It’s early in the morning on a weekday, but the line at Sofra still snakes around the counter, reaching toward the restaurant’s glass door. Light streams into the space, casting a warm glow on wooden tables already packed with customers. Some wait for their food eagerly, others happily tuck into gleaming copper bowls filled with steaming red soup, or plates crowded with delicate slices of bright green cucumber, gem-like spoon sweets, and soft-boiled eggs cocooned in a bird’s nest of fried phyllo dough.
Those who wait, either in line or for a free table, do so calmly. Many of them have made a point of visiting this out-of-the way Turkish bakery, and are more than happy to linger just a little longer before partaking in one of the Boston area’s most unique breakfast experiences.
In fact, for many regulars, including Jenna Lyons, the marketing and events manager for Sofra and the rest the Oleana restaurant group, this early morning crowd is nothing. Little compares to the droves of Bostonians that flock to this cozy, neighborhood bakery perched on the outskirts of Cambridge over the weekends, crowding into the café to order from a crafted menu holding an option for every visitor, as flavors range from sweet to savory, from familiar to something more fresh and exotic. Here breakfast won’t be what you expect, not a dense pile of pancakes, or greasy piles of eggs and bacon.
Although you can get a breakfast sandwich—a carefully cooked egg on a fluffy bun paired with halloumi cheese and feta butter, or sausage wrapped in delicately thin pita—most of the options will be an adventure for the taste buds. Choose between an almost translucent poached egg with fried quinoa and shishito peppers atop a pool of labneh, and a shakshuka, a spicy tomato broth with poached eggs just begging to be mopped up with a fluffy disc of pita. Or maybe just choose from the decadent pastries displayed behind the glass counter—tangy danishes studded with fruit and pistachios, morning buns topped with a glistening orange blossom glaze, or a perfectly moist almond cake infused with just the slightest hint of rosewater.
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Everything, from the dense chocolate earthquake cookies to the unbelievably layered hazelnut baklava, is baked fresh that morning, which is why the five pastry chefs that make Sofra run arrive be 4 a.m. each morning. But Maura Kilpatrick, the executive pastry chef and co-owner of Sofra, actually got there at 2 a.m. in order to gear up for the busy holiday months ahead. Deftly moving through the basement kitchen space, she bakes with the rest of her staff and plans for the months ahead, smoothing the transition between summer peaches and fall flavors.
Evident from the box of bulbous and gorgeous pumpkins, which Kilpatrick steams, purees, and turns into a version of her own grandmother’s pumpkin bread, the transition is already underway for the year. Apples will slowly make their appearance both in the pastries and on the menu, and although Kilpatrick has trained her customers to expect the change—menu items and pastries often rotate depending on season and inspiration—there are always some familiar options that are Kilpatrick’s signature.
Take for example her version of a morning staple: the poptart. Instead of a skinny envelop of dough and jelly, Kilpatrick presents Sofra’s customers with a towering masterpiece of phyllo containing a pocket of pistachio, sesame, and orange, topped with a sweet glaze. Her ease and ability to have fun with Middle Eastern flavors unfamiliar to many is evident, but for Kilpatrick and her business partner Ana Sortun, Sofra’s executive chef, the process of understanding and mastering these Middle Eastern flavors began over a decade—and a restaurant—ago.
For Sortun, the process began almost 20 years ago, while she worked as a chef at Harvard Square’s once iconic Casablanca restaurant. While there, Sortun immersed herself in bright central Mediterranean flavors, focusing on the cuisines of Southern France, Spain, and Italy. But when a friend suggested that Sortun accompany her back to Turkey where she could study the nuances of a cuisine completely underrepresented in Boston, she jumped at the opportunity, even though she didn’t really know what to expect, and couldn’t possibly predict that it would change her relationship with cooking forever.
Sortun immersed herself in Turkey’s culinary culture, marveling at the new landscape of flavors that she was discovering, and finding that she was actually getting excited every time that she sat down for a meal.
“Everything was so new and the flavors were so incredible rich but nothing was heavy,” Sortun said. “So I decided that this was a much more interesting way of cooking than adding cream or butter just to make something taste better, because it wasn’t making people feel good and all this stuff that I had studied and learned in France was not the way that I found. I just thought that it was much more interesting and dimensional to learn how to work with these spices.”
