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On Tuesday, I visited the St Johns Wood outpost of the Turkish chain Sofra. Conveniently located, not very far from the tube station, Lord's cricket ground and St John's Wood High Street, the restaurant is frequented by an upper middle-class clientele.
Ambience-wise, it's crammed with closely-spaced tables, but the starched, white linen tablecloths and shiny cutlery wrapped in napkins with pretty red ribbons, make the tables look much nicer. The rest of the decor is fairly forgettable and the atmosphere is very low-key. Most visitors are middle-aged men, who've popped in for a meal after a trip to Lord's or groups of 40-something ladies-who-lunch. In the summer, there is a ground-level patio terrace, which although nice, is a bit noisy and dusty as it is set against a fairly busy road
The restaurant offers set-menu and a-la-carte options in the form of hot and cold mezze (in tapas-sized portions) as well as stand-alone dishes . Guests usually opt for a set-platter or choose a combination of their favourite mezze. There are a number of interesting vegetarian options on the list and the meal usually begins with a complementary portion of delicious humous and (not-always) fresh, warm, crusty bread.
I've asked in the past if they are conscious about cross-contamination on their grilled or griddled, hot, vegetarian dishes. The answer has not been remotely satisfactory; one waiter candidly admitted that he knows that there is no separate cooking oil, utensil or surface used ie. dishes like the falafel balls or the fried aubergine with peppers are fried or cooked on the same surfaces and in the same oil as the meat, without any attention to the re-use of oils / surfaces. That's why I no longer order the vegetarian platter, which although varied and delicious-looking, contains a number of such items. Cold mezze and things like rice, are probably your safest choices, if you are strictly vegetarian; it's also worth noting that the staff are not at all aware of whether the cheeses served are suitable for vegetarians (there are ingredients such as animal rennet in some of their cheese products). The Halloumi cheese is possibly the only suitable one of the lot.
On this visit, my friend, (who is a carnivore) ordered the vegetarian platter. It was presented beautifully on a lovely, frosted glass plate with 9-odd, different tapas dotted on it, making it look like an edible-version of noughts-and-crosses. She found it a good way of trying different types of mezze; however the yogurty mezze on her plate had gone completely off (she had to spit it out) and despite her mentioning the matter to the manager, he didn't bother to replace it and bizarrely waffled that yogurt could get rather sharp and he didn't think it was off yet, although it was very sharp. I thought this was a poor answer because I had ordered an aubergine salad (babaganoush) as a starter; this also contained the yogurt as an ingredient and I had to send it back because the yogurt was terribly off and he was aware of that. Although yogurt can occasionally and understandably over-curdle due to the hot, summer weather, I was surprised that the kitchen and management continued to serve the spoiled yogurt to other customers and not do anything about it, despite being informed.
The basmati rice side dish I ordered, was overcooked and the rice tasted like it wasn't freshly cooked. However I've eaten the same rice dish previously at Sofra's branch in Tavistock Street near Covent Garden and it used to be a favourite because it was delicious and was a real treat because there, it included crunchy nuts and strands of vermicelli that really enhanced the flavour of the rice.
The other things that disappointed me about this visit were the standard of service and the money-minded approach. Despite pointing out to the waiting staff that my foot was broken and in a brace and having crutches leaning against the table to highlight this, they managed to ram into it twice and didn't even bother apologising immediately. Lastly, the bill included an optional service charge, which was not actually optional because it is pre-included in the total. Personally I prefer to leave a 10-odd percent tip for reasonable service and I particularly like to be given this option when the restaurant prices are not particularly cheap and the service is sub-standard.
Mezze dishes at Sofra are roughly around the £5 mark. So its not the cheapest of places as the prices tot up once you order a few mezze.
Sofra disappointed me; it used to be a really good place to eat at. I've recently visited the branch in St Christopher's Place (handy for Oxford St ) for a quick snack and like its St Johns wood cousin, found it a bit over-priced for what it was. I wish Sofra would take its vegetarian options seriously and the management would take more pride in the quality of the food they serve. A place that clearly needs sorting out !
11, Circus Road, NW8 6NX