On the Table: Istanbul Sofra serves tailored hospitality with casual Turkish fare


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At Istanbul Sofra in Regent Square, owner Adnan Pehlivan knots his tie in a double Windsor, a polished statement against his spread-collared shirt. A thin leather belt and gabardine suit pants complete the outfit.


Istanbul Sofra
7600 & 7606 Forbes Ave.
Regent Square
412-727-6693
istanbulsofra.com

 

  • Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  • Basics: Istanbul Sofra is a family friendly neighborhood Turkish restaurant with fair prices, interesting dishes and plenty of kebabs.
  • Dishes: Mixed eggplant, grape leaves, piyaz, salgam, ayran, lamb kebab, doner kebab, Turkish coffee.
  • Prices: Appetizers $5 to $14; soup $4; salads $7 to $8; entrees $11 to $20; desserts $4; beverages $1.75 to $2.50.
  • Summary: BYOB, street parking, wheelchair-accessible, credit cards, outdoor dining, reservations.

Like his attire, he's fastidious as he greets each table, whether it's the big group drinking wine or families on the patio.

Originally from Tarsus in south-central Turkey, Mr. Pehlivan opened his restaurant in April with his childhood friend, Edip Sensel. Before moving to Pittsburgh, Mr. Sensel had been a butcher and a chef for more than a decade at Sahara in Brooklyn, N.Y.

At 11:30 p.m. on a recent Friday -- after closing hours -- the place is still packed, which is pretty remarkable when so many restaurants are opening and, outside of Downtown, competition is taking a toll.

What's the appeal of Istanbul Sofra? A good location, a vast patio, modest prices and approachable, ethnic cuisine. Because the meat is halal -- allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines -- it's also attracting the growing number of Muslims in the area.

It has been popular enough that on weekends for the first month the restaurant sold out of food and had to turn away diners by 9 or 10 p.m.

Mr. Pehlivan's understated attire is a contrast to the giant LED sign recently placed in the front window that announces the restaurant is open. It's almost a refreshing sight because the appearance points to cultural dissonance, unusual considering there are so few new immigrants in Pittsburgh.

The city ranked next to last among 40 American cities for net immigration in the region in 2012 and 2013, numbers below a metropolis such as Miami and regional cities such as Milwaukee.

After decades of travel, Mr. Pehlivan moved to town four years ago. An employee for the Hilton Hotels for 20 years, he worked in Washington, D.C., for DoubleTree and Hilton Hotels, where he said he served the Clintons, the Bushes, Bill Gates and Neil Armstrong.

He is married to an American from York, Pa., who has traveled with him and has taught English around the world. He chose to settle here because he wanted to open a restaurant and to be closer to his brother, who lives in Greensburg and owns three locations of Pizza Marsala.

"I've been to 40 countries and lived in 10," he said. "I wanted to do something different."

The food at Istanbul Sofra is the work of a competent cook. Simply prepared, it includes a handful of Middle Eastern greatest hits, such as hummus and falafel, from countries east of Turkey.

A meal here starts with cold and hot mezze. A spicy ezme ($5) lends the heat of jalapeno to raw red onion for extra bite. Finely chopped, it's a spicy dip for warm flatbreads.

With roasted tomato, the mixed eggplant ($6) is more satiating and complex. And the grape leaves made in-house are small and sweet, stuffed with currants, pine nuts and parsley ($5).

Cigar-shaped savory borek ($5) deliver more phyllo than vegetables. I prefer piyaz ($4) with navy beans, onions, lemon and sumac. The spice is unusual, and the citrus makes this one of the brightest dishes among the small plates.

An entree, the lamb kebab platter ($12) arrives with chops, gyros and ground lamb, a couple of grilled vegetables, rice, pickled cabbage and chopped greens. If lamb isn't the preference, the choices include the same sides with chicken, fish or beef.

The lamb doner ($11) can be one of my favorite Turkish street foods. Plated like kebabs, a sandwich is assembled by the diner who decides how thick, which vegetables and how much yogurt sauce. The sides aren't as elaborate as I've had elsewhere, but the meat is savory and the vegetables are fresh, which makes for a respectable meal.

Whether it's before or after dinner, make sure you get a drink because it's tough to find these offerings elsewhere. Salgam ($2.50) is a terrific savory drink to stir the appetite. A drink the color of beets, it's the juice of carrots and turnips with ground bulgur for thickness. More traditional is a very white ayran ($2.50), the cold, salty yogurt drink.

Tea ($1.50) arrives in tulip-shaped glasses on Turkish pottery with a little teaspoon. It's hot enough that the server suggests to hold it by the rim. When Mr. Pehlivan delivers it, he twirls a handled tray 360 degrees without spilling a drop.

Coffee is the specialty, served in a luxurious silver demi-cup. It's traditional to order it moderately or very sweet. Topped with a froth, it's dark and nutty and rich, more like delicious sludge toward the bottom of the cup. This is how it's supposed to be.

Service is personable and fluid, with young servers who hustle in their uniforms of white shirts and black pants. They work with a blend of American and European-styles, leaving mezze on the table with the delivery of kebabs. It can be American-style fast, yet at the end of a meal, servers don't rush patrons to leave.

As the Friday night wears on, a patron on the patio gets antsy.

"Can I smoke?" he asks.

"Not here," a server answers, pointing to a table nearby where a mother feeds her son. "There's a child." He suggests a table closer to the street.

It's not a very American question and response. But it points back to Mr. Pehlivan's hospitality, a strength at Istanbul Sofra.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart


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