Restaurant Review: Sarma in Somerville
It’s easy to take culinary genius for granted when it’s right under your nose. Not that Ana Sortun’s restaurants are neglected—getting a table at Oleana continues to be perennially tough. But generally speaking, I’d say that Sortun’s achievements have been under-acknowledged. Indeed, she runs a veritable woman-led-and-owned mini empire, and has maintained a remarkably loyal staff. And then there’s the irresistible story of her first encounter with Chris Kurth, the farmer who knocked on the back door of Oleana bearing herbs and vegetables: She says she fell for him immediately, and the two later married.
But most important, by introducing Boston to the exotic world of Turkish and eastern Mediterranean flavors through Oleana, Sofra, and now Sarma, Sortun has expanded our culinary vocabulary to the point where we can order plaki, labne, and shawarma with the same familiarity that people in other cities might order Chinese dumplings and Mexican moles. Because unlike anywhere else in the country, Sortun serves up Turkish and eastern Mediterranean cuisine with unprecedented sophistication, adventurousness, and culinary range. In fact, she was a pioneer: The building blocks of Yotam Ottolenghi’s successful books—sweet and pungent spices, roasted garlic, and hot sauces tempered by sweet peppers—were part of Sortun’s repertoire long before Jerusalem came out.
Sortun is a co-owner of Somerville’s Sarma, which focuses on vibrant, meze-style small plates. Some dishes—muhammara, fresh cheese börek (pie)— may seem familiar to fans of its sibling, Sofra, the Cambridge takeout spot that serves up unique wraps, soups, salads, and Middle Eastern–influenced pastries from co-owner Maura Kilpatrick. Sarma is like Sofra on rocket fuel. The long menu is crammed with tempting dishes, and servers come by carrying trays of off-menu specials in dim-sum-like fashion, making ordering even more of a challenge. Unlike at Sofra, there’s plenty of room to sit, though Sarma’s large space is somewhat sparsely appointed, and painted a questionable shade of turquoise (fine for the unmarked door, but a bit unsettling for the dining room). The restaurant does, however, feature alluring blue mosaic glass lanterns at the entrance, as well as a wall of colorful plates from an Istanbul bazaar.
Sarma’s vast number of offerings means that quality varies: food served cold and hard when it should be room temperature; some meats brought to the table succulent and hot, others cool and bland; and a sameness to seasoning and sauces, too many of which carpet the plates. If you order to excess, as you inevitably will unless you have heroic self-restraint, the modestly priced dishes (ranging from $5 to $17) can add up to a heftier-than-expected bill.
But Sarma’s thrills far outweigh its flaws, especially if you sit in the bar area—easier to get into at short notice and the most congenial area—with counters, high-top communal tables, and a row of banquettes. It’s a good place to enjoy sliders, stews, salads, and shishes—just make sure you save room for the traveling trays of fried chicken.
Cassie Piuma, who worked with Sortun at Oleana for 12 years, has assumed the role of executive chef and partner with her husband, Matt, now Sarma’s general manager. Piuma’s maiden name is Kyriakides; her frame of reference is Greek, and, as it happens, she serves an inspired Greek salad ($9) with the clever addition of sliced dried white Greek figs—a sweet balance to the salty kalamata olives, cubes of crumbled French goat-milk feta, and roasted-tomato vinaigrette. Same for the grilled eggplant salad ($6), one of many dishes on the menu that span Turkey and Greece, though neither country would readily admit it. Hers comes with a base of tomatoes cooked down until jammy, the sweet heat of Aleppo chilies, and an undercurrent of smoke from the grill.
Piuma branches into Spain with neat little sliders called buñuelos ($9), with lardons of braised pork belly, a cheesy, smoked-chili-and-paprika-laced gougère in place of dull brioche, and a spread of mustard aioli with olive relish, like a garlicky tartar sauce. And into Mediterranean-Asian fusion with a tuna nayeh ($14), carpaccio-thin slices of marinated yellowfin covered with an immaculate dice of cucumbers, radishes, fresh pomegranate seeds, and tiny squares of fried pita. It’s a deconstructed fattoush salad that would not be out of place in a New Nordic cuisine restaurant, especially with its manicured, minuscule sprigs of parsley, dill, and mint.
Piuma also has a strong hand with stews. Squid ragout ($11), a version of a Greek stew called saganaki (for the small two-handled dish it’s cooked in), boasted tender fried tentacles of Point Judith squid with fennel, lemon zest, kalamata olives, and a fair bit of ouzo. It managed to taste both freshly made (the squid, crisp and bright tendrils of broccoli rabe) and long-simmered (the sauce). Kale ($9) is slow-cooked in a tomato sauce, with cubes of salty smoked ham, garlic, and sweet Turkish Urfa pepper flakes that’ll make you forget it’s a kale dish—especially after breaking into the soft-poached egg flash-fried in shredded filo. The potato–celery root latkes ($9; Jews stick to apple sauce and sour cream instead of mustardy apple relish and labne with black truffle, but hey, we’re cross-cultural) showed more frying mastery. So did the fried chicken ($10), offered as a special at each of my three dinners: dry-cured thighs dredged in flour with sesame and nigella seeds, served with a spice blend containing green chilies, as well as a tahini rémoulade, one of those one-sauce-too-many mayos.
Some menu items were capsized by such creamy sauces, like the Persian beef crêpes ($12), which featured nicely soft cubed brisket in a braising liquid enhanced with caramelized onions, Persian dried limes, cinnamon, saffron, and ginger. The problem was with the spinach they were served over: Cooked in pistachio-infused cream, it made the dish much too rich. Flavorless, mealy swordfish on a shish ($15) was overwhelmed by a heavy almond-based sauce.
But all can be forgiven with something as good as the grilled octopus ($15), which was simmered, grilled to a fantastic tender-firm char, and served with a Moroccan take on salsa and grilled avocado—an idea Piuma says she swiped from East Coast Grill—filled with Israeli couscous. This time the accompanying aioli with roasted garlic seemed portioned just right, maybe because the dish struck our table as brilliant—without so much as a consultation, two of us flagged a server to bring a second order.
You won’t have room for dessert. But you’ll order it anyway once the server comes around with a sample tray of little open jars filled with various toppings for homemade frozen yogurt ($5 a serving), light and tangy and made with Narragansett Creamery yogurt. It was the toppings, though ($2 per small jar), that became the main event—particularly the warm, not-too-sweet salted-caramel-halva sauce, shards of chewy sesame caramel bar, and chopped bits of chocolate-hazelnut baklava.
The wine list was unusual and interesting, with offerings from southern France, Macedonia, Greece, and Lebanon. And did I say parking is impossible? Now I did. It won’t matter. Once you start in on Sarma’s menu, you’ll keep coming back till you go through the rest and identify your favorites. And then it will be time to start the rounds again. By then Sarma, and its previously untrod corner of Somerville, will be on every diner’s map.
Greek salad • $9
Tuna nayeh • $14
Kale • $9
Octopus • $15
Buñuelos • $9
Sarma, 249 Pearl St., Somerville,617-764-4464, sarmarestaurant.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.