In this month’s lifestyle section, Muayad Ali, chef-patron of local restaurant La Sophia, talks to Here & Now about his passion for food and about realising his dream to open his own restaurant.
Following a 17-year career spent working in some of Europe’s most prestigious kitchens, Muayad (known locally as “Ali”) decided to go it alone shortly after getting married. A family man to the core (the restaurant is named after his first daughter, Sophia), Ali quickly realised that the only way to indulge his passion for cooking and get to see his children grow up was to open his own restaurant.
With stints as senior chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Boxwood café and executive chef at the Park Lane Hilton on his resume, Ali never doubted his ability to deliver the goods in the kitchen. A Palestinian by birth, Ali grew up with Mediterranean cuisine and later went on to train in classic French restaurants in Amsterdam, Switzerland, Belgium and the USA.
This cosmopolitan background explains La Sophia’s French-Mediterranean fusion and according to Ali, fills a vital gap in the market. “All along Golborne Road, there are lots of great things to eat – kebabs, curry, Lebanese – but there are no fine dining options.” Another point of difference of La Sophia’s menu is being able to offer halal dishes on a fine dining menu. As Ali explains, “The restaurants I have worked in previously didn’t offer anything interesting for Muslims, so usually they would choose either vegetarian or fish dishes. Because of the way I source and prepare my meat, I can offer the best of both worlds.”
Reading through La Sophia’s menu reveals the French-Mediterranean influence immediately. Classic dishes such as snails in garlic and parsley butter sit alongside roast king prawns with tomato, coriander, chilli and lemon. Main courses show a similar mix of styles, from the traditional slow cooked rabbit with sage, roasted shallots and potato cake to stuffed aubergine with ratatouille, toasted pine nuts, lime sauce and quinoa salad.
Here & Now was quickly persuaded by Ali to try his signature dish, the beef fillet and foie gras burger with caramelised onions, salad and triple-cooked chips. Knowing this was likely to be a heavy plateful, we opted for the beetroot and goat’s cheese salad as a starter.
The burger was a meat eaters dream, served not in a bun, but on a bed of toasted brioche. This, along with the caramelised onion topping, provided a sweetness to off-set the gamey flavour of the beef and foie gras. The chips – served as just four (which is plenty given the richness of this dish) – were deliciously crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. This is just about as upmarket as burger and chips comes and we can see why Ali is justifiably proud of his signature dish.
Having opened last April, La Sophia has picked up a steady stream of followers. While it was quiet on the sunny February lunchtime when Here & Now visited, it is easy to see that this small and cosy neighbourhood restaurant is more suited to evening trade. Plans are underway to refurbish the restaurant, which will see it take on more of a classic French restaurant look while the downstairs space will be converted to a cocktail and champagne bar.