She absorbed everything that she could, bringing it back to Boston with her, and hoping to bring Middle Eastern food into Boston’s “mainstream.” Sortun wanted to widen the public understanding of Mediterranean cuisine, breaking away from the stagnant confines of hummus and stale pita, and decided to open Oleana, her very first restaurant where she could celebrate the aromatic Middle Eastern culinary tradition.
From the very start, Kilpatrick worked with Sortun as Oleana’s executive pastry chef, but Kilpatrick will be the first to tell you that she “got the job first.” Although skilled as a pastry chef trained in the European tradition, Kilpatrick had absolutely no experience with Middle Eastern flavors, so she had to jump into this new world and figure it out for herself. While Sortun provided insight into traditional Turkish recipes and cuisine, Kilpatrick learned how to delicately incorporate ingredients like tahini, dukkah, and za’atar into her pastry creations. She had to do her homework, staying up late into the night to read and experiment, making countless mistakes along the way. Oftentimes Kilpatrick would find a base recipe that inspired her —when you’re working with a hallowed pastry like baklava the wheel doesn’t need to be completely reinvented—and “just play around,” transforming it into five or more variations to make the dish her own. Ultimately, Kilpatrick developed a whole “new pallet,” and Sortun and Kilpatrick were both met with success for their work at Oleana to the tune of a James Beard Award and praise from reviewers at The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
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But after eight years of success, Kilpatrick and Sortun wanted to do something different—something faster, something more laid back, and somewhere where Turkish flavors would be even more accessible to the public than they already were in Oleana. Given Oleana’s success, the two chefs knew that while they would have the advantage of being “instantly established” according to Kilpatrick, they also would have to meet a high standard from day one. But they went for it anyway and, in 2008, the duo opened their little bakery. They selected the perfect space, a green and white enamel building nestled between Watertown and Belmont that was owned by their friend Richard Kzirian, the owner of the neighboring Violette Wines. Not only was the building conveniently located near a collection of Middle Eastern specialty shops where high-quality ingredients like labneh, a strained yogurt-like cheese, could be found, but also a retro, architectural wonder that was one of the last of its kind in Boston. They named it Sofra, the Turkish word meaning a small rug for eating, for a picnic.
According to Sortun, she and Kilpatrick followed a “quirky model” for Sofra. Much like Oleana before it, located in the rapidly evolving Hampshire St. area, the two chefs worked the bakery’s “off the beaten path” location into its identity, allowing the restaurant to be driven by the community and become a true center of a changing neighborhood.
“The neighborhood has really developed behind Sofra,” Sortun said. “We like to kind of plant ourselves in an area that’s really moving and changing and growing, and really be a part of it so it’ll be something that everybody’s really proud of having in the neighborhood.”
But in the nine years since it first opened, Sofra’s reach has extended far beyond the immediate neighborhood it’s located in, a true embodiment of the ‘if you build it they will come’ phenomenon. Even as more and more restaurants featuring authentic Middle Eastern flavors have sprung up in Boston, diners keep flocking back to Sofra. They want to be part of a restaurant where the balance between healthy and decadent, between sweet and savory, is both fair and interesting, and where starting their day with cucumbers picked from Siena Farms, run by Sortun’s husband, is a real possibility.
“You’re eating cucumbers, you’re eating olives, you’re eating tomato, and you’re eating feta,” Sortun said. “It’s not cereal and a muffin or a bagel. We’re trying to introduce these different ways of eating breakfast, so having cucumbers in the morning is a great idea.”
With Sofra, Kilpatrick and Sortun change the way that their customers eat, and the bakery changes along with them. Whether that means changing the tiny things, such as seating or adding a concierge-like server to answer question while customers wait in line, or combating the challenges of functioning in such a relatively small space, Sofra has evolved and thrived over the past nine years—a fact that makes both Kilpatrick and Sortun incredibly proud.
And as Sofra thrives, so too does the culinary scene in Boston. According to Kilpatrick, one of the best characteristics of Sofra’s current state is that the shop “give[s] other people opportunity,” fostering an interest in baking and exploring flavors in the next generation of pastry chefs.
“I want to be able to help another generation of pastry people in the city—here and at Oleana—and sort of grow and teach them because I did a lot of this work by myself so I can sort of like be a resource for other people.” Kilpatrick said. “And I feel like that’s a good place to be at.”
With Sofra, Kilpatrick and Sortun prove that food builds community, using flavors and stories to hold everything and everyone together as they shift and morph over time. But some things will stay the same, like the beauty of eating cucumbers for breakfast.
Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor