As I may have written about before, my cousin Niki recently (-ish) moved to Boston fro the Philippines. She’s super into food like me, but unlike me, she’s making her living at being a chef. A while ago Niki mentioned to Keith and me that her favorite cuisines are Mediterranean-influenced, so we decided to drop by Oleana for dinner.
There’s something I should say before going any further, and it’s something that indubitably shocks people when I say it: I’m not too psyched on Oleana. All right, here’s my defense: I grew up eating this sort of food, so it’s extremely difficult for me to look at it with an unbiased eye (and unbiased taste buds). The flavors and ingredients are simply not novel to me. This is not to say that the food is not incredibly delicious and skillfully prepared, because it clearly is made by a team of talented chefs led by the lauded and highly regarded Ana Sortun. It just means that I don’t get as wowed by something like a fava bean pâté served with zatar (also spelled za’atar). The fact that I’ve never been a huge zatar fan might have something to do with that, but I think I’ve made my point.
Keith, Niki and I decided to split a few choices off of the “prêt a manger,” or “ready-to-eat,” section of the menu. It’s funny because a few days earlier, I had bumped into my friend Audubon and her lovely boyfriend Dave in the North End. I hadn’t seen them in the longest time, and when I told Audubon I would be going to one of her favorite restaurants, she immediately started rattling off items for me to try. I’m sorry to say that we went in a different direction, but I appreciate her enthusiasm.
At Oleana, we ordered the warm buttered hummus with basterma (also spelled basturma) and tomato, and the whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers (each $5.00). Normally I’m not too into basterma — a traditional Armenian cured, spiced meat — but when combined with the hummus and tomato purée, it was completely surprising. I think I can actually say that now I like basterma… or at least, I like it like this. The feta/pepper duo was, sadly, a little lackluster. I happen to really enjoy both peppers and feta so very much, but this fell flat for me. The feta was all but smothered by the two different flavors of the peppers, which were unevenly represented.
Niki and I seem to have really similar tastes; the appetizer course was the first of two where we ordered the same exact thing. We both gravitated towards the fried Haloumi and spring onion dolma with walnuts, sesame and rhubarb ($11.00) because, really, who can resist cheese, let alone fried cheese? Another reason why I was drawn to this is that I love dolma, another traditional dish. (While it’s most commonly seen in the form of stuffed grape or cabbage leaves, I adore a nice zucchini or pepper filled with rice, beef and spices, and served with dollops of garlic-infused yogurt.) What was most unexpected about Oleana’s dolma was the fact that it is served flambé. I’m not quite sure what alcohol was used, but I’m guessing it was something like arak (which we Armenians call oghi, though don’t quote me on that spelling), an aniseed liquor similar to pastis.
For my entrée, I chose the one dish that was the least like the others: scallops served with a chorizo gnocchi, sunchokes, asparagus and golden raisin crumbs ($27.00). The scallops were cooked absolutely perfectly, the vegetables were bright and colorful, and the gnocchi/chorizo made for a terrific mix. My favorite part, however, was what is actually not visible in this photo — the crisp raisin crumbs upon which everything else rested. They were sweet, they were crunchy and they were a total bombshell. As a whole, the components made up a very nice plate, though one that wasn’t particularly special.
The dessert menu was the most exciting for me, and I was, as usual, torn between more than a few options. I decided on the Sicilian almond cremolata with a warm chocolate panino ($12.00), making it the second course that Niki and I agreed on. The panino was made with a dark chocolate that was so obscenely delicious; it would have been easy to produce a dessert that was overly sweet, so to have a richer finish was lovely. The cremolata was scooped with crunchy sugared almond slivers, and was so refreshing.
In all, it was a nice meal… but not one so completely amazing that it changed my mind about Oleana. What can I say, though? The kitchen here creates wonderful food that is thoroughly flavorful and tasty, but it is of a cuisine whose origins are so very close to my heart. The fact of the matter is this: I’m simply too attached and sentimental to make an objective case for or against the restaurant. So, please, if you’re in the area, make a reservation and let me know what you think.
134 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139