Most restaurant reviews focus on just one part of the dining experience: the food. But just as important as the food is everything else: branding, interior design, service, music, and overall vibe. An exceptional dining out experience is one where all the senses are engaged, not just the taste buds. Find out which restaurants have the “taste” to meet our standards (and which ones don’t).
Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
winter hill, somerville
An oasis in Winter Hill
Sarma adds some flavor to a quiet corner of Somerville
When you think of Winter Hill you probably think of Whitey Bulger’s gang rather than a dining destination. Well, Sarma from James Beard award winner Ana Sortun might change that perception.
To investigate, we met up with designer friends—one of Boston’s most prominent graphic designers and his talented jewelry designer wife—who had lived in the neighborhood when it was still referred to as “Slummerville.” They remember the Paddock, a longtime neighborhood watering hole, in the space Sarma now occupies.
Lucky for us, Ana Sortun has teamed with Cassie Piuma from Oleana to create a Turkish/Mediterranean inspired culinary destination sure to delight any foodie worth her salt.
Our journey to Sarma began like most do: with a visit to its website. Toth + Co did a nice job with the branding and site design (although we wish it was optimized for mobile). Hand-drawn lettering and a DIY look suggest the unusual, hand-crafted food coming from Sarma’s kitchen.
Once you find the off-the-beaten-path location (and find parking—no valet here), the four-story, corner building is like a beacon for foodies. The restaurant’s exterior, with its large glass windows, is inviting and marked by a large vertical sign. One flaw is a utilitarian metal door out front with very subtle signage. Simply replacing it with something like the oversized, carved wooden door that sits behind the hostess stand would help take the entrance from “loading dock” to “Welcome to Istanbul!”
The extensive meze-style (like Spanish tapas) menu is filled with intriguing dishes and a helpful glossary. Our waiter help guide us through Sarma’s menu and even offered to “supersize” our plates to make splitting dishes between the four of us easy. Complex, flavorful, and overflowing with vegetarian goodness, dishes are an intriguing combination of Eastern Mediterranean influences and New England ingredients (like lobster dolmades with cabbage, celery root, and black truffle avgolemono). Our meal was well paced, thoughtfully choreographed, and presented on simple white plates.
As a whole, the interior design is perfectly “nice” but pales in comparison to the food. The space consists of two main areas: an attractive bar (with no TV—thank you!) with a communal table and dining in back as well as a front dining room where colorful banquettes line the walls. The restaurant’s blue and green color palette is used throughout with a richly patterned tile floor on the bar side. But, for as daring as the food is, the décor leaves something to be desired. It’s almost as if the owners hedged their bets, partially decorating the space so that, in the event that this concept flopped, it could be easily be turned into something else. For example, almost all wall space is bare. Only a ceramic piece in the back of the bar and a display of decorative plates in the front room break up the exposed brick monotony. Adding bold visual interventions—graphic prints, artisan pieces, tapestries, etc—would hugely impact the overall feel and reflect the boldness of the food.
As important as the decor is the music in setting the right mood for a restaurant which here felt wrong and was unconsidered. We would have strongly preferred contemporary music with a Middle Eastern vibe (think Thievery Corporation) to the classic rock and country we endured.
Overall, we’d love to see the food’s inventive flavor carried through to the space itself. And, for what it’s worth, we doubt we’re the only ones who’d appreciate the changes. After all, Sarma’s crowd hardly shies away from bold concepts and thoughtful design. In fact, it seeks them out.
So, Sarma, consider adding some spice to your space. Your guests are sure to eat it up.