by Sandra Stringer
Sermet’s Southernterranean Cuisine-Bar has been running since August of 2016, but not everyone on James Island knows about this special spot. It’s an eye-catching restaurant, from the eclectic landscaping outside to the colorful indoor environment punctuated by the vibrant paintings of Sermet Aslan. Sous chef Nathan Hedlund says, “It’s a gallery for his art. Sometimes he’ll walk in with 3 or 4 paintings when he was just with us until 11 o’clock at night.”
While the location itself and the atmosphere created are a major player in what makes Sermet’s, ultimately there are three things that make the place worth a visit: the food, the drinks, and most of all the people.
A good idea
I spoke with Engin Suner who is Sermet’s partner and the Manager of the restaurant. Engin handles the front of the house and the operations. He moved to Charleston about 12 years ago from New Jersey. When he moved here, Sermet was one of the first people he met. They became great friends. “Two and a half or so years ago I said, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I want to try something different. Maybe create a business, do something from scratch. I didn’t feel like I was impacting. I went to Sermet – he has a location on Daniel Island – and I said, “hey, this is what I’m thinking”. At that time we determined together that, hey, you know what? If we opened another Sermet’s, it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever.”
Speaking about Sermet Aslan, Engin says, “it’s not just for his ability and food and genius and art that I admire him. I could talk for a year and it wouldn’t encompass everything about him. He’s a very special individual. Our chefs are amazing and our servers are amazing, but we all operate under the name of Sermet. He’s given his life to the restaurant. We have the task of continuing and upholding that.” Brett Crowley, Executive Chef for Sermet’s seconds that opinion. “What Sermet does shapes this whole thing.”
‘I gotta get out of here!’
Sermet has been in the restaurant business for 32 years. When asked where he got his start, Sermet, who is originally from Turkey, surprisingly says “Connecticut! I was lucky enough to work with some very good chefs, very sharp chefs.” He didn’t have the money to go to the New England Culinary Institute, but one of his mentors was a teacher there and other chefs he worked with had attended or were attending the school. “I worked for them, and I learned a lot of my technique from them. The most experienced should teach the less experienced in anything in life.”
Moving to Charleston was just an escape from Connecticut. “I had to get away from snow. One morning I am shoveling show and I say, ‘I gotta get out of here!’ I told my wife, “the United States has a pretty large geography, you know.’ We were looking at the South, at Charleston and Savannah, but once I visited Charleston, that was it. I knew.”
Sermet loves James Island. He considers it to be very human and genuine. He loves the environment. “It’s a forgotten part of Charleston. I really love the people here. People come in and thank us for coming to James Island! Welcome to James Island! It’s wonderful.”
A chef-driven restaurant
Engin believes that Sermet’s is a chef-driven restaurant. “The chefs come in every day and spend hours figuring out what they want the specials to be – something they believe in, something that could be unique. And of course you have Sermet himself who comes in and gives his input, sometimes making their original idea even better.”
Sermet’s works with local purveyors whenever possible. They get their eggs from Nathan Boggs at locally owned and operated Fili-West Farms. Their bread comes from Pane Di Vita Bakery. Ryan Tarrance and Alexandra Purro from Nano Farms supplies our produce. The hand pulled mozzarella, ricotta, pasta, soups, and sauces are made in house from scratch.
I was given a tour of the kitchen by executive chef Brett Crowley. He started his life in kitchens at the age of 13, working for Regal Catering. He liked the camaraderie and the “ordered chaos” and seeing everything come together. Over the years he worked his way up through different restaurants to become the skilled chef he is today. He’s known Sermet since he was a child, but has been working with him since 2011.
He’s obviously proud of the time and effort he and his co-workers have put into making it a well-run and well organized space. I especially enjoyed my tour of…the spice rack! Brett smiled. “Nathan went OCD one day and put everything in alphabetical order, which typically seems impossible to keep up, but it’s been like this for a month now, and it’s stayed in alphabetical order.” Nathan, who is working on making lunch for us in the front of the kitchen, shouts back to us, “It grows on you!” I notice some outliers in special containers: pink peppercorns, juniper berries, lavender flowers, herbs de provence, garam masala.
He talks about food with passion. When I ask what he’s working on for that evening, he races through a complicated description of creating a fish stew called cioppino. “I’ll use the five spice [which contains cinnamon and nutmeg among others], which’ll add another layer to the dish that kind of makes you wonder what exactly that is that you’re tasting. You can taste the coconut, you can taste the tomato, you can taste the fish, you can taste the mussels, but there’s that lingering almost umami thing going on in the back of your throat that’s the five spice.”
