Primary Author- Amy

Its Friday night and Jim wants to try something new.  I remembered that there was a restaurant in Middleton called “Bavaria” owned by two brothers who also own the very excellent pizza/gelato place around the corner “Villa Dolce.”  “Bavaria” was being retooled and renamed “Sofra Family Bistro” and we thought we would give it a go. 

 We believe the owners of these two restaurants hail from the former Yugoslavia.  Clearly they are motivated to represent this cuisine, at least in part. I am usually pleased with any restaurant with this motivation.

As we pulled up to the place, Jim took a look at it and said, “Its not crowded, that is not a good sign.”   We decided to take a peek at a menu before making a decision, but none was posted, only a sign stating that they were now a Mediterranean restaurant by day and an American restaurant for breakfast and lunch.  This schizophrenic approach would take on new meaning as we entered the place.

The air was think with maple syrup from this morning’s pancakes mixed with oregano in tonight’s shrimp pasta.  We were immediately shown to a plastic upholstered booth with an odd dollhouse quality shape.  There were plenty of interesting light fixtures.  Some involved wrought iron leaves, a theme carried through in the wall art and others had a doppled middle-eastern effect which matched the faux painted walls.  There were the obligatory paintings of the canals of Venice and a photo of the white washed walls of Greece contrasting with the amazing blue of the Aegean.  Then there were the Asian rice paper hangings, some depicting pennies and dimes.  RANDOM!

Random indeed. I felt instantly transported to a roadside diner somewhere in Nebraska that tried to serve the role of every ethnic restaurant in town.

It was difficult to get past the surroundings.  Dining is so much about all the senses being entertained that the whole environment being confusing can take over.  We just kept thinking, “why don’t they just rip out these boothes and put in some cheap tables with white table clothes.”

The menu was no more clear than the environs.  There were Mediterranean appetizers: Bruschetta, Dolma (feta stuffed grape leaves), hummus etc.  The salad section looked straight out of Applebees (Cobb salad, a salmon salad which had craisins and mandarin oranges).   There were a couple of things that were left over from the Bavaria days: weinersnitzel and Beef stroganoff, although that doesn’t even fit with Bavaria!   The entree menu had a couple of interesting items, possibly, but the descriptions were so vague, it was hard to be inspired to order them.  I went in wanting salmon, but the option I had read: Salmon in a Mediterranean butter sauce, rice and vegetables.  Great, which vegetables? How are they prepared?  What exactly is a Mediterranean butter sauce?  Using Mediterranean as an adjective which needs no further explanation seems to be another problem here.

The menu included about 60% Mediterranean fair. The bistro burger pushed the boudries of a traditional Madison burger, containing both ground lamb and ground beef. A couple of Mediterranean inspired panini were also offered, one vegetarian. Albanian sausage and albanian shepherd’s salad offered more authentic options. But the mind games ensued, when you read of odd Asian inpired sesame chicken salad and ginger chicken wrap, just before jager schnitzel  and wiener schnitzel. Suddenly, I was transported to an odd version of the Cheesecake factory.  I realize that the owners are likely trying to keep a few menu items from the old menu in hopes of keeping the regulars coming in. But to me, I don’t want to be tempted to blow up my palate by starting with some hummus, followed by some spaetzel with mandarin oranges. There is something wrong with that course progression.

Jim ordered the Chicken Tosca: Tender grilled chicken breast, served with zucchini, sweet peppers, rice, hummus, smoked roasted pepper aioli and yogurt-dill sauce.  I veered away from the non-descript Salmon vegetable rice thing and chose the  Beef Skewers: Beef tenderloin marinated in Mediterranean spices, grilled to perfection, served with rice, fresh grilled zucchini, hummus and yogurt-dill sauce.   Both came with a choice of soup or salad.  Soup options (remember its Friday in Wisconsin) included New England Clam Chowder and Albanian wedding soup.

I ordered chicken, indeed. I view chicken as the litmus test of any restaurant. Screw it up, and your screwed. Do it well, and the general public will find you at least acceptable.

We asked the waitress to describe the Albanian wedding soup and she explained that it was a chicken soup with angel hair pasta and mint.  She couldn’t hide her bias about this mixture of ingredients and did not seem to recommend it.  Jim ordered the soup and I got a salad with the yogurt-feta dressing.  The salad was unadorned and unimpressive.  Mixed greens were fresh, there were cucumbers and a cherry tomato, but no onions, or croutons, or carrots, or garbanzo beans or whatever.  The dressing was fine, tangy and not too feta-y.

 The soup was another story.  It was delicious, although it took Jim awhile to agree.  The noodles were not over cooked the chicken flavor in the broth was strong but balanced by the mint.  At first Jim thought it was like eating a chicken flavored candy cane, but I think it was much more balanced than that.  In the end it grew on him.

Now I am inspired to throw in some chiffonade of mint into my chicken noodle soup. Generally I enjoy herbs mixed into dishes in unexpected ways, and this was no exception.

There were rolls on the table, but they seemed slightly stale and apparently were being rationed.  The waitress initially asked if we wanted more, but the remembered that they were out.  This is a Friday night at 8pm.

We both ordered wine .  They had a fairly sizable selection, with both wines by the glass and bottle.  Yes, Fess Parker and Kendall Jackson were on there but so were more obscure Tempranillos, Malbecs, a white rioja, etc.  My Tempranillo was smooth and paired well with my beef so as not to overwhelm the seasoning.  It served its purpose.  Jim’s Viura (the white rioja) was a simple, crisp white.

When the entrees arrived we were impressed.  The presentation was an ordered partition of obviously well prepared components.  Square white porcelain plates.  Both dishes had a form of grilled protein, rice-pilaf, grilled zucchini, yogurt-dill-cucumber sauce , a dollop of hummus with paprika and olive oil drizzled on top in the corner, and in Jim’s case, grilled red and yellow peppers the size of pepperoncini.  His chicken was perfectly cooked.  Moist and flavorful, not stringy.  He felt his zucchini were over cooked.  We both liked the hummus but it needed more acid.  A squeeze of lemon, and in my opinion, less tahini.  My beef had good flavor, rosemary was predominant.   Apparently that is what “Mediterranean spices” means. If only it was cooked more evenly.  Some of my meat was medium and some was medium well and none, to the doneness I would have liked: medium rare.

The rice pilaf was perfect.  Good, deep chicken stock flavor, not gummy, carrots and peas mixed in.  Rice seems so difficult to get right, but this place has it down.

I agree. There is something about rice that is first introduced to fat before it is introduced to water. It seems to protect the inner grain’s starchiness from getting out and ruining the whole thing.

When it came time for dinner, the schizophrenia returned.  Although all the food is made on-site none of the desserts are.  New York cheesecake (which should be reserved for steak houses only, according to Jim), Raspberry explosion (a form of fruit cheesecake), apple pie, and a chocolate silk explosion thing.  Why!  If you are going to go Mediterranean, where is the baklava?  Where are the crispy fried dough balls with honey and powdered sugar the Greeks eat.

Not only that, but half the desserts were in plastic wrap. This makes me wonder how long they were in there, and only appeals to “day old” appetites. 

Afraid to alienate the white senior Middleton population Sofra is running a pancake house by day and a Mediterranean restaurant by night.  Unfortunately, they occupy the same space and apparently no space in the minds of restaurant seekers.  The food is good, flavorful and pushes some boundaries.  I fear that they will not make it as long as they are afraid to be true to themselves and as long as they still have the plastic Disneyland booths.  So go and order the Albanian wedding soup, and something else ethnic and encourage them to make the shift.