A man with a large platter approaches our table. He leans down and displays his wares: wooden bowls of golden-brown chicken, the most enticing aroma wafting upward. “This is sesame fried chicken with tahini remoulade,” he says. “Would you like some?” It would be wrong to say no.
This is Sarma, a new restaurant that is Somerville’s version of a Turkish meyhane, a tavern where one shares meze and raki with friends. Instead of anise-scented liqueur, we get cocktails crafted with cardamom and ginger. Sarma is a collaboration between chefs Ana Sortun and Cassie Piuma, who was previously chef de cuisine at Sortun’s Oleana. (She has also worked at the Butcher Shop, Sel de la Terre, and Al Forno in Providence.) This is her next step, taken with a mentor who is a gifted restaurateur. Is it any surprise it is wonderful?
The place is an anomaly, an outpost of warm spices in Winter Hill, a part of Somerville not often mentioned in conversations about hot new restaurants. It was formerly the Paddock, an old-school neighborhood haunt with horse-themed decor. It has been thoroughly reimagined, with walls painted a deep, cool blue; banquettes upholstered in bright, mismatched fabrics; and Turkish mosaic lamps. At the heart of the room is a three-sided bar, headed by Vikram Hegde, whom Island Creek Oyster Bar denizens may recognize from his previous post there.
The menu of meze is replete with temptations, a groaning board of spreads and dips, sliders and salads, breads topped and stuffed and rolled, vegetables glorified and graced with spicy feta, tzatziki, chewy grains, chorizo. There isn’t a dish on it that doesn’t sound delicious. And then, to top it off, there are the off-menu passed dishes, such as the sesame fried chicken: crisp, deliriously spiced, the tahini remoulade offering cool contrast. These offerings are totted up dim sum style, each plate that is chosen — “oh, why not?” — marked down on a card. It’s such a good idea it’s hard to believe no one else is doing it. It lends surprise, and the festive air of a cocktail party, to each meal. On the other hand, it can also lead to over-ordering and gluttony. C’est la vie.
So where to begin? The seven-layer hummus is a solid starting point, if only because it sounds banal — a potluck appetizer, a grocery-store offering in a plastic tub — and isn’t. The chickpea spread itself is smooth and balanced; it’s decorated with tabbouleh, pine nuts, avocado, pomegranate seeds, and more, the flavors lively and bold, each bite of interest.
Even less like one would imagine is Sarma’s version of kibbeh. Usually hefty fried footballs of bulgur and meat, here the dish incorporates red lentils and crab. The result is wonderfully light patties topped with a green papaya salad and a green Israeli hot sauce called zhoug: cross-cultural crab cakes.
And buñuelos, like Latin American gougeres, form the bookends to a pork-belly sandwich with quince paste and green olive, the flavors familiar yet different. It’s a ham-and-biscuit sandwich run through Google Translate. Pumpkin fritters, crisp outside and creamy inside, evoke dim sum taro cakes for the Thanksgiving table, topped with a vivid cilantro sauce.
In another dish, Moroccan fried shrimp, Southeast Asian-style lettuce wraps meet popcorn-style seafood. The filling seems more Red Lobster than Rabat, but as a whole — bundled with kohlrabi, vermicelli, and pistachio — the dish works wonderfully. Lamejun, Armenian meat pies, get a vegetarian spin with a savory mushroom spread and assorted pickles.
Delicate bay scallops are cloaked in brown butter with cauliflower and currants, the fruit sweet and tart against the nutty flavors. And Brussels sprouts are meaty and downright rich in a spicy preparation with crumbled hazelnuts and chorizo.
This swirl of influences feels natural rather than forced, an extension of Turkish and Middle Eastern flavors rather than an overthrow. Sarma opened in early October, and as the kitchen hits its stride, the spicing becomes surer, backed by gentle but steady chile heat. Particularly with a menu like Sarma’s, precision in seasoning can be the difference between good food and great food. It’s a pleasure to taste things get even better.
Not every dish is there yet. Harissa BBQ duck with carrot, orange blossom, and almonds is too sweet one night. Lamb souvlakia has good flavor, the skewers generously treated with herbs, but the meat is tough. A version of the salad called fattoush is fresh and lovely, laced with crunchy bits of bread and pomegranate. It’s simply delicious rather than mind-blowing. This is a good problem to have.
There is but one dessert, frozen yogurt, tart and somewhat grainy. Customize it with an array of toppings — lush sesame caramel sauce, oranges with pomegranate and mint — served in little glass jars with wee spoons for dolloping.
Cocktails also mix and match flavors and cultures. The Hippodrome, made with cane rum, the piney resin mastic, sage, and lime, tastes like a very herbal caipirinha, while Mal’s 75 marries the French 75 and the kir royale. But a Pimm’s cup in December? The list needs to be winterized.
Wine drinkers find a small selection, two sparklers, three whites, and three reds. A refreshing txakolina, a juicy Grenache blend — it’s all very drinkable and food-friendly, there’s just not a lot of choice. Likewise, there are four beers on tap — from the Tap Brewing Co.’s kolsch-style Commuter Ale to Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale — and another handful by the bottle.
Sarma has the service of a much fancier restaurant, with delightful, solicitous hosts and servers who go out of their way to ensure a good experience, everyone (just about) with their eyes on the details. Sarma’s dishes often come with three items per plate. (Restaurants, please: Plate them in twos or fours so diners don’t have to divide things and politely refuse last bites.) Our server one evening foresees the awkward battle that may ensue over pumpkin fritters and kibbeh. “Would you like me to ask the kitchen to include four in the serving?” she offers, and the problem is solved.
Sarma’s food and pedigree make it a destination. It needs to serve restaurant-starved locals, too. One can come for a celebration, but also for a burger (or at least excellent lamb kofte sliders with tomato brown butter and pickles) and a $5 beer. The bar scene couldn’t be friendlier.
Sarma shares flavors with Sortun’s other enterprises, but each serves a distinct purpose. Oleana remains the go-to for special occasions. The cafe Sofra is quick and casual. Sarma falls somewhere in between, a truly special neighborhood restaurant.
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