Sad to report, standards are slipping in St John's Wood
Just because it is easier to park these days, doesn t make the trip worthwhile, says VICTORIA PREEVER. Plan A for this week s review was the (apparently newly refurbished) Gaucho Grill in Hampstead. A 10-minute tour of the main streets at 8pm on a Friday night failed to prod
Just because it is easier to park these days, doesn't make the trip worthwhile
Plan A for this week's review was the (apparently newly refurbished) Gaucho Grill in Hampstead. A 10-minute tour of the main streets at 8pm on a Friday night failed to produce any bays not restricted to residents or heavily pasted with double yellow lines. Increasingly, dining decisions are being made for us by the lack of parking.
No doubt greener folk will cheer this as a victory over the evil, pollution pumping automobile. Traders - reeling from the lengthy "hole in Heath Street" closure - are the ones who suffer. Apologies to the Gaucho Grill, but in the end we gave up.
Instead, we went to Sofra in St John's Wood. It was heaving with diners, probably because they were easily able to leave their vehicles outside. With the main dining room full, we were offered a table outside, in a sort of tent for the diner overflow erected on the side of the building. On a February night, only the English would dream of sitting down in canvas construction more likely to be found in Gerry Cottle's back garden than NW8.
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We followed the manager out of the front door and around the side into the annexe - mildly concerned about asphyxiation from the patio heaters in an enclosed space, but relieved to be sitting anywhere at all. It was actually comfortably warm and gratifyingly calm after the hubbub of the main dining room.
Sofra apparently means something like "dinner's on the table". The Sofra chain of restaurants was started by Huseyin Ozer, a self-made man with a leonine mane, rightfully proud of all he's achieved.
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He was born in central Turkey and raised with no formal education. After running away from home at 11, he joined the ranks of the homeless in Ankara and survived by working (for nothing) in a patisserie where he recalls he was regularly beaten and burned by the chef. As he started to earn money he spent it on clothes and on educating himself. He worked in kitchens - learning the restaurant trade - in Ankara and Istanbul before completing his national service.
In 1975, with £60 in his pocket, he arrived in London. Not confident enough of his English to wait on tables, he stayed in the kitchen, washing dishes.
His first venture was a kebab shop, opened in 1979, and the first Sofra opened its doors in Shepherd Market in 1981. He's gone on to open four more Sofra outlets and the colourful Ozer at the top of Portland Place. He spends much time on-site ensuring quality is maintained.
I've eaten in all of his restaurants and have enjoyed the experience. There is always something to keep my grumpy vegetarian happy and a nice plate of carnage for me. There are also plenty of healthy options.
I think we caught the busy kitchen on an off night. It started well enough, a plate of hummus, some nicely spiced, marinated olives and a basket of warm (but flavourless) bread arrived while we were still scanning our lengthy menus. There are several different menus to choose from - the (great value) Winter Warmer set menu with many options to choose from; the Healthy Meal, which is all very well but, by the time you've scoffed the 13 dishes on it, I'm sure you'll be feeling anything but.
The a la carte menu is similarly long - hot and cold mezze, charcoal grills, seafood and a vegetarian section offering some pasta, a stir-fry and even a Caesar salad. The diversion from Turkish food to boring mass-market menu fodder more appropriate to a hotel menu is a big red flag. What is a Turkish restaurant doing pandering to those too narrow-minded to vary from those boring staples? Similarly, if you go to a Turkish restaurant and order a penne dolcelatte then you deserve whatever you get.
We chose a selection from the hot and cold mezze. Spinach and feta Borek - fat filo triangles lacking spinach but stuffed with smooth, salty cheese and a few pine nuts - were served (oddly) with a sweet chilli sauce, the ketchup of the east. It will pep up anything deep-fried, but is incongruous in a Turkish restaurant. They were edible enough, with crisp filo casings, but Grumpy - a sucker for anything cheese related - pronounced them greasy. Baby broad beans with coriander and yoghurt were just that. Although the beans were still in their husks, they were tender, fresh, mild and moreish enough for some cross-table glaring over portion control.
Grumpy's hellim (Turkish haloumi) - attractively golden - was also pronounced greasy. Things weren't going very well for the cheese lover.
My "on the bone" lamb tagine came with a pile of couscous and was not as hot as it could have been, perhaps down to its trip into the night air. The fruit and almonds promised in the menu weren't apparent but the meat was tender and tasty although a little dry. The pile of vertebrae left on my plate was about as appetising as the contents of Fred Flintstone's bin.
Grumpy's unexciting vegetarian vine leaves sat in an oily pool. More oil saturated the four slimy discs of fried aubergine, which were joined on the plate by a large, slippery green pepper and a pool of baby food-like bland, pureed tomato sauce.
Service, which had during our meal been charming, friendly and super efficient - despite our being in Sofra Siberia - terminated after our main course. Keen to escape the lamb's remains, Grumpy forced his way into the restaurant through a side door and past an unhelpful female diner, to request our bill. It was £51.64 for the food, plus a glass of house wine each and a bottle of over-styled designer water. Had we enjoyed our food, that might have been acceptable. As we were largely disappointed, it wasn't.
To be fair to Sofra, we failed to take them up on the invitation on the menu to let them know about anything not "to your satisfaction" which they would change immediately. Always wary of what chef might do to the food of the couple who'd complained about everything, we kept schtum.
Based on our meal, it seems Sofra has sat back on its reputation and has let standards slip a little. Perhaps their charismatic founder needs to spend a little time in his most north-westerly outlet to mould them back into shape.
Sofra, 11 Circus Road, St John's Wood.
Telephone: 020-7586 9889.
Food: Two stars
Service: Three stars
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, noon to midnight.
Cost: Two meals with bread, olives, hummus, mineral water and a glass of wine was about £52. Winter Warmer: £8.95 for a two-course lunch and £11.95 for two-course dinner.
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