I am almost hesitant to tell you about Seta (pronounced Sehtah) Dakessian’s new place, Seta’s Cafe in Belmont, because she has only 20 seats. She’s cooking Mediterranean and Armenian food with a heightened sense of sophistication and the best possible ingredients: antibiotic-free chickens, meats raised in Lunenberg, farmers’ market produce.
Dakessian, 39, was raised in the restaurant business, she’s professionally trained, she’s spent the last few years at farmers’ markets selling Seta’s Mediterranean Foods and getting to know the growers around her, and she really understands good ingredients simply prepared. All those pieces add up to a splendid menu.
Take something as simple as a poached egg ($4 individual, or three for $11 at brunch), which is available Saturday mornings. The egg, sprinkled with black pepper, sits on warm olive oil in a little square white dish. If you were smart enough to order grilled halloumi, a deliciously salty cheese, you can dip it into the golden yolk and accompany it with Armenian cukes, tomatoes, scallion, and mint rolled up in a triangle of warm, homemade lavash. Loose tea comes in a cast-iron pot. Sit at a window in this light and sunny spot and you might be tempted to spend the entire day here.
Dakessian’s parents are Armenian, her mother from Lebanon, her father from Palestine. They owned Aris’ Armenian Bakery & Cafe in Worcester. After Johnson & Wales University culinary training, and working her way from prep cook to the line at Rialto under Jody Adams, Dakessian started her packaged food business, with specialties such as hummus, baba ghanouj, metch, and grape leaves (Seta’s Mediterranean Foods will be at the Somerville winter market and on the Greenway and farmers’ markets next summer). Her versions at the cafe — you order these from a prepared foods counter and if you’re staying, they go onto more pretty white dishes ($4 or three for $11) — are memorable, the hummus exceptionally creamy, the baba infused with smoke.
Chicken soup ($4 and $8) has chunks of chicken, root vegetables, and noodles in an intense broth (none of Seta’s food needs any more seasoning). Fattoush ($8 and $10), the Middle Eastern salad of chopped vegetables with pita toasts, is delightful with a lemon-sumac vinaigrette.
Before Seta’s, the place had been renovated to house CE Restaurant (formerly Chicken Express). Dakessian didn’t have chickens in mind, but inherited a giant rotisserie, so she salts and peppers her vegetarian-fed birds and they roast to a golden succulence on the spits. An individual chicken dinner ($12) comes with hummus, a garlic sauce that is bright white (but contains only oil, garlic, lemon juice, and salt), wonderful fries, a salad, and lavash.
Other khorovats (the Armenian word for grilled meats) come with bulgur pilaf made with vermicelli, grilled tomatoes and onions, and piaz, a parsley-onion salad with sumac and a little heat from Aleppo pepper. Order beef ($16), lamb ($17), chicken ($15), or luleh, which is ground lamb and beef in hand-shaped, thick, sausage-like links ($15), and be prepared for a surprise: This exceptional meat is loaded with flavor and a little chew, and it’s perfectly cooked. You can also order meat, chicken, falafel, or Greek salad wrapped in lavash ($7 to $10), or get a salad ($6 to $10) topped with a highly seasoned vinaigrette and khorovats ($5 to $6 extra).
Homemade desserts ($1.50 to $3) include cigar-shaped boorma, phyllo dough rolled up with walnuts and pistachios, walnut paklava, ma’amoul, date-filled cookies, and the butter cookies, khurbya.
Seta Dakessian is making slow food, so don’t appear, place your order, take a seat, and tap your foot impatiently. You wait on yourself and bus your own table. This food is sent out of the kitchen with such care and thoughtfulness that you’ll wonder how she does it. And if you complain that the grilled lamb plate, with all its accompaniments, is expensive at $17, then you shouldn’t be eating here. Plenty of others to take your seat.