Review: Istanbul Sofra

Head to Istanbul Sofra, one of Regent Square’s new additions, for assorted lamb dishes, vegetarian starters and well-executed desserts.


Photos by Laura Petrilla

 

Istanbul Sofra is a new neighborhood restaurant serving fresh Turkish cuisine in the space formerly occupied by Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen. Owner Adnan Pehlivan, who hails from Turkey, came to Pittsburgh with his Pennsylvania-born wife more than two years ago to be near his brother in Greensburg.

Pehlivan brings extensive food-service experience to bear in making his mark on the local restaurant scene. He has more than 20 years of corporate hotel experience, primarily working as a food and beverage director and director of operations for Hilton Hotels in the United States and Turkey. His background in the hotel industry and his Turkish heritage are tied by the common value of hospitality. 

“We speak to every customer while they are dining,” says Pehlivan, who says he makes hospitality his main priority. “At the end of each night, we discuss the feedback we received and make changes accordingly; we want 100 percent of the people to leave happy.”

For this venture, he partners with his childhood friend Edip Sensel, a chef and butcher.

Istanbul Sofra has a casual, fresh environment with paprika and cerulean walls, colorful menus and sparkly hanging Turkish mosaic light fixtures. Outdoor seating on busy Braddock Avenue also is available, weather permitting.

The appetizers at Istanbul Sofra are first-class, categorized as hot or cold, with many nice vegetarian offerings among them. Among the cold appetizers, the hummus ($5) is good, but there are better choices — such as the light and fresh eggplant salad ($6), a mixture of charbroiled eggplant, chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers and parsley. The neatly rolled vegetarian grape leaves ($5) are stuffed with a refreshing mix of rice, pine nuts and currants. The piyaz ($4) is a lovely navy-bean salad tossed with flavorful vinegar and oil. The salads ($7) all are variations on the theme of chopped romaine topped with veggies, such as cucumber, tomato or sweet pepper, and are lightly and appropriately dressed.

Among hot appetizers, the divine cigarette borek ($5) are narrow phyllo rolls stuffed with creamy feta, with a dill accent. Also delicious is the old-fashioned lentil soup ($4) — it’s peppery with a hint of tomato. The falafel ($5) is respectable but slightly tough.

The entrées largely follow the same format: a protein served with tender white rice, a small salad and pickled red cabbage. The main entrées vary from grilled meats to koftes (seasoned patties) to slow-cooked braised choices.
 

Because this is a Turkish restaurant, lamb always is a good option. The baby lamb chops ($20) are thin-cut and tender, while the shish kebab ($13) is marinated and charbroiled. Lamb dishes are served with a housemade yogurt mint sauce. The moist Turkish gyros ($11), also known as doner kebab, are mildly spiced, sliced thinly and a bit fatty, as you might expect. If you can’t decide among these choices, order the lamb mixed-grill platter ($23) to get a taste of everything.

The chicken dishes also are prepared with finesse. The chicken mixed-grill platter ($18) offers two varieties of lightly spiced, chargrilled chicken cubes and the spicier chicken kofte (similar to a chicken patty). For the salmon lover, the grilled salmon ($15) is simply seasoned, tender and cooked just right. The veggie platter ($12) almost seems like a healthy side dish, comprised of grilled carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes and eggplant; if I were a vegetarian, I would order this to accompany the many interesting vegetarian appetizers.

Desserts are wonderful and authentic. Of the four offerings, my top two are the moist walnut baklava ($4) and the revani ($4), a traditional semolina cake soaked in honey syrup. Both desserts are common throughout the Mediterranean and are executed well here.

Be sure to end your meal with either a nice strong cup of Turkish coffee ($2.50), served in a demitasse cup, or Turkish black tea ($1.50), served traditionally in a tulip-shaped glass on a metal tray.

“In Turkey, anywhere you go, even a newsstand, if you request tea, the store owner will bring out a chair and a little table and serve you a cup of tea,” says Pehlivan. “This is an essential part of our heritage and hospitality.”

Things heat up on Friday nights when Istanbul Sofra schedules a belly dancer. Live Turkish music also is featured some Saturday nights; check the website for specifics. 


 

Adnan Pehlivan, Co-owner | Istanbul Sofra

How did you make the transition from corporate hospitality to owning a small business? 
I had a very good experience in my career, working primarily for Hilton. I started out in Mersin, Turkey, and then worked in various locations in the U.S., including Virginia and Washington, D.C. However, my family was getting tired of moving, and I wanted to be closer to my brother in Greensburg. It was a very tough decision, but I absolutely love this restaurant. I really enjoy the contact with the customers. I also really enjoy working with my friend [co-owner and restaurant chef] Edip [Sensel]. He has extensive experience and is a very detail-oriented person. He always does everything perfectly in the kitchen, so I don’t worry at all about that, and I can focus on the front of the house.

How has Istabul Sofra been received? 
One of the things I really didn’t expect is how unbelievably welcoming this neighborhood has been. Even when we were under construction, people would pop their heads in and say “Hi” and “Welcome to the neighborhood.” These people have been so kind to us — I really want to earn the respect of the neighborhood.

Are some of your customers interested in visiting Turkey? 
It seems [as if] 80 percent of my customers [either] have been to Turkey, know someone who has gone to Turkey or want to go to Turkey. I love giving customers travel advice. I know a lot of people and places in Turkey, and I try to connect my customers here to the right people or destinations in Turkey.

How do you like living in Greensburg? 
I am very happy there. My brother and I own three pizza shops called Pizza Marsala. He runs the [shops] in Irwin and Monroeville, and my wife runs the one in Greensburg. Greensburg has been very welcoming to us.

Do you visit Turkey often? 
I typically visit every year. However, the last few years I have been so busy with the pizza shops and opening this business that I haven’t had a chance to visit. The past year, I also didn’t have time to take my family on vacation. I promised I would make it up to my 12-year-old daughter this year, and I did: I took her to New York City to meet Taylor Swift! We met her, and they took a picture together and my daughter was thrilled.
 

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