Whenever I fall for a new restaurant, I step back for a reality check. Is this place good by neighborhood standards, I ask, or is it worth a drive across the city during rush hour?
With Sarma, there’s no question. First, there aren’t neighborhood standards to judge against—the new spot lives at the edge of Winter Hill, on a block with few signs of life after 8 pm. But it’s also one of the few recent launches offering something truly different. While many romance crowds by riffing on classics, subbing farro and marrow for pasta and butter—Hey, look what I put on your steak!—it’s rare to find a buzzy new place serving almost nothing that’s familiar to the average diner.
Opened by chef Cassie Piuma and her longtime mentor, Oleana’s Ana Sortun, Sarma is a joyful embrace of Turkish cuisine, rich in Greek and Middle Eastern influences. The menu is composed of small meze ranging from a few bites (the meyhane snacks) to larger dishes (the shish).
Hummus, tzatziki and lamb souvlakia are about as mainstream as it gets. Piuma has mercifully supplied a glossary, making dukkah, labne, brik and zhoug not just approachable, but appealing. It visibly relieves a young couple seated near our table, and we watch as they relax and dig in.
Pumpkin fritters ($5) come topped with cilantro sauce, walnuts and sesame seeds. They’re a perfect mouthful, the crisp exterior yielding to a soft, fluffy center. Here, texture is everything, notably in three excellent meze selections: fava bean pâté ($6), a dense slab topped with a runny soft-cooked egg, tangy capers and red onion; tender octopus ($13) with crisp celery and plaki, a Greek bean dish; and squid saganaki ($11), a spicy, saucy, satisfying combination of calamari, tomato and bitter broccoli rabe.
The plates show impressive balance. Softness is countered with crunch; sweetness is checked by a shock of bitterness or acid. Salty haloumi cheese ($8), wrapped in charred vine leaves that crackle with each bite, is paired with raisin emulsion and roasted grapes. Smoky grilled eggplant salad ($6) has a lovely creeping heat. Zucchini and leek keftedes ($9), crisp latke-like fried patties, come with tangy and cool tzatziki sauce.
Lamb souvlakia ($16) is a Greek classic, and Sarma’s is served as well and as simply as at any taverna—grilled herb-marinated meat on a stick, a few crispy potatoes and lemon. The harissa BBQ duck ($16), however, is the exact opposite: an intensely fragrant plate of sliced duck breast with a heavily spiced crust, served on a streak of orange blossom-scented carrot puree. It’s stellar.
One quirk at Sarma is its dim sum-style specials. Dishes emerge from the kitchen without warning; if you partake, they’re added to your bill. This can frustrate some diners—if you save room for extras that never come, you may end up hungry. Think of the specials as an indulgent bonus: The moist, sesame-crusted fried chicken thighs with tahini ($10), available on two separate visits, were a worthy splurge.
At the time of our visits, Sarma had only one dessert, a Greek-style frozen yogurt with a choice of toppings like halva caramel, but it has since added baklava and rice pudding. (Perhaps additional recipes borrowed from sister cafe Sofra will follow?) Cocktails are likewise evolving. On an initial visit, drinks paired poorly with the food: The earthy flavors of the agricole rum-based Hippodrome ($11) and the mild, citrusy Elettaria ($10) were no match for the bold meze. A week later, there were additions like the spicy, frothy Hermoso Ramo ($12), a far sturdier companion to bold cuisine. If you’re wavering, stick with a sure thing: a pint from the excellent, funky beer list.
The space is mostly open and loft-like, with a few decorative flourishes. Glittering blue glass mosaic lamps hang above the bar, and colorful, intricately hand-painted porcelain plates cover a wall. They lend ambiance, but the focus remains squarely on the food. That’s as it should be. When the flavors are this vibrant, there’s no need for anything more.
Fava bean pâté
Grilled eggplant salad
Harissa BBQ duck
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5 pm to midnight; Fri.-Sat., 5 pm to 1 am
Credit Cards: Yes
Liquor: Full bar
Sarma | 249 Pearl St., Somerville | 617-764-4464 | sarmarestaurant.com