First in a five-part series: Paused during the pandemic, restaurant reviews return with a celebration — five consecutive 5-star reviews, the highest possible ranking. It is a salute to the region’s culinary excellence; it also tells a story about what excellence means in 2022.
It doesn’t matter who it is. A friend of a friend asking for restaurant recommendations. Someone’s grandfather; someone’s niece. An omnivore. A vegan with food allergies. A credentialed “foodie” who has eaten everywhere.
“You know what restaurant I really love?,” they say at some point in the conversation, brightening with excitement. And I do. I absolutely do. I am 99 percent certain I know what they are about to say. And I agree with them.
In a world of dissenting views, it is rare to find such consensus of opinion. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like chef-owner Cassie Piuma’s Somerville restaurant, which serves small plates of big, layered flavors from around the world. Sarma marked its ninth anniversary Oct. 8. Piuma has been nominated for a James Beard award six times. It’s downright silly that she hasn’t won yet.
The restaurant, which is co-owned by Ana Sortun of Oleana and Sofra, has maintained a rare level of consistency. Everything about it is familiar yet refreshing. There is the dining room, with its welcoming central bar and cobalt blue mosaic lamps and turquoise wall hung with dozens of decorative plates. Each one is a different pattern and a different color combination, yet they look just right together.
There is the menu, also a mosaic, also filled with dozens of combinations that improbably, satisfyingly make sense. In less-skilled hands, Sarma’s dishes might be fusion overload. The kitchen has finesse, a honed sense of gustatory rhythm. Here is where to push forward, with more spice and crunch and richness. Here is where to pull back, before it all becomes too much.
A new dish on the menu offers a neat illustration of the thought processes at work. The latke chaat is a hybrid of Hanukkah’s potato pancakes and India’s street food. Deep-fried spheres of mini latkes are seasoned with cumin, green chiles, and curry spices, piled with tamarind-cranberry chutney, apple tzatziki, and julienned, crisped tortillas.
By phone, Piuma points out the similarities between curry and hawaij spice blends — the former Indian, the latter Yemeni and often used in Israeli cooking. “After doing this for so long, we start to recognize similarities between so many different cuisines. For me, it’s exciting to bridge those shared experiences and those flavors, to create something that’s fun and new and provides some conversation,” she says.
Malawach — a Yemeni flatbread often served with grated tomato, hard-boiled eggs, and the hot sauce charif — here is made with scallions, drawing a line to a similarly flaky Chinese-restaurant favorite. It’s topped with thin slices of raw tuna, charif made with charred celery, lemony tahini, and shavings of cured egg yolk, then cut into triangles and served with a soft-yolked egg. It’s sushi pizza. It’s a Middle Eastern snack. It’s its own thing entirely, and delicious.
To taste commonalities being found and explored with love and respect: That’s a gift.
Sarma’s essential approach — these bold, layered flavors and contrasting textures, with plenty of heat, spice, and acid in the mix — hasn’t changed. But the results have broadened, as Piuma, chef de cuisine Liz Barwick, executive sous chef Tyler Paolini, and staff continue to explore and experiment. And so the menu grows, now hovering at around 40 items. Some classics have to stay forever, the things people return for visit after visit: lamb kofte sliders, fragrant and juicy Middle Eastern mini burgers; harissa BBQ duck skewers; Brussels sprouts bravas, a spin on the Spanish potato dish, with or without chorizo; fava bean pate with capers and onions.
Other dishes soon become classics. Venison-wrapped dates, salty and sweet, resting on pistachio labneh with pomegranate and rose. Brisket shawarma, a modern interpretation incorporating pineapple and smoked maple. Pumpkin hummus, an autumnal riff on Mexican flavors. An avocado-based version of the dip muhammara, with burrata and pistachio crisp.
Passed plates, the cocktail-style service Sarma used to deploy for dishes like fried chicken with tahini remoulade, were great fun but not pandemic-friendly. The chicken is still offered as a sometime special at the table. It’s an unmissable dish, along with a favorite dessert courtesy of pastry chef and head baker Tess Cunningham: brown butter corn frozen yogurt with mix-and-match toppings such as halva caramel and crunch coat made from crushed candied chickpeas, like a dessert version of the spice blend dukkah.
Cocktails raid the same pantry, featuring ingredients like fenugreek, mastic, and coriander. Service is always personable, even when the person taking your order announces she’s brand new; so much is forgivable when everything’s upfront like that.
After nine years, and forging through a pandemic, where does Sarma find itself right now? Here is what Piuma tells me she thinks about: “How do we move forward and still experience the joy? How can we be the best version of ourselves now?”
Just like that. By continuing to ask and answer those questions, year in and year out, day by day, and plate by plate.
249 Pearl St., Somerville, 617-764-4464, www.sarmarestaurant.com.
Wheelchair accessible; no outdoor seating.
Prices $4-$30 per plate (about $17 on average)
Hours Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. (Bar opens daily at 5 p.m.)
Noise level Midrange
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.