Aya Sofia bills itself as St. Louis’ only Turkish restaurant; and since opening in 2005, it has garnered a reputation as a premier dining destination. Situated just down the street from Ted Drewes on Chippewa, it’s a cozy, welcoming space that we’ve been meaning to try, and we finally got the opportunity to dine there recently.
The extensive menu featured a variety of hot and cold small plates, larger mixed platters, specialty entrees and vegetarian offerings. With so many choices, we decided to just start at the top and work our way down. Humus (spelled with one ‘m’ in Turkish) is one of those deceptively simple dishes that says a lot about how much the kitchen cares. Some places would just source a tub of it from a supplier and be done with it, or throw together a quick batch.
The Humus ($7) we ordered from the Cold Small Plates selections assured us that we were in good culinary hands. It had a creamy consistency— not too thick and pasty—with just the right amount of garlic kick.
From Hot Small Plates we tried the Kibbe ($8). These tasty balls of bulgar wheat were stuffed with beef, onions and pine nuts, and served with a mild yogurt sauce. They reminded us of a familiar meatball, but with a crunchy crust, and were subtly spiced.
The Sis Kebap ($16) under the Specialties banner was another basic, modest dish on the Aya Sofia menu that proved that some of the most delicious foods are the most unassuming on the plate. Just meat on a stick maybe, but it was cooked to perfection. We opted for chicken (beef also was an option), and it was so tender it slid off the skewer with little prodding. It was also served with a side of flavorful rice pilaf.
The Imam Bayildi ($15) was a vegetarian specialty that consisted of baked eggplant with onions, garlic and tomatoes and served with tomato sauce and pearl couscous. The couscous was a real revelation. These tender little spheres were almost risotto-like in their mouth-feel, and the smooth, round texture was a good counterpoint to the soft eggplant.
We had a glass of Aryan ($3) to accompany our Turkish feast. This salted yogurt beverage, served cold, is a staple on the Turkish table. It reminded us a bit of buttermilk in consistency, and by itself was almost too salty to enjoy, but paired with the dishes we ordered, it proved to be the perfect complement.
We capped our Aya Sofia experience with on order of Keskul ($6) an almond custard garnished with pistachios. Consistency-wise, it reminded us of flan or other firm custards, and had a very delicate sweetness. We paired this dessert with a cordial of house-made pistachio liqueur ($7), which really brought out a panoply of flavors. The fact that someone in the back of the house took the time to create a custom-made libation instead of just finding something from their beverage distributor spoke volumes about the way the restaurant approaches service.
Our dining experience at Aya Sofia was just that, an experience. While the food and service were exceptional, it was the little details that left us feeling like guests, not just customers.