April 23, 2019

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At Sofra in Sunnyside, Turkish Food by a Master

At Sofra in Sunnyside, Turkish Food by a Master
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A spoonful of kelle paca is close to pure liquid fat, a velvet sheath for the tongue, a declaration against winter. At Sofra, a Turkish restaurant that opened in November in Sunnyside, Queens, the cloudy soup starts with a sheep’s head, minus eyes and brain. It’s soaked for two days, then plunged into a pot and simmered for hours until the flesh loosens, ready to peel away.

In Turkey, kelle paca might include sheep trotters, but here the skull yields richness enough, along with meat excavated from cheeks and crevices, obligingly tender. On its own, the broth is almost indolent, flavor and texture inseparable; you taste plushness, and it lasts and lasts. An arsenal’s worth of raw garlic, pulverized and barely tempered by red vinegar, is offered in a pitcher on the side, to anoint the soup as you will.

Yuksel Akdas, who runs Sofra with his wife, Hadice Akdas, has been cooking since he was 9 years old, helping out at his family’s restaurant in Istanbul. Two decades ago, he moved to New York and eventually made his way to Sunnyside, where Turkish immigrants started settling in the 1980s. Locals know his cooking from his days at Mangal Kebab, where he worked for a cousin; when the restaurant was sold a couple of years ago, Mr. Akdas left to find a place of his own.

Sofra stands a few storefronts down from the Art Deco arch proclaiming “Sunnyside” over 46th Street. (The sign glows at night, when the lights are working.) Once home to a bank, the space is bluntly lit and half swallowed up by the kitchen; the walls are blank save for a few framed photographs.

No matter, for the service is gentle and attentive, and the food sets the mood: all comfort. Here are deep-fried nubs of calf’s liver, creamy inside their golden coats, accompanied by red onion with a flutter of sumac. Eggplant, charred and sanctified by smoke, comes coarsely chopped and alive with garlic or smoothed and plumped by tahini.

Falafel is defiantly unspherical — really, of no legible shape at all — and jewel-bright within, emerald-green from a surfeit of parsley, celery and cilantro. Mr. Akdas whips olive oil, crushed walnuts and garlic into labneh (strained yogurt) until it seems to rise from the plate, voluptuous yet buoyant. (Asked how he gets that texture, Mr. Akdas said, through an interpreter, “My secret.”)

Ezme is a small bonfire, tomatoes and bell peppers commandeered by Maras chiles that have been fattened and then shriveled in the sun of Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey. They bring an honest heat, amplifying other flavors rather than overshadowing them.

More Maras chiles infiltrate rugged adana kebabs of lamb shoulder and chicken thigh, the meat minced by hand, laced with oregano and molded around the blades of long flat skewers. Other platters deliver hunks of steak, juices running, and delicate panels of meat shaved off turning spits. All are to be eaten with pilav in which every grain of rice is gilded by butter.

Lahmacun is a portmanteau of the Arabic words for meat and dough: a kerchief-thin flatbread covered nearly to the brim with minced lamb and broken-down tomatoes. It’s baked to a crackle but left just pliant enough that you can roll it up or fold it in two to eat.

Pide is thicker and fluffier, spiritual kin to both Italian pizza and Georgian khachapuri. It narrows at the ends like a canoe, becoming a vessel for your choice of meat — the best a rubble of sucuk, fervent beef sausage bearing the faint must of cumin — and fresh kashar, a Turkish cheese that calls to mind a young Cheddar but with the stretch of mozzarella.

The soda case is stocked with reminders of home: Merve ayran, a cooling drink of salted yogurt, evoking nostalgia for a warmer season; Uludag gazoz, clear as Sprite but favoring sweetness over zing; and Doganay salgam suyu (fermented black carrot juice), which smells like baking bread and rests in the mouth like a fledgling red wine.

At the end, there must be kunefe, layers of kadayif — tendrils of dough made by pouring batter through a sieve — pressed around a cheese that doesn’t so much melt as relax. It’s all crackle and give, shining with sugar syrup and bronzed at the top, under a rough dust of pistachios.

This is a beloved dessert, found at Middle Eastern restaurants throughout the city. Everyone uses the same ingredients, Mr. Akdas said. The difference is touch: “You have to be a master.”



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