BY ANDREW BITKOWER
I don’t ever before recall seeing devilled eggs on a restaurant menu. I had always imagined them to be a relic from the 1950s, the kind of thing that nuclear families ate on Sundays. But there they were on the menu at Oleana ($3), under the heading “prêt-à-manger.” (“Prêt-à-manger,” I assume, refers to the food — mainly cold appetizers — that the kitchen can deliver most quickly to famished diners.)
Yet the noble — but much-underappreciated — egg is gaining in popularity as an amuse-bouche. And rightly so. When well-executed, the egg can be sublime. The egg foam amuse-bouche at Arpège (Paris) was surely the best amuse-bouche I have ever had the opportunity to sample. Arzak (San Sebastian, Spain) also offers a lovely, more-cooked rendition. Of course, unlike these esteemed establishments, Oleana doesn’t have any illusions of Michelin-stardom (or the accompanying prices), so any direct comparisons would be highly unfair. Expectedly, Oleana’s oeuf offering was decidedly more “prêt-à-porter” compared to Arpège’s or Arzak’s “haute couture” cuisine. But it was a well-constructed prêt-à-porter (an Armani, perhaps?), made interesting and unique by olives and Mediterranean spices.
Oleana is a welcome addition to the rather sleepy Cambridge restaurant scene. The food is more flavorful than subtle — in fact, there is little subtlety to be found here. But at least the food didn’t attempt to be subtle and turn out bland instead.
The Spicy Carrot Puree ($3) was my favorite appetizer, probably because it contained a liberal dose of spices and garlic. (If a restaurant sets out to be flavorful, it shouldn’t be timid.) The Fried Mussels ($7) were a close second — they were perfectly cooked and did not suffer from the over-chewiness problem that plagues calamari at so many lesser establishments. It was sort of nice to see a menu with something other than the ubiquitous calamari, the staple of mediocre Italian restaurants everywhere.
The Armenian Bean & Walnut Pâté ($4), by contrast, was surprising for its lack of surprise — basically just crushed beans meant to be placed atop bread. Nothing special here. The Crispy Duck Böre_i ($8) was also slightly disappointing, wanting in both flavor and texture.
Refreshingly absent from the menu was any kind of heirloom tomato dish: Clearly the heirloom tomato fad has not yet reached Oleana. I was beginning to think that it had been written into the health code that a restaurant must have at least one heirloom tomato dish.
I appreciate that Oleana does not have the regrettable habit of overcooking meat. Venison ($22) is meant to be served rare, and rare it was. And it was very good. The stuffed onion accompaniment, labeled “Spinach, Farro & Fontina,” was a bit gimmicky, but tasty nonetheless.
The décor, with its earthtones and Mediterranean-inspired tile, complements the food nicely. It is worth trying to sit outside in the lovely garden area if you can; unfortunately Oleana doesn’t accept reservations for the outdoor seating.
For those occasions when you are looking more for high quality prêt-a-porter than haute couture, Oleana is a good choice.
This is the second in our series of profiles of restaurants that end in “ana.” I have no idea why we chose that terminaison as significant, but there it is. Oleana, unlike Koreana, is a less straightforward name. When first passing by, I had thought that it was something like “Oceana,” and suddenly memories of second-rate sea-food restaurants in New York City (and indeed everywhere) flooded in. But upon closer inspection, recognizing that it is an “l” rather than a “c” — and patting myself on the back for improving my attention to detail after two years of rigorous Socratic training — I noted with alarm the name’s affinity with words like “oily,” “oleaginous,” and “olea.” It is of course refreshing that an establishment should be so upfront about its caloric consequences, but too much of a good thing — well, you get the idea. It was not until later that I found out that Oleana is actually the full given name of the chef-owner, who now goes by the by name of Ana (“ana” again!) Sortun.
But enough about the name. The good news is that most of the less than enthusiastic reviews you read on foodie websites are not true — well, at least not true on a Sunday night in a city that goes to bed at ten. The hostess was not bitchily attitudinal, even though there was a two-hour wait for a party of five for a table in the garden. (What!– you say — I didn’t have to wait that long for an Hermès Birkin, and this is Cambridge! But this is Cambridge. That is why you have to wait two hours for anything that is decent.) In fact, the staff was amazingly solicitous. (They even gave us a menu to take home when we mentioned that we were doing a review.) Some rough edges were inevitable. I was informed that the Crispy Duck Böre_i was some kind of thing shaped like a “football.” It turns out, as I was musing between the possibilities of an American football and an English football, that the böre_i was more like a spring roll (maybe there is a common theme with Koreana).
Better yet, Oleana does deliver on the complex flavors that it promises. Whether the complexity works is another question. The duck in the böre_i appetizer did not taste very ducky, and was all mushed together in a taste more appropriate for mooshoo or such (hello, Koreana!). The winner among the appetizers was Fried Mussels and Hot Peppers. It was very good, but that was just really tempura by another name (hello again!). Similarly, there was a lot of work in my Monkfish ($21), wrapped nicely in chard, with a touch of lemon preserve, and to be taken with crème fraîche. But the interior of the monkfish was actually slightly tough and slightly dry (hello, Mother!), and so I am not sure all that hard work paid off. Similarly, the Ricotta and Bread Dumplings with Wild Mushrooms ($14) lacked texture and were too salty. The winner among the entrées was the Venison, which was accompanied by delightful onions stuffed with creamed spinach.
Oleana is not bad; there is effort and conscientiousness. So get on that shuttle, take that Acela, or jet to San Sebastian for an amuse-bouche.
I largely join in my colleagues’ opinions, but I write separately only because I am unfamiliar with many of the French phrases and foreign locales to which they refer. I note as well that the lukewarmth expressed above is actually a quite positive review. I am reminded of the famous episode of Sesame Street where Oscar the Grouch, evidently well-pleased with a specially prepared meal, tempered his rasp with soft gratitude.
In my own perhaps rustic and uncivilized opinion, Oleana was the best meal I’ve had since I was a summer associate. With the possible exception, that is, of a run to the Mass Ave. Taco Bell last week. Offering top notch food, service, décor, even a bit of dinner theater within our own little party, Oleana is a perfectly cozy newish-Americanish-Mediterraneanish (with a few Armenian touches) place to spend your money. I note especially that Oleana is a great date spot, with a romantic garden for the four weeks or so that Boston weather is tolerable. But Oleana is also a great place for groups, because the menu is so good, and small enough, that you will want to try everything.
To mention some of the dishes that Andrew and Davis missed: As an appetizer, I had a Beef Galette San Remo with Sundried Tomatoes, Olives & Chick Pea Fries ($8). This was a satisfying meal in itself, basically a flavorful short rib burger; the chick pea fries were reportedly excellent, though they were stolen from my plate before I could taste them. As an entrée I had the Swordfish Kebab with Cabbage-Coconut Dolma & Nigella Vinaigrette ($21). Excellent all around. For dessert ($7-8 each) we shared the Baked Alaska, Ice Cream Soufflé, Crepes with Pears and “Pumpkin Patch.” The Baked Alaska was probably my favorite, but I wouldn’t kick any of them off the