Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Spice and the City: Sofra and Penzey's Spices
I love spicy food. Not just fire-breathing hot that you can get at Sichuan Gourmet, but also the rich, layered tastes of good, well-flavored food. When I look at a menu, I am often drawn to detailed descriptions that include herbs, spices and complex side dishes. When Oleana first opened in Cambridge, it appealed to me as a restaurant that could focus on using local ingredients. But I was even more taken by their premise that spices didn't have to mask quality ingredients, but could instead draw on their strengths. And in fact, each meal I have had there has been wonderful. I prefer their appetizers and desserts (the baked Alaska is particularly memorable), as the range of tastes is so unique.
When I heard that Oleana's head chef and owner Ana Sortun and her pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick had opened Sofra, a small cafe/bakery in Belmont, I couldn't wait to go. And, with one day of vacation (the one day that my day care was actually open nor did I need to do the 10 million other errands that I never get around to doing), I headed over. The food was as good as I had hoped. I was particularly taken with the flatbreads. These are not the pizza knockoffs that are found throughout the suburbs. Instead, these are made of a thin, rich dough that is grilled on a Saj (an iron cooking vessel) and filled with incredible tastes. With the recommendation of the staff, I ordered one with squash, walnuts, sesame seeds and fresh mozzarella. It was fantastic. The dough was flaky and lightly grilled and reminded me of roti dough. The cheese was warm and oozing and was a perfect compliment to the sweet squash and nuts. While Chowhounders have critiqued Sofra for being expensive, I thought that $6.00 for the sandwich was quite reasonable considering the quality of the fillings, as well as the fact that it was substantial enough for lunch.
That being said, I had to try some of the other offerings! One unique option is the "mezze bar." For $9.00 you get scoops of any 5 dishes, accompanied by homemade bread and/or crackers. The selection is visually stunning (the second picture on this blog) and has the twists that Sortun is known for (if you look really closely at the photo you can see the choices for the day): beet tzitziki, carrot spread with her dukka seasonings, warm parsnip hummos, pureed celery root, etc. Finally, I took home a selection of the baked goods (the opening picture). Though they were also unusual (donuts with rose petals; quince paste in the cookies), overall they were too rich for my taste. My only critique of Sofra: the setting doesn't necessarily lend itself to a relaxing visit. Due in part to its popularity and its limited, though creative seating, it can be a competitive experience to find a seat (the kind accompanied by much glaring and aggressiveness to get a seat and pressure to eat and leave). In fact, I lingered by ordering a cup of fantastic hot chocolate. It was just a bit sweeter than that of Burdick's, but just as rich and sinful. Ah, the price to pay for a seat! Needless to say, it was a bit calmer at about 2:00 p.m. than at the height of lunch hour. On a more positive note, I was struck by the number of kids whose parents decided to use this as an opportune place to expand their food horizons. I hope to bring my sons some day...
My second stop of the day was for my other holiday indulgence. Until recently, cooking with spices meant a visit to the grocery store to pay a good deal of money for some bland spices. I frequented Christina's in Inman Square, Cambridge a few times, but was turned off by less-than helpful salespeople and the inability to actually smell the spices. Luckily (or in the case of my wallet, unluckily!), a friend introduced me to the absolute pleasure of Penzey's Spices in Arlington. Penzey's is a well-known mail order spice store, but nothing is like the experience of visiting there. Not only is the staff familiar with their offerings, not only can you get an extraordinary range of spices in different forms (French oregano whole or ground or Mexican oregano, e.g.), but you can smell each of the over 100 spices. Due to the quality of their spices and their high turnover, once you smell their Vietnamese cinnamon you realize how muted supermarket brands really are. And so far, each dish I have made recently has been improved simply by using their spices. (No, they are not paying me to say this! Though I would certainly not turn down a gift certificate from them : ) Needless to say my bounty includes everything from Sweet Hungarian Paprika to two types of cinnamon, Garam Masala, sweet curry powder, bay leaves that were so fresh that I immediately tossed out my old ones, etc. It is well worth the trip!