and bitterness, the lahmejun did have its merits, especially the perfectly fluffy pita bread base. In fact, Sofra’s pita is so fresh and so authentic that you can even see the staff tossing the newly kneaded dough onto a cast iron, rather than cooking it in an oven. It even has a delicious dusting of flour on the bottom for some extra texture and freshness. I can easily imagine the bread here being some of the best in the city.
Even more disappointing was the lamb borek, basically a pita stuffed with lamb and spices. Again, while the pita left me nearly awestruck with its perfection, the filling was bland as could be. The lamb wasn’t nearly flavorful or savory enough, requiring the spices to mask its blandness. The spices, however, suffered from the opposite problem, overpowering every other flavor, though I did enjoy the slight cayenne kick at the end, which left my tongue tingling. Worst of all, though, the borek was served cold, making it seem a bit old.
The prices aren’t the greatest, either, at least for a bakery. Most sweets range from about $3.50-$6, while most sandwiches and wraps go for $7 and above. For instance, I paid about $4 for the chocolate baklava, $3 for the Earthquake, and $7 for the almond rose cake. Still, while I’d generally call a $3 cookie a rip-off, I do feel the quality at Sofra at least justifies the prices.
Sofra, then, does have deficiencies, but, with such delicious treats, it’s easy to overlook them. Not only does Sofra serve up fresh, homemade sweets like few bakeries can, but it manages to marry traditional techniques with bold, new flavors. It is thus a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant, tired field, elevating baked goods to a new level of excellence with its open-minded embrace of an oft-ignored culinary culture. Unfortunately, it is a better bakery than a café, and I’d recommend sticking to the cakes and cookies.
Sofra Bakery and Café is located at 1 Belmont St., Cambridge, Ma.
Edmund Mokhtarian is a food critic and blogger. At his blog, The Food Buster (www.thefoodbuster.com), he reviews restaurants, bakeries, wines, and chocolates from around the nation and the world.