“It all started with Yiayia Sofia,” Sophia Bousgas, the owner of restaurant Sofia On Cleveland in Sydney, said with an emotional glint in her eye.
“I remember when my Yiayia took me down to the store room and showed me this huge stainless steel barrel full of olive oil. She said to me, ‘We’re going to have olive oil and bread’.”
Sophia, who was nine years old at the time, had moved with her family to Greece for 12 months to live with her grandparents in the village.
Growing up in Australia, she had never tasted Greek bread and olive oil but when she did for the first time, Sophia said “that was it, I fell in love.”
“And to this day, I can remember the taste, the aroma,” she added.
50 years later, Sophia still has that fire in her belly about fresh Greek olive oil and bread. I watched her relish in the taste as she dipped bread in ‘Sofia’ extra virgin olive oil during my visit to Sofia on Cleveland.
“It’s from my property in Greece and it is fresh. It’s the best,” she told me.
It was during those precious months in her family’s Greek village, 20 minutes from the city of Kalamata, that Sophia developed a love for olive oil and cooking.
“Where I loved being was in the village with my Yiayia Sofia,” she said. “I pretty much became her shadow and I followed her out in the fields.”
The restaurant name, Sofia on Cleveland, is a dedication to Yiayia Sofia and holds nuances of her Greek roots.
Owned by Sophia and her husband Con, the Mediterranean grill and cocktail lounge restaurant opened at Surry Hills in September last year.
The soft white and sandy furniture alongside the bougainvillea pink flowers are reminiscent of the Greek islands, giving a warm feeling to the space. The restaurant simultaneously stayed true to its old-style English architecture, exposing the bricks and rafters and incorporating them with the Mediterranean-inspired interiors.
The menu, which was created by chefs Justin North and Nathan Treleaven, includes southern Mediterranean food with a modern twist on dishes like grilled octopus with charred chorizo sausage, horta and Murray cod fillet. Of course, there’s also the warm sourdough loaf bread with ‘Sofia’ extra virgin oil.
Talking with Sophia, I learnt how Yiayia Sofia’s passion for olive oil led her and Con to buy their own property in Greece with an olive grove on it. This would later become another muse for the concept of their restaurant.
“I always wanted a property in Greece and when we bought one 20 years ago, I just immersed myself in it,” Sophia said.
It was from here, she set out on a mission to learn the recipe she tasted all those years ago when she was nine years old. Sophia said she asked “the aunts, the cousins, everyone” until she learnt the method Yiayia Sofia used.
“Then I started to produce my own,” she said.
Describing her olive oil as “liquid gold,” Sophia attests this authentic taste to its natural growth in Mani, Greece, coupled with her expertise over the years to produce quality oil.
“The greener the oil, the more peppery, the more aromatic the oil is,” she said.
This mildly pungent oil is then shipped to Australia and served on the plate in her Surry Hills restaurant.
Sofia on Cleveland is an extension of the popular and iconic Bar Cleveland building known for its quality pub food.
The space allows Sophia and Con to dive deep into their Greek roots across the menu and give a platform to serve their family-grown and produced olive oil.
“When we use our olive oil. People would eat our salads and food and go, ‘Oh, this is really nice’,” Sophia said.
The “point of difference” which makes the bar and restaurant on Cleveland Street so popular, is the olive oil from Greece – something that Sophia will always be grateful to her Yiayia Sofia for showing her.