On a chilly winter’s night a few years back, my hubs and I hit up Aya Sofia – a perennial favorite – for dinner. As we slid into the romantic crimson booth with the drawn-back curtains that hint of magical things to come, I knew, without a doubt, what I was going to order.
That is, until our waiter informed us of the specials; and the special that night was the Adana Kebap … or as he described it … meat on a sword.
Have I ever mentioned my weakness for food on sticks? Seriously, I get downright giddy over corndogs, and cotton candy, and fruit kabobs, and Vienna sausages on plumed toothpicks. There’s just something about skewering my food and gobbling it up.
So now I was going to get meat that was grilled on a sword? (Insert maniacal laugh and happy dance here.) Score!
For the purposes of my restaurant coverage, I don’t write about all the great “specials.” That’s not fair. I want you to love me for what you can get, not hate me for teasing you. So I’ve been patiently waiting, and the wait is over: The Adana Kebap has finally moved from “special” status to be a permanent fixture on Aya Sofia’s menu. Now I can reveal to you all the glory of this dish.
To get to the heart of what the Adana Kebap is all about, I spoke with chef-owner Mehmet Yildiz. Chef Mehmet explained that this dish is native to the city of Adana, which is in the south of Turkey. The tradition is spicy and hearty, the Adana Kebap delivers a mix of flavors bite after bite.
The meat itself is lamb, beautiful lamb. Chef Mehmet, in the custom of Turkish cuisine, sources his lambs whole and creates the perfect grind and cut for each dish on the menu. For the Adana Kebap, he uses leg meat and fat from the lamb. He works to maintain a balance of 80% meat and 20% fat for a perfect ratio that wraps around the long, metal sword and grills to juicy perfection.
This dish is not for a person who prefers bland preparations, to be certain. Chef Mehmet seasons the lamb with salt, sweet paprika, and cayenne pepper. Yes, these are seasonings that you likely have in your pantry. The verve with which Chef Mehmet uses the seasonings, however, will make you think there is something super secret in the mix. The first bite bursts with flavor, and each subsequent bite builds on that first taste. The heat comes, but it is a heat that is born of deep, perfect balance; the Adana Kebap is not hot for the sake of being hot.
It’s complex. It’s spicy. Heck, IT’S MEAT ON A SWORD. That’s really all you need to know.
But there’s more.
Chef Mehmet serves the Adana Kebap with traditional accompaniments, which include a grilled banana pepper, cumin tomato sauce, yogurt sauce, sumac onion salad, grilled tomatoes, and pita. It’s a delight for the senses. I enjoy a dip-as-I-eat style so that every bite is just a little bit different from the last. To enjoy the Adana Kebap in a traditional manner, Chef Mehmet suggests drizzling each of the sauces over the grilled lamb before taking your first bite.
I mentioned the sumac onion salad. This is a delight that shouldn’t be overlooked. To be honest, at first I thought the onions were pickled because of their purple hue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sumac offers light floral notes with an edge of tart reminiscent of cranberry. When it’s combined with the onion and parsley, the result is a classy, cool counterpoint to the spicy lamb.
The Adana Kebap serves up history and tradition on one big, beautiful plate at Aya Sofia. Whether you order this or any of the other Turkish delights on the menu, you’ll find that Chef Mehmet brings his passion for Turkish cuisine and culture alive with each and every one.
I can’t close out a post about Aya Sofia without mentioning Alicia Aboussie, Chef Mehmet’s wife,restaurant co-owner, and my dear friend. She has poured her heart and soul into the restaurant’s undeniably romantic interior, and her innate grace and charm is evident in Aya Sofia’s every detail.
The next time you’re looking for a dining experience that takes you away from the usual, head to South St. Louis, settle into the lovely Aya Sofia, order your meat on a sword, and Eat It, St. Louis!