Sofia: Old World Charm

Traditional Greek culture is ingrained in all facets of Sofia restaurant, from the cuisine to the décor to the overall ambience.

By Frank Gabriel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 3, 2013

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Ask Sofia Papastamelos to define her eponymous (named after her grandmother and herself) restaurant along the food haven that is Margate’s Amherst Avenue, and she won’t take long to summon up a direct, unflinching response.

“We are not your gyro place, we are your fresh-grilled fish and octopus and haloumi [a cheese imported from Cyprus] salad place,” she says, adding, after a pause, “We’re pretty much for a finer palate. We are a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence.”

Right down to the latest member of the restaurant’s extended family (comprised of partners including Sofia’s sister Angela and twin brother Athanasios, a local physician) — newly installed chef Halouk Sehin, a native of Ankara, Turkey.

Arriving at Sofia fresh off stints at McCormick & Schmick’s at Harrah’s and Michel Richard’s late, lamented Revel operations, Sehin seems a good fit for Sofia’s Old World atmosphere and feel.

And that ambiance is another favorite subject of Sofia. The facility’s labyrinthine construction, with multiple, intimate spaces, soaring archways, incredible art and décor imported from as far afield as Tibet, reminds one of dining in a private palace. Which makes sense — the Papastamelos family, prior to their arrival in this country during the turmoil of their homeland’s violent civil war in 1967, were employed and associated with Greek royalty.

The family quickly gravitated toward food service once ensconced in the United States. 

“We’ve been in the restaurant business since I was eight,” says Sofia. Elaborating on the intricate design elements of the building, she says, “I create ambiance. When someone sits down everything should be enticing.”

That includes another recent renovation — an enormous wood-fired oven to the rear of the bar and lounge area. Custom-tiled and curving across the wall for nearly 20 feet, this high-heat device has quickly become a favorite tool of the new chef.

His latest creations include fresh baked pita and flat breads, fire roasted clams or mussels, a novel phyllo-wrapped filet of halibut — sort of a Greek seafood take on beef Wellington — plus a brined and roasted bone-in chicken.

For that item, whole birds get treated to a standard salt and sugar immersion with the addition of herbal components rosemary and thyme for a full 24 hours. Poultry is then butchered in-house daily, resulting in a deeply flavored, moist finished product.

Other favorites include seafood plaki, jumbo shrimp and Chilean sea bass baked in a terracotta pot with tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese and potatoes finished with a splash of the unofficial Greek national beverage, ouzo.

Lamb, always a signature ingredient of Greek cuisine, is presented as three double-cut chops alongside a fire-roasted medley of vegetables finished with pomegranate-thyme reduction sauce.

We were particularly pleased to see another regional specialty item, langoustines, on Sofia’s bill of fare. These lobster-sized, costly European prawns possess some of the most indescribably delicate and exotic flavors to be found in the realm of seafood. Another pair of Sehin’s recent nightly menu additions are cedar-planked salmon and slow-roasted lamb shank osso bucco.

Asked about the biggest difference she has seen since this enterprise was conceived in 2006, Sofia assertively declares, “We have perfected everything and our customer is becoming more and more a repeat.”

That process however, has not been without sacrifice and arduously hard work.

“The unlimited hours mean you better enjoy celebrating your holidays with your customers.”

Which seems just fine to this tight-knit clan, who live their lives by a long-instilled Greek familial code dictating that “anything acquired is not with great ease,” according to Sofia.

If you visit during this time of year, we suggest venturing upstairs to a snug and inviting rooftop bar/lounge. With seating for 20, it’s an enchanting corner offering wide views of the nearby bay. Nicely protected from the bustling street below, this vantage still provides an al fresco experience worthy of a Greek island retreat. The lofty locale is a little hidden seashore gem, filled with huge pots of flowering plants personally selected and prepared by the owner herself.

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