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Sarma 1st impressions

The missus and I went to the long-awaited Sarma on Thursday for our date night.

It's a pleasant space with lovely lighting and an impressive array of plates on the wall. The ghost of the old Paddock has been almost completely exorcised and this place is definitely a jewel-like standout in an otherwise totally unyuppified part of Somerville.

Let's get to what the hounds actually care about: the grub. As a disclaimer, my dining companion is a veggie so we stuck to the meatless menu items, of which there are plenty. There are certainly lots of interesting sounding meaty (especially seafood) items on the menu which I'll have to try another time.

We started with the Pumpkin Fritter, which consisted of three tiny but tasty pumpkin and chickpea cubes garnished with yummy toasted walnuts.

Next plate was the Grilled Eggplant Salad. We are serious eggplant lovers, but found this dish to be disappointing. It just lacked a distinctive flavor. It was served with a nice black sesame encrusted flatbread and a mini pitcher of delicious olive oil.

Next up was the Mushroom Lamejun. This was our favorite dish of the night. Three mini lamejuns with a nice yeasty crust and tangy tomato topping. These were served with a little bowl of toppings including cabbage, caramelized onions, and a dollop of incredible black truffle lebne. This single mouthful was to our tastes the highlight of the meal.

The last item we ordered from the menu was the Kale & Artichoke Spanikopita. This turned out to be a kind of oddball fusion, sort of a cross between artichoke dip and spanikopita. Instead of phyllo dough it was topped with something resembling (buttery) shredded wheat, and was served with a pile of raw seasonal crudites on top. While the kale and artichoke filling was fairly tasty, the various ingredients in this concoction just didn't cohere for us.

One of the conceits/gimmicks that Sarma offers is that there are several mystery "specials" each night. Servers circulate with plates of these, and mark a card on your table dim sum style. We found it a little unclear how many small plates to order initially without knowing what these specials would be at ordering time. The night we were there there were two specials that appeared during our meal, which turned out to be a turkish spiced fried chicken and a swiss chard sarma (interestingly, both of these show up on the menu that's been posted online).

We opted for the sarma, which was sort of a cross between maki and stuffed cabbage. A humble but nicely flavored dish which was served with a tangy tomato sauce.

The other novelty/quirk that Sarma offers is their dessert tray, which is also brought around to the table for your inspection. It's presented in the form of little dishes of various toppings which you can order along with their soft-serve froyo. We opted for the sesame caramel and the baklava, which is served in little crumbly bits (I joked that it was the leftover scraps from Oleana or Sofra). The caramel was really good, but the baklava didn't really distinguish itself. The frozen yogurt itself had a great flavor, really tangy and not that sugary, with most of the real sweetness coming from the toppings. Although all these elements were quite flavorful and the opportunity to top your own dessert is fun, once again we didn't feel that the various ingredients totally cohered.

Overall we were a bit disappointed, perhaps due to our long anticipation of the opening. Most of the things we tried were good, but mostly not GREAT to our taste. The only thing that really "hit it out of the park" was the lebne, which was a small portion of one dish (the menu refers to "locally made yogurt cheese" so it may not even be made in house. If someone knows where it comes from let me know!)

We weren't totally convinced that the value was there either, especially for a vegetarian (as a point of comparison, the Veg tasting menu, with 5 meze and dessert, is $40 at Oleana). Portions were quite small. We were still feeling a bit hungry after our dinner items, but it was unclear whether there were more specials forthcoming so we just opted for dessert, which is also fairly pricey at $10 a pop including one topping. Total was about $100 for two diners, including one drink each.

We will probably try Sarma again another time and sample more of the menu. It is certainly good, and a nice addition to the Somerville dining scene, but overall not as tasty as what we've experienced in other similarly priced (and cheaper) establishments in the area and not the gastronomic revelation we were hoping for.

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  1. On further reflection, I would suggest they drop the "specials" and just circulate with *all* the meze, while still distributing menus and offering a la carte ordering. There were certainly enough staff on hand to make this work. The dishes are attractively plated so I think people would enjoy seeing them and they would go quickly. They would probably sell more plates that way too! Somehow marking a card I'm less cost-conscious than when ordering a bunch of dishes off the menu.

    And I think a bustling but mellow dim sum hall atmosphere would work with the vibe of the space.

    1. mo, i found your report extremely helpful, as the more critical comments were right in line with concerns i have had.
      At Oleana, I have also felt that most dishes are overpriced, but i kind of 'decided' to accept that fact because the food is so unique ( and even though i have 'accepted' the too-high pricing, we would be regulars there if pricing were lower. And we are far from regulars.) I also have a strong dislike for tiny portions * so i guess we will let some time pass before trying it.
      *Cagney and Lacey in a hip L.A. restnt: "HEY, waitah! (points down to plate)
      I did not order the CHILD'S portion he ah" :-}

      1. Just ate here last weekend and wanted to share our experiences. We were dining with 4 adults and 2 small children and arrived right when the bar opens at 5 to make sure we got a table and kept everyone happy and out of trouble. I really liked the space and parking is super easy on-street with plenty of 2 hour visitor parking nearby.

        We had excellent drinks at the bar with kiddies perched on bar stools until our table was ready. Agree that pricing on cocktails is a little high- can't remember the name of the drink I had but was first on the cocktail menu and involved "gin and bubbles" for $12.

        We ordered an assortment of dishes from the various sections on the menu to share- I think we initially had about 10 dishes for the party and our waitress felt we were a little light so we added two more. Then the specials showed up and who can say no to fried chicken and creamed greens? So we ended up with about 14 dishes. I can't really comment on the value because I was pretty committed to baby wrangling and left the ordering up to my husband, whose parents were paying. Usually my reviews are relative to what I percieve as the value, but this time I'm just going to comment on the food.

