Oleana's Ana Sortun and Cassie Piuma are getting very close to opening their new Somerville restaurant, Sarma. Among the chief differences between the two restaurants is the full liquor license Sarma will have. Vik Hegde — former head bartender at Island Creek Oyster Bar — has been tasked with creating the first full bar in the Sortun empire. Hegde recently spoke with Eater about the challenges of developing a spice-influenced cocktail program, the bar that includes a cook's station, and how he has been preparing for opening day.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Most recently, I was the head bartender at Island Creek Oyster Bar. Before that, I was one of the opening bartenders at Post 390, and before that, I was with the Cheesecake Factory for a long, long time. I was there for about six or seven years. My friends in the industry who have been in nothing but small, awesome places always kind of cock their heads to the side when I say I worked at the Cheesecake Factory, but it was a really invaluable experience and I have nothing against that place.
How did Sarma come up as an opportunity?
The wine director of Oleana, Lauren Friel, is a friend of mine. She approached me to see if I knew anybody who was interested in the position, and I offered myself. It was going to be their first foray into having a full liquor license, so with Ana and Cassie being more back-of-the-house oriented, they didn't necessarily have a great frame of reference on how to run a bar program. They wanted someone who can jump in and really orchestrate their vision of the restaurant and be able to run the bar sort of autonomously, while also showcasing the food. Oleana is one of the most fascinating restaurants to me because of the types of spices they use.
How do you most see this job being different from your gig at Island Creek?
At Island Creek, I was the head bartender, but if I was ever unsure about something, I had Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, Jackson Cannon, Kevin Martin, Bob McCoy, Nicole Lebedevitch, and so on. Between them, someone knew the answer to any problem that might come up. With Sarma, a lot more is going to fall to me. I am excited, but there's definitely a pressure there.
Do you have any cocktails that have been workshopped to the point of talking about them yet?
I did a night over at the Hawthorne and debuted a couple of potential cocktails. Everything is still on the chopping block. I think up until the minute we print, it's going to be like that. Certain flavors that I definitely want to incorporate are sumac, aleppo, za'atar, and mastic — all staple flavors in the Mediterranean that we never see over here.
I have a tendency to gravitate towards sherry. Amaro Montenegro is my favorite thing in the world. I have one that will probably make the list of Amaro Montenegro, amontillado sherry, and mezcal, which came out pretty nice. A little mole bitters in there as well.
You've been spending a lot of time at Oleana. What have you been doing there?
A lot of it is getting to know the staff and just learning the culture in general — which has been amazing. Somehow, they retain staff like nobody I've ever seen. They have at least three servers that have been there for nine plus years. It's crazy; it's unheard of. And they are happy. They are not there because they are used to it; they are there because they love it.
I've also been learning the food. They have a glossary at the bottom of the menu, and it's necessary. It's like learning a whole new language. In some cases, I'm literally learning Lebanese.
What are the challenges in crafting a cocktail program for that kind of food?
You have to lasso yourself into a focused palate. Because, otherwise, you could go a million different ways with the types of food they have. Not to use "shit bartenders say," but they have so many different layers of flavor that you could latch on to any one of them — or all of them — and you'll end up with these really jumbled messes. So, I think part of it is really understanding their food and understanding the mentality behind it.
One of the challenges is trying not to kill your palate with too much alcohol. I could think of a number of dishes that would go great with a nice bourbon cocktail, but the bourbon is going to numb your palate, and you are not going to enjoy the food as much. The other challenge is it's going to be mostly small plates, and you are not necessarily having a different cocktail to go with each one. So, you have to have something that ties everything together.
What will the Sarma bar look like?
The focal point of the bar is going to be a mezze bar. The plan is to have a three-sided wrap-around bar with the mezze station — with someone cooking — behind it. We'll have between sixteen and twenty seats on the bar itself. As far as the aesthetic, it's going to be relatively spartan. We are not going to have a backbar display, where you can just pick out your favorite spirits. It's going to require a great deal of knowledge and intuition from the bartenders to be able to glean what people want and keep them from being confused.
I think it looks cleaner. And — while there is a certain luxury to being able to go up to a bar and see Montenegro and say "I'll have a glass of Amaro Montenegro" — when you don't have that stuff right in front of you, you have to be more open to trying other things.
Eater Boston intern Gabe Bellegard Bastos transcribed this interview.
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