A World Away in South City

When you’re far from home, there are certain meals you crave: mom’s meatloaf, dad’s pork steaks and potato
salad, grandma’s strawberry semifreddo. And though I live mere minutes from Aya Sofia, South City’s popular Turkish and Mediterranean restaurant, I find myself craving its moussaka as if I lived half a world away.

Baked layers of meaty eggplant and ground beef are smothered with melted cheese, creamy béchamel and piquant tomato sauce, spiked with lots of cumin and garlic. This big comfy pillow of a dish transcends all other baked, layered dishes, be they Italian, Greek or otherwise. The eggplant has an enjoyable textural bite and the spices really punch up the flavors. The beef is tender and the cheese is found in little oozing pockets of salty bliss.

But there’s plenty more to enjoy on Aya Sofia’s menu. Fun to eat and share is the Aya Sofia Meze Platter, a big plate of hot and cold offerings – and a good way to sample multiple starters. The sigara boregi is feta and ricotta cheeses, parsley and dill wrapped in phyllo and fried. The lightly crisped shells give way to the melted cheese, flecked with green; they’re gooey and salty and rich. A counterpoint to the fried cheese is tabouli, or bulgur wheat salad. Often the garnish, parsley takes center stage in this brightly flavored dish. Lots of lemon juice and finely chopped raw onion and tomato enhance the herb with acid, aroma and texture. It’s light but flavor-packed, healthy and refreshing. Also on the mixed platter are some stuffed grape leaves and hummus, both of which are tasty, if not noteworthy.

Unfortunately, a white bean salad with tomato, parsley, onion and lemon arrived at the table rancid and smelling. After notifying our server, she returned a couple minutes later with a fresh plate, clearly made with a new batch of beans. This was an unfortunate misstep, despite being quickly and appropriately rectified. Cooks need to taste and smell all their mise en place at the beginning of every service, even with the short hours between lunch and dinner.

A nibble of kibbe, beef and bulgur wheat “meatballs” with a crispy fried exterior and savory, spiced, succulent center, quickly made me forget the unpleasant dip. An entrée of kuzu incik, tender lamb shank served with white bean sauce and rice pilaf, was also delicious, flavorful and tender, if a little on the dry side.

For dessert, Aya Sofia offers house-made specialties like baklava, rice pudding and sweet ricotta-stuffed phyllo. We tried the baklava, a dense, glimmering square of lightly golden pastry drenched in a lemony honey syrup, with a pretty green layer of tender-crunchy pistachios in the middle. It was a sweet treat and texturally tantalizing.

The restaurant has a cozy dining room with sheer, deep red fabric draped around pillow-lined booths along walls painted a warm gold. The color scheme brings to mind the array of colorful spices that goes into the making of this cuisine. A little bar holds overflow when the restaurant is busy, as it was on all our visits. Service was informed and kind – and our server was quick with help pronouncing some of the more complex menu items.

Owners Mehmet Yildiz and Alicia Aboussie are clearly passionate about sharing the warm hospitality and rich flavor of their heritage. The restaurant is named after the architecturally impressive church in Istanbul, Turkey that was built in the year 532 and still stands today. In St. Louis, Aya Sofia seems fit to withstand the test of time, too.

Where: Aya Sofia, 6671 Chippewa St., St. Louis, 314.645.9919
When: Lunch: Tue. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 11 p.m., Sun. – 5 to 9 p.m.; Brunch: Sun. – 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Don’t-Miss Dishes: Tabouli, kibbe, moussaka and baklava
Vibe: Cozy and romantic but not limited to date night
Entrée Prices: $13 to $23