Oleana [Cambridge, Inman Square area]

Although Oleana has been rightly praised on HO on many threads on many occasions, we don’t seem to have a thread dedicated to it. It certainly deserves one. Apart from the general, consistent excellence of its food, it also offers cuisine that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. For example, we have some good Italian restaurants in the Boston area, but you can find comparable (and often better) food in New York – sticking only to within-the-U.S. comparisons. The same goes for Chinese food, although Taiwanese restaurants in the Boston area have been better (until recently) than those in NY. With Oleana, I can’t think of anything comparable elsewhere in the U.S. (And if people have information that corrects me, I’d be delighted.)

Anyway, on to Oleana…

Our most recent visit, last week, was on a beautiful evening – just the right degree of warmth, clear skies. We sat in the garden, of course.

We ordered a few old friends – deviled eggs, spinach felafel and sultan’s delight (more on that later) – but tried hard to discipline ourselves to eat new things. With regret we passed on the buttered hummus, the lamb lamejun, the moussaka, etc.

Dishes that we’d seen before, but had not tried included the dark leafy greens, dressed with tahini. The greens were lovely, cooked so that they had the perfect balance between tenderness and chew, and the tahini complemented them beautifully. It left me wondering why I hadn’t thought of that combination myself. We had what were called shitake kofte, but were actually a loose mix of chopped mushrooms and some grain, and mung beans served in little butter lettuce cups. It was very tasty, and we polished off every speck, but it was not quite what we were expecting. We had a similar mismatch between description and dish with the arugula and peach salad, a special that night. We were expecting sweet, juicy chunks of peach – maybe, we fantasized, Sienna Farms had an early crop? – counterpointed with the slight bitterness of arugula. Instead the peach was tart – in reality, what else to expect this early in the season? – chopped fine, and the entire salad aimed at bitter-tart, not bitter-sweet. It was a terrific combination, and again we ate every last bit, but it took us a few seconds to adjust our expectations.

The topik – a mix of mashed potato, hummus, spring onions, and pine nuts – was easier to enjoy on its own terms, because we had no idea what to expect and were suitably wowed when it arrived. The mix is shaped into a large, vaguely potato-like ellipsoid, covered with a tahini “icing”, over which are dribbled veins of pomegranate molasses. It’s a lovely dish to behold, and lovely to eat. We also had the cheese saganaki – and really what’s not to like about grilled, sharp cheese with walnuts served on a salad? – and the spoon lamb encroute – very tender lamb surrounded by petals of crisp phyllo, with turnips.

No meal at Oleana is complete without a Maura Kilpatrick (plus Sophie Gees, to give credit to the hands on the cake) dessert. We passed, sadly, on the baked alaska (which we have had – and enjoyed – over two dozen times over the years), and had a special based on a “broken” turkish breakfast pastry – filling surrounded by shards of crisp pastry, with syrupy blueberries scattered around, and a tart scoop of blueberry gelato on the side. As with all the other desserts there, this was an absolute riot of a party in our mouths – tastes, textures, surprises. The sundae, our second dessert, was similarly joyous, especially the nut dukkah with which it is sprinkled.

The service at Oleana has always been a bit quirky: they make dishes in batches and roll them out a dish at a time. Suddenly, it’s felafel time and servers will bring them out to everybody who has ordered it. Then it’s topik time. By the time sultan’s delight time rolled around, it was nearly two hours after we had been seated, and about 15 minutes after we had finished the rest of our meal. We wanted dessert, so asked them to cancel the beef – with great regret. Our daughter – a poor eater when she was young – could always be relied on to polish off “Anna’s short rib” at Casablanca (to those of you too young to remember – look it up), from Anna Sortun’s stint there, and a legacy dish after she left. She (our daughter) then started on the evolved version at Oleana. To this day, she says she does not eat meat, but she will eat an entire sultan’s. So, it’s a dish with memories, but we’ll be back for it soon.

It was yet another knockout dinner at Oleana. The sky was darkening when we left, and there was the scent of flowers in the air. Can there be a better dining experience anywhere, than one at this level of creative conception and flawless execution in the garden of Oleana?

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I used to lunch at Monceb Medeb’s Aigo Bistro in Acton where Ana Sortun started. I was a while ago :wink:

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Thanks. Yes, Sortun’s bio on the Oleana site says so (it appears to be “Moncef” not “Monceb”):
https://www.oleanarestaurant.com/new-page

You mention having eaten there on your blog, but I can’t find a post of your experience. How was the food? Anything you remember?

It was so long ago that blogging wasn’t invented yet. I do remember that the lunch dishes was consistently good and enjoyable. That’s why I always remember her name.

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Thanks, again.

(Yes, I, too, remember the pre-blogging, even the pre-web – before 1992ish – and going further back, the early Internet usenet era, still surviving in a weird form as Google Groups.)

I also remember Aigo Bistro. I do believe it was in the Concord Depot building, but could be wrong. We lived in Acton at the time and went there specifically because of a write-up in (maybe) the Globe about Ana and her unique use of spices, etc. I remember a unique and fabulous steak prep, but that was 25+ years ago so I don’t remember many specifics.

