Restaurant review: We take a bite out of bistro Sophia
23 University Road, Belfast Tel: 028 9032 9399
Only the other day I was thinking: What Northern Ireland needs more than anything is an Egyptian restaurant. Some of you would have put the Sphinx in Belfast down as a reliable provider of quality kebabs and possibly Egyptian with that name, but I'm talking about a proper, sit down, put the napkin on your lap and the candle on the table kind of place, with an Egyptian in the kitchen. A bit of ancient desert warrior dance music from the Middle East thumping along as the evening goes by would be welcome too.
Dishes of hot little chillies, olives and pickled vegetables, bowls of baba ganoush and mounds of tabbouleh appetisingly presented (the Middle Eastern chef always has an eye for presentation) crowding the table is surely not too much to ask. But where could I find such a place?
Well, I couldn't, until famed broadcaster Ronan Kelly phoned to say he had found the answer and that it was called Sophia and was on University Road in Belfast. I was puzzled. Having driven past Sophia a thousand times I had concluded that it looked like a Bulgarian chain restaurant, the kind of place which specialises in tripe soup and all-you-can-eat specials for under a tenner. Which just goes to show you can never judge a restaurant by its cover.
Because Sophia is a very good quality Egyptian and any hints of Bulgaria quickly vanish once you step up past the front terrace with its covered benches and hookah or shisha pipes. The theme continues inside where a dazzling collection of more shisha pipes stand to attention in the entrance hall. Beyond lies a modern dining room, well-lit and with calming colours featuring the sands of the eastern Sahara. It looks like any other classy Middle Eastern joint you'll find in London or Paris, slightly Seventies. There's a good bit of sparkle and real papyrus menus (printed in Egypt especially for Sophia) which you roll open like an ancient pharaonic adviser to the emperor might do before declaring that tonight's special is a mixed grill.
Interestingly, chicken is not the dominant feature. I love those chicken wings you get in the eastern Mediterranean, but Sophia does not rate this as a meat worthy of a customer. There are chicken dishes, but that's more to keep us natives happy than for any culinary reason.
No, you come here for the lamb and the vegetables, the tabbouleh salads and the dips. And that bread. A variety of flat breads, all fresh and made in the back kitchen are the foundation stone of this restaurant - with a plate of rich baba ganoush, salty hummus and stuffed tiny aubergines bursting with lemony flavours, chillies, tomatoes and coriander, bulgur wheat and pomegranate. The breads offer the means by which to eat them and are the perfect partner to soak up the cool residual juices.
There is a sense of occasion in Sophia. The spread of simple but deliciously zingy salads is colourful and photogenic. Possibly the most memorable of the selection of starters is the kabbah, a brilliantly light, egg shaped mouthful made from impossibly light and crumbly minced beef and lamb which comes with some hummus and pickled vegetables. And once we move into the main courses, the eventfulness of it all increases even more.
There are dishes of rice, pots of fish tagine made with sea bass, lamb shank and a mixed grill where the chicken stands out. Marinated and tender, the chunks of chicken, lamb chop, sheesh kebabs and accompanying okra tagine and fried onions take you into full-on Middle Eastern flavours and textures. It's lush but light, deeply savoury but not spicy and bridges the culinary traditions of east and west. The desserts of omali, a kind of baked flake pastry and rice pudding are excellent.
Ronan has brought with him a surprise selection of white and red wine from those clever McAlinden brothers in Direct Wine Shipments. Sophia is BYO and this gives you a glorious opportunity to try out, as we did, wines from the Basque country. Unlike the Lebanese, Egypt has yet to create a decent red wine so the light Basques matched perfectly.
If you're new to Middle Eastern food, Sophia is a very good introduction. For those who do know, and there's a knowledgeable class of diner in Belfast who rates Sophia very highly, this is the one you've been waiting for.
Mixed grill £17.00
Fish tagine £14.00
Lamb tagine £14.00
Rice pudding £5.00