At this point I sat down with Brett and his sous chef, Nathan Hedlund. Nathan had prepared lunch for us: a house-made fettuccini with butter braised mushrooms and cauliflower. Over lunch we discussed the “Southernterranian” concept. Brett said, “the idea that there are a lot of local ingredients be it produce or protein that are very similar to what you’d find in the Mediterranean. For example, okra is a big deal in Turkey.”
They have fresh fish on the menu every day, usually from Crosby’s. Nathan says, “They’re great because they have their own docks and their own boats so when they have something come in that’s really special, we have a great relationship where they’ll let us know about it”.
We finished our lunch with tres leche, a light, airy, and simultaneously decadent cake. Brett says that Sermet makes a lot of the desserts himself, although they do also outsource from various local bakeries.
I call myself a bartender
Engin describes Roderick Groetzinger as “very talented. He’s very passionate about what he does. He takes it seriously. He always wants to remain true to the drink but also add his perspective to it”. Roderick has concocted a wine list that’s very affordable, but Engin says the quality is superior to the price. For people who are really into wine, “the success of the pairings is plain”.
I met Roderick early in the day, before the restaurant opened. I told him I thought a mixologist was someone who developed their own drinks. He said, “Yes, if that’s your definition, then yes, I’d say I was a mixologist. But I call myself a bartender”. He invents all of the drinks on Sermet’s menu.
He has been in the restaurant business his whole adult life, with 20 consecutive years making his living at various aspects of the business. He grew up in Hilton Head, but has worked in South Florida, Australia, and Martha’s Vineyard. In Australia he worked in a cocktail bar which is where he first got into making really elegant cocktails. “The place was called The Balcony. It was a bar with no seats but there were three bartenders who just made drinks.”
He worked in Martha’s Vineyard for about five years. “I’d work summers there and then go backpacking for six months.” Next he was working “at a really great bar in Boston. And then one blizzard and I thought, “What am I doing here?!” And he came to Charleston. “I was managing a place downtown called The Rarebit for a couple of years and…I had a great mentor, Brent Sweatman. He was a hell of a mixologist, and he taught me a lot. My fiancée – now my wife – and I moved to James Island and I wanted better hours. I had a lot of creative ideas running through my head all the time, and Sermet just let me take the reins here. I wrote our whole wine list and created a cocktail menu. The hours are much better, it’s close to home, and I love food!” Sermet’s was a perfect fit.
Roderick says, “A really good cocktail is all about balance. You want to be able to taste everything that’s in there.” He’s always enjoyed working with wine as well. “It involves two of my favorite subjects – history and geography.”
The people of Sermet’s
Engin says there’s “a lot of facets involved with running a restaurant, but the people come first – the staff who work here and the customers.” Both Engin and Brett talked at length about their co-workers, the line cook Justin, the dishwashers Antonio and Ryan, the servers. Engin spoke with pride about the servers. “We have Cami, she’s a server, and she’s attending medical school. The multi-talented Sarah, who’s a server and a bartender. We have Paul Harris…Paul has been a server with Sermet for 25 plus years. Even though he has his own business (Island Bazaar), he comes in and works with us 3 or 4 days out of the week because he loves doing it. He loves serving and interacting with people, and he loves Sermet. Matt Miller is our lawyer, but on the weekends he comes in and bartends for us, serves for us. He says, “It’s my hobby. It’s my happy place.” We have Fiona, who has been with Sermet 5+ years, and Alyssa. She goes to the College of Charleston and she is also very good, very talented. We have Grace, who’s our hostess who’s been with Sermet multiple years. We haven’t hired a single server since we opened.”
Nathan notes that “people are starting to come in here and realize that atmosphere is just as important as culinary. Nothing gets missed. The front house staff does a really great job at taking care of people and communicating what they need. Building community is a lot of what we’re doing.”
Engin says he gets “pleasure out of making people happy…to me success is if everybody who leaves our restaurant has a smile on their face. Overall it’s just people having a good time and from the kitchen staff, from the chefs, to all the servers who are genuinely amazing people who care about the people’s experience, that’s what we strive to do. “
Sermet’s Southernterranean Cuisine-Bar is tucked just off Folly Road behind Hair du Jour at 1622 Highland Avenue on James Island. If the orange penguin on their sign hasn’t caught your eye yet, look for it. Off Folly Road turn onto Highland Avenue, then turn immediately left to the little road between Hair du Jour and Sermet’s and park on the left side of the restaurant.
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