According to a Norwegian folk tale, Oleana is the garden of paradise. The restaurant Oleana is a kind of cozy and warm—yet decidedly grown-up—paradise. Nestled in a residential neighborhood a few blocks away from Inman Square proper, Oleana is a glowing oasis that beckons to passersby on Hampshire Street to sample its cuisine—Mediterranean fusion with Spanish, French, Turkish, Armenian and Greek influences. Head chef Ana Sortun (given name: Oleana), an alumna of Harvard Square’s Casablanca, has been cooking and creating to accolades from the likes of Bon Appetit and The James Beard Foundation since she opened Oleana with co-owner Gary Griffin in 2001.
Oleana’s menu offers a pre-appetizer course comprised of prêt à manger items, described aptly by the server as “tasty little things to eat with bread.” The warm olives ($4) are a rather safe choice, though not a particularly rewarding one. They were small and not very meaty or tasty, served with crusty, airy and equally unexciting bread. A more adventurous choice of spicy carrot puree ($3) might be worth the risk.
Appetizers, in general, are often the spot on a menu where restaurants shine the brightest, and Oleana’s satisfying and delightful appetizers hit that spot quite wonderfully. The pumpkin börek ($8)—a savory version of pumpkin pie wrapped in a delicate layer of pastry—is very mildly pumpkin-y, spiced to heavenly autumnal perfection and topped with apple, arugula and tahini. For those who like to play with their food, the dolma—a crispy fried-dough wafer served with hot goat cheese, beet tzatziki and bean plaki—allows an experimental diner to try these three treats in a variety of combinations. The warm goat cheese in particular is delicious and simple, a new take on comfort food.
Oleana’s entrees are hearty, satisfying and excellent. Sortun is mindful of using as much organic meat and produce as possible, and does so with the help of local farms. An earthy sort of goodness is evident in dishes such as the seared scallop special ($23). Five fresh, tender and juicy scallops surround an herbalita red wine reduction of bacon, celery, onion, carrot and gigante beans atop a mild turnip puree. The bland turnip does not add much to the scallops, which are quite tasty in their own right, and the bread pudding-esque herbalita is fatty and almost slimy, a poor textual complement for the scallops. One vegetarian option is an entrée-sized portion of ricotta and bread dumplings in red wine porcini sauce ($14). The dish is filling and zesty, and probably best eaten in the appetizer portion ($7). The other vegetarian option— a five-course tasting menu with dessert ($38)—often includes the dumplings as well as a variety of meatless prêts, appetizers and entrée accompaniments.
Pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick masterfully handles seasonal ingredients, turning out inventive desserts and inspired traditional favorites. The desserts are disguised as “Maura’s Homemade Ice Cream,” where each ice cream is paired with a more substantial complement. The subtly flavored maple sugar semifreddo ($8), an icy, custardy frozen confection, is accompanied by a good but very sweet cranberry tartlet and an unfortunately small dollop of spiced cranberry sorbet that in one mouthful (that’s all there is of it) contains all the sweet things of Thanksgiving. The dessert is light and refreshing, and yet allows one all the sinful pleasure of dessert three times over. In another dessert, Kilpatrick pairs salted almond ice cream with warm chocolate souffle ($8). Although the ice cream on its own is rather disconcerting, the harmony of salty and sweet together is lovely on the palate and accentuates the deep chocolate of the soufflé. For the traditionalist there is Turkish specialty palace bread—bread pudding soaked in syrup with mascarpone, poached pears and pistachio ($8).
With such creative and exciting food—salty ice cream, adorable presentations, things you eat with your fingers—one can’t help but wonder why Oleana looks (and feels—we were nearly roasted in our seats by an electric “wood” stove) like a sauna in Aspen instead of a reflection of the rich flavors and cultural history that inspire its food. Oleana need not take its décor as seriously as its mainly bespectacled Cantabrigian clientele take themselves. A bit more color adds to the stone gray and earth-toned wood interior—in the form of dishes, paintings or even funkier banquette cushions—would arouse the senses more keenly, and would turn what is already an excellent dinner into a fabulous experience.
134 Hampshire St.