Great writeup, fd. It’s been way too long since we’ve been to Oleana and we need to rectify that. We’re headed to Sarma soon with friends and really looking forward to it.

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Right as usual.

Aigo Bistro was wonderful back in the day. I think we could only afford to eat there once or twice in our youthful scrimp and save years.

Edited to add: This spring I was sad to read of the death of Moncef Meddeb. Eater ran an article that reads like a fitting tribute, citing the deliciousness he brought to dining in the Boston area. His lasting influence is a gift that figures into the heritage of Oleana and more.

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Thanks for the link.

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What a lyrical review, thanks so much fooddabbler! Must get back there soon…

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That’s a lovely tribute, Denise. Thanks for posting.

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Dabbles…
Absolutely lovely write-up. My mouth is watering. I’ve not yet been to Oleana but will try to find a suitable dining companion who will appreciate it. One of the down sides to being single and wanting to try good local places is that one’s friends are not always financially or in other ways ‘game’ for the adventure. Sometime I’d like to reach out to HO regulars to see whether anyone is ever in the mood to meet a new eating companion. We’ll see.

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Thanks.

Yep, we first encountered Ana at Aigo Bistro in Concord, I thought it was, definitely not Acton. Then at 8 Holyoke, which was amazing for its time. We were so thrilled when she moved to Casablanca, and waiting for Oleana to open. Went for the first time soon after the opening. She mentors, sponsors, promotes younger chefs and I’ll never forget watching her leave the kitchen to speak to a young girl on a tree stump in that beautiful Oleana garden in spring, before her daughter was born. I once saw her leaving Hi Rise Bakery when it was still on Brattle St. with her toddler daughter in a stroller, and I was so star-struck I didn’t say hi, though I wanted to. I am still working my way through cooking from her cookbooks and still in awe of her talents, dedication, persistence, and concentration ( just watch her when she’s in the kitchen at Oleana). She’s not just a local treasure, she’s a treasure for the world.

I’ve seen the Oleana garden open even when it’s pushing winter, with the fairy lights and blankets. It’s worth sitting in the back room if you can get it, just to watch the garden as night descends.

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By coincidence, after I posted on Oleana, I happened to see the obit for Moncef Meddeb in the Harvard Magazine. Seems the Boston Globe didn’t have an obit for him???

The Harvard Magazine obit gives a few more interesting details. He graduated from Harvard in 1970, a native of Paris via Tunis. After being “active” in the Harvard SDS and the Harvard Strike of 1969, he took a year off at the “suggestion” of his Harvard house master (they are now called Faculty Deans, I think), when he started working at Casablanca restaurant/bar. I never saw him in person, but I sure appreciated his self-taught cooking in various places directly and through his mentees. I really wish I had experienced L’Espalier, but never thought I could afford it.

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You can sit at the bar, but I agree, it’s always better to go with a few others so you can try more of the dishes. I’ve gone with one friend in the past and we split the vegetarian meze chef’s choice and added a few other meze. That was over 10 years ago, but we got no “too cheap” vibes, servers were gracious and helpful.

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I missed out on experiencing L’Espalier, too.

Dabbler: thanks for this thread, which unexpectedly elicited fond memories of meals at Aigo Bistro (and a few disastrous blind dates). I was unaware of or had forgotten the through-line connecting Ana to Moncef Medeb. I agree that there are few al fresco dining options to compare with Oleana (the Harvest terrace was once in the same class but now it’s a tent). Inside at Oleana, though, we always felt a bit cramped. It’s been some years since my last visit - an Israeli spouse has expanded my horizons to the point where I experience eastern Mediterranean cuisine in situ with some regularity, so the novelty that Oleana once held has been tempered. That said, a return visit is in order. Greetings from Tel Aviv :wink:

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I envy you your direct experience of this class of cuisines. It’s long been a dream of mine to do this myself. How does the food at Oleana compare with food you’ve had on your travels?

I agree that it’s cramped inside Oleana and we avoid the inside as far as possible. A lot depends on the company you keep, though. One memorable dinner inside was with a visiting friend, a Canadian singer-songwriter who’d composed and sung a song at our wedding. We had not seen her in some years, but there was heavy rain when we took her to Oleana and we were forced to sit inside. So close is our friendship, however, and so much was there to catch up on that we were oblivious to the other tables smack next to us, and were in our own happy bubble all evening. Copious amounts of wine helped.

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Yes, inside at Oleana is cramped. The back room facing the garden a bit less so.

Years ago (it was 2002, because that was when we bought our house, and my parents were visiting), we were at Oleana with my parents and two of their friends. Six people seated at the back of the front dining room with a two top next to us. We had 4 champagne glasses at our table, and as the 2 top people were being seated, one of them swept off our table all of the full champagne glasses, which had yet to be distributed to those who had ordered them. Yes, the new arrivals should have been more aware of their surroundings, but it’s one of the obvious hazards of seating that is way too cramped. I haven’t eaten in that room in a very long time, but I strongly suspect it’s very much the same now.

Try Sarma, if you haven’t already, your next trip back.

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That’s hilarious and awful at the same time. I hope the clumsy newcomer offered apologies, and that Oleana replenished the champagne!

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