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Oleana Restaurant Review: Bringing Turkish Flavors to Cambridge

Chef Ana Sortun — 3.5 Stars

The Baked Alaska at Oleana in Cambridge.
The Baked Alaska at Oleana in Cambridge. By Courtesy of Hannah E. Gadway
By Hannah E. Gadway, Crimson Staff Writer

Oleana is not shy when it comes to flavor.

Located near Cambridge’s Inman Square, Oleana is an Eastern Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that dishes out adventurous plates. The establishment’s James Beard-awarded executive chef, Ana Sotrun, opened Oleana back in 2001 to explore her unique takes on traditional food from the Middle East. According to Oleana’s website, the restaurant’s goal is to focus on “small plates with big flavors,” favoring a communal eating style that encourages sharing among friends and family. Oleana indeed embraces its bold take on bringing new flavors and fusions to its patrons’ palates, and, although its food’s complexity sometimes verges on chaos, the restaurant is still daring in all the right ways.

The dining room is decorated casually with warm wooden paneling, intimately sized tables, and a display of evil eyes lining the walls. Focus is immediately placed on the food — upon sitting patrons down, Oleana’s waiters explain the restaurant’s tapas-style service, encouraging pairs to order five to eight dishes per dining experience. With each plate ranging from about 10 to 20 dollars, this experience may stack up financially; however, the tapas-style menu also encourages restaurant goers to try new flavors and step outside of their comfort zones.

The largest portion of Oleana’s menu is taken up by their “Vegetable Meze” selection, which offers a variety of vegetables prepped to reflect Mediterranean flavors. While plain vegetables are anathema to Oleana’s flavorful offerings, the menu’s obsession with elevating their plant-based dishes occasionally overshadows the underlying strengths of each ingredient. For example, Oleana’s flattened potatoes are overly smothered in oregano and spice, overwhelming the palate and requiring an accompanying sip of water to fully enjoy. While the starch itself is perfectly cooked with a pillowy interior and has a perfectly crisp outer skin, the flattened potatoes come off as dry and staggeringly seasoned, despite their healthy dose of lemon juice. Oleana’s offerings are always unique, but, in chasing a degree of difference, the restaurant sometimes loses track of the beauty of simplicity.

A star offering at Oleana is the fried mussels prepared in the Greek style, a method of preparing the mollusk that often doesn’t appear on New England menus despite mussels’ popularity in the region. The mussels were not overly battered, were free from the grittiness that sometimes plagues the shellfish, and arrived lightly battered so as to preserve their tender texture. The juicy mussels were paired with hot peppers — also fried — that gave the briny main a needed kick. On top of this battered medley comes Turkish almond tarator, a sauce composed of nuts and garlic. Once paired with a squeezed cut of a lemon wedge, the first bite of Oleana’s mussels is fresh, invigorating, and refreshingly singular in the Boston seafood landscape. The fish section on the menu, although quite small, most strongly encapsulates Oleana’s strengths in innovating local favorites in an Eastern Mediterranean context.

While the disparate elements of the mussel dish pair together exceedingly well, Oleana’s focus on complex flavor perhaps reaches both its height and pitfalls on its meat menu. The Vermont quail kebabs epitomize this delicate balance. The pieces of quail arrive coated in Baharat and are arranged on delicate helpings of buttery rice. The quail dish erupts in a barrage of textures, as the tender quail competes for textural dominance with a layer of cracked pistachios, a pairing of crispy rice, and a sprinkling of bursting barberries. Once isolated, though, the quail is juicy and well-seasoned.

Oleana’s dessert menu may be a little more familiar to diners, offering classics such as donuts, baklava, and profiteroles. The evening’s highlight is the grand Baked Alaska. The dish inherently has an air of drama — its torched meringue reaches upward like flicks of caramelized fire, casting an impressive visual profile. Oleana’s take on this treat consists of a sturdy layer of meringue, a ball of coconut ice cream with the perfect level of sweetness, and a simple sponge cake. Strands of coconut give the core of the dessert a lovely chewy texture to compliment the rest of the dish that is airy and soft. Their Baked Alaska comes surrounded by a helping of passion fruit caramel that prevents dryness on the toasted exterior. This dessert makes any meal feel like a celebration and highlights Oleana’s ability to make the familiar feel extraordinary.

Oleana brings the flavors of Turkey and the Middle East to Cambridge, and its unique offerings are sure to delight those stuck in a rut of typical, New England fare. Still, the restaurant sometimes strays from cohesiveness in its individual dishes in a relentless pursuit of complexity. The tapas-style dining experience allows diners to decide for themselves which level of boldness suits them, and Oleana overall delights in its rejection of shy flavor.

—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at hannah.gadway@thecrimson.com.

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