        Some winners: popcorn shrimp served with a lettuce wrap and veg slaw- crispy, light, flavorful and fun to wrap up. Lamb ribs with a smoky, rich pomegranite molasses reduction- amazing. Lamb sliders- perfectly cooked and seasoned, I could have eaten about 5 of these. 7 layer hummus- popular with the kids, delicious fruity olive oil drizzle and pine nuts I wasn't afraid to eat (see: pine mouth).

        A couple I wasn't as fond of: yogurt cheese plate- served in an awkward jar, hard to get at, lacked something. Octopus- usually my very favorite thing at Oleana, flavors fell a little flat, beans were too sweet. Mushroom lamejun- underseasoned, edges seemed a little stale with middle a little soggy- maybe it sat under heat? These are minor quibbles as we certainly still cleaned each of these plates!

        We ran out of patience on the part of our tiny diners, so no dessert. I am completely and blissfully unaware of what our bill came to, but I overall felt the food was very good to excellent and would definitely go back. The atmosphere was great- not too loud, although of course we were there on a Sunday night at 5:30, and they were able to accomodate our party as a walk in.

        ETA- wanted to chime in on the dim sum idea- while I like the idea in theory, it was a little confusing to have ordered, then not know how much additional food was going to circulate. Maybe they could have a blackboard with the specials to help diners determine how many plates they would likely add to their intial order. Or they could go "all dim sum all the time." I think that's actually a really neat idea.

        1. Enjoyed our initial visit to Sarma - at the bar. The Elettaria cocktail was a flavorful balanced cocktail creation. For me the Hippodrome was less flavorful and uninteresting. The service at the bar was awesome - engaging, friendly, and available.

          We enjoyed the food but nothing really stood out in a good or bad way other than the lamb slider - I could eat of dozen of these - just amazing.

          The portions were generally too small for the price, and we were not offered any of the circulating food mentioned here, though we saw it breeze by.

          I have never been to Oleana even though I think I "should", and I was recently underwhelmed in my visit to Sofra - again overpriced (in a way similar to Barbara Lynch operations - good quality, consistency, and good service, but not quite a value).

          Still on the fence about Oleana, not in rush to return to Sofra, and will gladly return to Sarma if someone initiates the plans - happy there are so many other nice options in these areas...

          2 Replies
          1. re: rlh

            Oleana is worlds better than Sarma. I wouldn't let a meh experience at Sarma keep you away from Oleana.

            1. re: rlh

              couldn't agree with you more about sofra;i could never understand how it flourished with those prices. and i am just not a fan of any of the sweets there. sigh.

              but oleana's food is really special most of the times we've had it. For people looking for unusual and delicious food, i always rec it first . My one continuous complaint there is the banality of the decor, and the tight table spacing. So we go when the patio is open, and that is just lovely.

            2. Visited Sarma for the first time this past weekend. Let me preface this by saying Oleana is one of our all time favorites, and so our expectations were high.

              First, the good: The food was, for the most part, absolutely delicious. The Pumpkin Fritter was one of my favorite tastes of the year. Little fried pumpkin square with an indian tasting sauce on top. Amazing.

              And that's about it for the good.

              I really wanted to love this place - but it just wasn't there. It started right from when we arrived. We had a 5:30 reservation and arrived a couple of minutes early and were told it would be a few minutes until we could be seated - no reason given. The bar was full of people, but the dining room was completely empty and the staff was all standing around. Odd, but whatever.

              So, we're seated and excited. The waiter recommended 3-4 dishes per person, and as a party of two, we ordered 7. At Oleana, 7 leaves us stuffed and happy.

              First 3 dishes come out. All excellent, but each only 3 small bites of food, like 3 amuse bouches arranged on the plate. And then the food just . . . stops. For 45 minutes. Not an exaggeration. We had passed over a couple of the circulating specials while we were eating our other dishes, and no more specials are evident. After a little while, the waiter comes by and says our food will be right out. 20 minutes later, still no food, and the waiter doesn't even look at our table as he walks by.

              By this point, I'm now hungrier than when I arrived at the restaurant.

              Finally the food starts to arrive again, and the waiter comes to check on us. He asks how we are, and I say, "Better now that the food is coming out again." And he says that the kitchen was backed up getting out the food for a large party. Which, fine. But that sentence of explanation is all we got. Under similar circumstances at Oleana, we've gotten profuse apologies and comped dessert or an extra dish. At Sarma? Not so much.

              And the worst part? The dishes were all so small that I was still hungry at the end. Under other circumstances I might have just ordered more food, but I had no faith that we'd be able to get the food quickly, and the frozen yogurt thing was entirely unappealing.

              In summary, the food is delicious, but the size of the dishes is not clearly indicated by the price or categories and so we wound up ordering many dishes on the small side. I saw dishes on other tables that were larger so this was partially our ordering, but it should be clear from the menu how much food you're likely to get.

              On the other hand, the service needs a complete overhaul. It's just not getting the details right. Example: my husband ordered "the IPA" without noticing there were two on the menu. The waiter didn't ask which one, and just brought him one. Under other circumstances, not a big deal, but just one of an avalanche of issues for us. At this price point, I expect much better than what we experienced.

              Maybe we'll be back, but comparing the experience to an absolutely spectacular meal at Ribelle a few weeks ago, I'm not interested in going back until it seems like Sarma has it together.