Sarma: Smoking Basturma Behind the High School

111813_Sarma9782By Adam Bezigian

Photos by Susan Cushner, courtesy of Sarma

Sarma (249 Pearl St.), a long anticipated new restaurant in Winter Hill, burst into the party in October and may very well disrupt the whole scene. From an epicurean standpoint, the scene is particularly easy to disrupt. Winter Hill is historically known for chop shops and murders; upscale dining, not so much. An upscale Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant represents a tenuous flag of colonization thrust into the soil of the neighborhood, adding its noise to Somerville’s slow-moving, sassy cyclone of cultural change.

Sarma already has the polish and shine of an operation that has been turning smoothly for years. This is no surprise, given its lineage. If you have been living under a rock, you will be unfamiliar with Sarma’s chefs, Ana Sortun and Cassie Piuma. The pair bring with them considerable clout from Sortun’s iconic Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, which often shows up on the shortlist of the city’s top restaurants. Unsurprisingly, Sarma does not fail to impress.

The interior space is well-suited to Sarma’s small plates menu. Almost completely open and brightly colored, it is lively and loud, virtually orthogonal to Oleana’s warm, cozy and intimate dining room. Many of the tables are communally shared, providing precisely 10 percent less elbow room than many American diners would prefer (scientifically proven). Sarma’s bar occupies the center of the restaurant, a U-shaped island that seems to serve as the central nervous system of the operation. Small plates restaurants were made to snack at the bar with a drink or two, so don’t hesitate to grab a stool and sit down.

For the sake of journalistic integrity, I will admit my bias before continuing: my father’s side of the family is Armenian, the cuisine of which shares many common elements with the rest of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. However, the majority of my experiences with these foods have been in my grandmother’s kitchen and at church picnics, neither of which are venues known for experimentation or elaborate preparation. Simply put, there are fewer haute Middle Eastern restaurants than there are French or Italian in most American cities.

This is what makes Sarma’s menu so exciting to me; many traditional dishes have been given a modern flair, updating standards and using non-traditional ingredients. The borek, which is often a rich but fairly plain pastry, is stacked with a delicious tower of squash and pear. Kibbeh is most frequently made with beef or lamb; Sarma’s is crab-based, itself out of the ordinary, and the use of coconut and green papaya give the dish a southeast Asian flavor profile. Other menu items, such as the basturma cheese rolls, use staple ingredients in exciting and novel ways.

Photo by Susan Cushner

Photo by Susan Cushner

Those who are familiar with the cuisine will be pleasantly surprised by the creative fusion on display on the menu. Those who are not need not despair (about Sarma’s food, at least). Your meal will be a guided tour of the region, showing you only the beautiful and approachable dishes, much akin to the historical ruins embedded in modern-day Athens. It will avoid the less savory parts of town, corresponding to, say, a boiled lamb’s skull which returns your gaze with dead, unappreciative eyes.

The relatively high price point of Sarma, ranging from $5 – $16 for three- to four-bite dishes, may seem out of place  in Winter Hill and may frighten some potential diners. It is less expensive than Oleana, however, and food quality is no lower. I expect to see Sarma emerge as a destination, its huge star power and creative menu luring people in from the ‘burbs and from across the river.