Sofra Istanbul is one of the best restaurants in Abu Dhabi – and not just because it serves fresh Turkish food in an authentic and friendly environment reminiscent of any of the best kebab houses in Gaziantep or Izmir.
The reason an evening at Softa Istanbul is such a memorable experience is because of the meaningful attention to detail in the restaurant, from the food to the layout and design of the place.
Just past the main entrance, in an open-air kitchen area near the front window, Turkish (yes, actual Turkish) cooks grill succulent chunks of chicken, beef, and lamb on long skewers over an open flame.
Behind the grills, there is is a refrigerated dessert case filled with plump green pistachio-topped baklava and other mouth-watering pastries. All in all, bakers at Sofra Istanbul whip up 19 kinds of fresh baklava each day.
Softa Istanbul’s main seating area upstairs is exquisitely designed with shades of white and bright turquoise, accented with imported Turkish tiles, golden calligraphy sculpted into the walls, and hanging lanterns. The table runners and upholstery – also turquoise blue – match the color of the water bottles, which come from Turkey.
Adnan Coskun, the restaurant’s owner and manager, designed everything in Sofra Istanbul so that customers feel like they’re dining in a local eatery in his native Turkey. Coskun is the driving force behind the authenticity and attention to detail at Sofra Istanbul, even in seemingly smaller details like the cutlery and dishware, which were imported from Istanbul.
“When meals are served, the look of the plate is just as important as the taste,” said Coskun. “It’s important to get the first impression right.”
Coskun spent twelve years working in Abu Dhabi – not in the restaurant industry – before deciding to launch Sofra Istanbul, which opened its doors just over a year ago.
Coskun not only brought all his staff from home but also imports all of the restaurant’s spices from Turkey, to ensure that the food he serves has the most authentic flavor possible with the highest-quality ingredients.
“To cook Turkish food in the most traditional way, it’s important to be Turkish and to know these dishes from home,” he said.
Coskun comes to Sofra Istanbul every single night, chatting with his customers and helping to serve food from the kitchen to make sure everything runs smoothly. He’s developed a rare, but much-welcomed, habit of personally introducing himself to customers over their meals.
“I want to be here to meet people and make sure that they are enjoying all of the food,” he said. “I really want them to enjoy it and come back to eat with us again. This is what sets us apart.”
Coskun has not paid for advertising since Sofra Istanbul opened in 2012. He instead relies on word-of-mouth, which appears to be working. Each night, the restaurant is packed with customers, no small feat for an eatery that has a seating capacity of 240 people.
It doesn’t hurt that the Turkish food is absolutely amazing. Sofra Istanbul’s specialty is a meter-long (that’s three entire feet of meat) kebab grilled on specially-made long skewers. The mixed grill includes a log of ground lamb kofta, juicy chunks of perfectly-charred lamb, and seasoned bites of chicken breast. All of it comes hot, just pulled off of the flame and skewer.
While waiting for an order, an fleet of well-trained waiters serve sesame-speckled sheets of soft bread and a dish divided into quarters for four dipping sauces: thick hummus with olive oil, white “toumaya” (a smooth and creamy white garlic spread), a bright pink labneh (white soft cheese colored and flavored with red cabbage), and harissa (a spicy paste of vinegar and mashed red chili peppers).
Food is served to look like a work of art. The mixed grill (the same succulent chunks of lamb, chicken and beef) comes with a pile of neatly and symmetrically arranged onion strings laid out next to grated carrots, a flame-cooked green chili, and flatbread with tomato sauce and assorted spices placed around the meat.
It’s the kind of meal that makes Coksun – and his customers – smile.
“We were the first Turkish restaurant in the city,” said Coskun, over sweet Turkish coffee in the large upstairs dining area. “I thought, why not? Everyone loves Turkish food. How can you not have a Turkish restaurant?”
Sofra Istanbul Restaurant: see the menu
Address: Sultan Bin Zayed the First (aka 4th or Muroor) Street (in between Al Falah and Hazza Bin Zayed Streets), Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Telephone: +971 2 677 7767