There are many conversations in Charlotte you can be sure of. One of these is grumbling about whether Charlotte is a "world-class" city -- whatever that means. Besides, isn't being "world-class," like power, assumed, not granted? Another: the conversation bemoaning the lack of worthy ethnic restaurants. Frankly, that complaint is getting tired, too. As time goes on, more restaurants open, and some close, without the notice of a large number of Charlotteans.
So here's a new place trying to garner notice. Charlotte briefly had one Turkish restaurant in the 1990s before it closed. Then last August co-owners Gukhan Mekik and Chef Erhan Bilici opened Sofram Contemporary Turkish Cuisine. Mekik considers himself a pioneer in Charlotte. While Turkish cuisine has a solid popularity base in Europe, it's relatively unknown in Charlotte, and according to Mekik, there is not much of a Turkish ex-pat community here either. However, he optimistically noted that his food is "a Mediterranean cuisine" and one shared by many communities.
Mediterranean? European? Middle Eastern? Turkey fits these descriptions; however, it places itself in Europe and applied for membership in the European Union in 2005. That application, yet to be approved, stands as a historic reminder that Turkey has roots both in Europe and the Middle East. This is the country of ancient Troy, New Testament Sardis and a world power (the Ottoman Empire) which ended in WWI but had lasted 600 years, with conquests from northern Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe.
Along those by-roads, the Turks spread a cuisine. Much of what we think of as an eastern Mediterranean cuisine has its origins in that Ottoman Empire. For example, take baklava -- or baklawa as it is called in the Middle East since there is no "v" in Arabic. The variations of this dessert can be tasted throughout the remnants of the old empire. In Arabia, rose water is added to the syrup, while Armenian baklava is spiced with cinnamon. Some regional cuisines douse the pastries with an extraordinary amount of syrup while others, such as Lebanese, are restrained.
Integral to Turkish cuisine are rice, wheat, lemons, olive oil, cheese, fish, and, of course, kebabs. These are sish, the grilled pieces of skewered meat or doner, stacked meat, similar to gyro, grilled over a slow fire.
The unexpected pleasure of Sofram is the choice to introduce the community to the upper end of the Turkish culinary spectrum. Typically, the first outpost sells the everyday foods -- the fast foods which are inexpensive to buy and the overhead is not exorbitant. In Europe, where a large number of Turkish workers live, Turkish doner shops flourish. While you can get a doner sandwich for lunch at Sofram, the main event is dinner.
For Mekik, who is in the airport catering business and a native of western Turkey, Sofram is his first restaurant venture. Partner Bilici, who hails from Artvin on the Turkish-Georgian border, spent 15 years manning the kitchen of an upscale (non-Turkish) restaurant in Philadelphia. With Bilici in the kitchen are two other cooks; one specializes in kebobs, and the other recently returned from a culinary exploration of Turkey.
Sofram's proprietors clearly have a refined concept in mind. The dining room shows extraordinary care -- no kitsch, and, I know this sounds weird, but the bathrooms are exceptional. Music is modern Mediterranean and diners are effusively welcomed by Ezgi Bilici, daughter of the co-owner. She expertly guides patrons through the menu, if necessary.
Sofram's wine list features a few Turkish wines; the rest are American and international. Wine has been produced in Turkey for 5,000 years with an interruption during the Ottoman Empire (alcohol is forbidden in Islam), but came back online with the western-styled Turkish Republic in 1923. Many of the grape varietals are similar to those found in Greece. Other beverages on their list include Ayran, a tart yogurt drink.
First out from the well-paced kitchen was the börek, a Turkish signature dish similar to Greek spanakopita. This tasty airy triangular phyllo turnover was filled with spinach, roasted red peppers, feta, and mushrooms. The piyak offers a marinated mix of white beans and chopped tomatoes, while the imambayildi is something special. This lush ratatouillesque mélange of baked eggplant has pine nuts, cooked tomatoes, onions and is coated in a sheer veil of olive oil. Even better is the Turkish salad: zesty parsley, chopped tomatoes and onions with a hit of lemon juice and olive oil.
The happy news is these appetizers are not even the kitchen's strong suit. The sish kabobs are marvelously tender and taste of a smoky grill. The veal doner, made in house, is thinly sliced and sits atop a bed of rice at dinner. At lunch the meat is curled into flat bread.
To finish, the kitchen offers a Turkish baklava, heavy on the syrup, and a divine rice pudding. Also on hand is a Turkish ice cream sandwich in halva wafers. But the best way to end the meal is a cup of rich, dense Turkish coffee -- the ultimate third-act gratification for any java lover.
Service at Sofram is more personal, if less than polished. But you get the idea that the folks at Sofram really want you there, and they truly want you to enjoy your dinner. The customers around me seemed genuinely glad to be there, beginning to end. Now that's my idea of restaurant-going.
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