It’s been several years since I’ve been a published restaurant critic. (Yes, sometimes I miss it, and sometimes I don’t). But recently I revisited the role as a auction prize for the Barbara Lynch Foundation. I got lucky and scored Sarma, the new restaurant by Ana Sortun, and a very congenial group of diners.
So what is it like dropping back into being a critic for a night. Well, the instincts do kick in — details are what make the story, and you start at the very beginning.
Sarma is in a most unlikely spot in Somerville — on a corner off busy Medford Street with nothing around it. Big windows show an enticingly lively scene inside but it takes a while (and some pantomimed directions from staff) to find the blue door, not terribly well lit. Once inside, I immediately forget the rather desolate street scene: A big rectangular bar, cozy seating, very welcoming staff members at the front desk. Sarma has that industrial-chic vibe, but includes the attention to the detail that make Sortun’s Oleana and Sofra so enticing — beautiful Turkish plates in blue along a long wall, pretty but discreetly-sized lights, warm wood floors, a glimpse of the kitchen. There’s enough space between the tables, and a lively buzz without a din of noise.
The menu has lots of explanations –about the restaurant name, about “meyhane” or snacks, and a glossary of ingredients and terms –maybe more than most hungry diners want to keep track of.
But the food comes quickly — spicy Anaheim peppers that must be from Siena Farms, owned by Sortun’s husband; lamb kofte sliders that are delicious on little fat buns that are really delectable; locally made yogurt cheese that is almost too mild to register sprinkled with za’atar that perks it up; smoky grilled octopus with heirloom beans, celery and olives. Fluke nayeh ( as the glossary explains, this means raw) with fennel charmoula (like a salsa), grapefruit sections and sweet potato is a show-stopper — flavorful on the palate, with hits of citrus, and a pleasingly chew to the texture. I could have stopped there and eaten another portion.
Sarma adds drama and enticement by having servers drop by with trays of extras, marked on a tab just like dim sum. It’s pretty irresistible, and ultimately hard to know when to stop. When the table — and the room — are moaning over the fried chicken thighs, how can you pass them up, even though, in this case, the crunch topping overwhelmed the chicken. I turned back to the fluke.
As often happens in a small-plate setting with more than a couple of people — or even four enthusiastic eaters — it’s soon hard to keep track. Sarma’s flavors are vibrant — I really liked the harissa bbq duck with its sweet-hot flavors, and the spicy Brussel sprout bravas with hazelnuts (what we should have had at Thanksgiving.) But this is place that you need to return to several times at your leisure.
I want to have a few plates, savor the flavors, luxuriate in the good service and the unusual wine selections, and contemplate the room. Will Sortun score high again even in a spot that seems out of the way? Well, say my young correspondents when the Orange Line is extended, and when Assembly Square is developed, this area will be cool. They’re right, I’m sure.
But I’m doubting that Sarma has to wait that long. If the food, the vibe and all the pieces are as good as this first bite, the crowd will find it.