BY JUSTIN OSOFSKY
Oleana does not try to be different. It just is. While so many chefs have succumbed to the fusion craze, Chef Ana Sortun’s creations exude a refreshing authenticity. Oleana’s dishes reveal Sortun’s French-Mediterranean culinary background (she was previously chef at the late 8 Holyoke, now Sandrine’s, and Casablanca), but also introduce whispers of Persian, Turkish, North African and even Italian influences. The resulting dishes transcend simple fusion, and create a dining experience that is altogether different and memorable.
Entering Oleana feels like a well-deserved reprieve from the harsh winter. Just inside the first dining room resides a wood stove which both literally and figuratively warms the room. Interesting, ornate fixtures help create a fascinating mix of a North African feel with the quintessentially Cambridge crowd. Oleana’s bar is located in an adjoining room that also serves as a second dining room. While more cozy, this room provides an open view of Sortun calmly leading the busy kitchen as it handles the incoming barrage of orders. During the more temperate months, you can dine in Oleana’s outdoor patio which seats forty.
You can experience Oleana in multiple ways, but make sure to leave plenty of room for appetizers and desserts. In fact, you could skip entrees altogether and create a wonderful tapas-inspired evening (also more gentle for a student budget). Begin with the prêt a manger (“ready to eat”), which take the edge off your appetite and leave your tastebuds clamoring for more. Highlights include the spicy carrot puree and Egyptian spice mix ($3), Armenian bean and walnut puree ($4) and warm buttered hummus ($4). Then proceed to the appetizers. Sortun’s fried mussels with Turkish tartar sauce ($8) have received numerous accolades, but I found them somewhat heavy and bland. However, the flavors of the garlic and almond soup with mushroom banderilla ($7) were vibrant, and the grilled octopus with a spicy Sicilian bread salad and warm mozzarella ($9) is another standout.
Oleana’s entrees are also wide-ranging and extremely well-executed. The crispy lemon flattened chicken ($20) is a marvelously juicy piece of roast chicken served with a Turkish cheese pancake that tastes much like a delicious blintz. Seafood options include a cod cassoulet ($19) cooked for seven hours, and scallops and black truffles en papillote ($22) for those with a somewhat lighter appetite. Pork lovers may be intrigued by the pork confit with cumin and salt-roasted onion ($19). But the lamb arancini (essentially, a fried rice ball with Sicilian roots) ($19), a nightly special, was rather disappointing as the rice overwhelmed the flavors of the lamb and spinach filling and it rested on a bed of braised lamb that was surprisingly tough.
The wine list is quite reasonable, with numerous excellent options. Familiar wines by the glass include a Ravenswood Zinfandel ($7), and Oleana also offers many half-bottles including the Fess Parker Syrah ($22) which matches very well with the lamb. Oleana also offers many interesting scotches and bourbons, as well as sangria (if you are truly taken by the tapas theme).
Oleana’s pastry chef is Maureen Kilpatrick, reunited with Sortun with whom she worked at 8 Holyoke. Kilpatrick has been a culinary entrepreneur in Boston, first teaming with the famed Lydia Shire (formerly of Biba and currently Locke Ober) to open Pignoli’s bakery, then assisting in the launch of 8 Holyoke, and subsequently working with Rene Becker to open the acclaimed Hi-Rise Bakery. She does not disappoint in her latest role at Oleana. Notable dessert offerings include the Baked Alaska with coconut ice cream and passion fruit caramel ($9), salted almond ice cream with warm chocolate soufflé cake ($8) and warm brown butter bread pudding ($8).
While leaving Oleana one frigid evening, I had a mild surprise while walking past the kitchen. Sortun poked out her head and asked, “Did you have a nice evening?” At Oleana, the answer that night was simple: “It was wonderful.”
134 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Fri-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m.
Sun-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m.