Boston Dining: Oleana - a hot spot in Cambridge

by Bess

Oleana courtyard on a rainy day

Oleana courtyard on a rainy day

Oleana courtyard on a rainy day
Oleana bar
Oleana chef award medal
Oleana chef award certificate

134 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

Oleana is a very popular place that had been highly recommended to us by several friends. We went there for dinner with one of them because it's his favorite restaurant. Given its reputation, I was a little surprised by the unassuming exterior. Inside, it has a warm, somewhat upscale ambience with a Cambridge vibe, and a classy bar area. The customers' attire ranged from casual to dressy.

We ate inside because it was rainy and cool, but Oleana also has a beautiful courtyard. You can't make reservations specifically for the courtyard, so if you want to be assured of a place out there, book for a very early dinner. (Our friend said that in winter there is a fire going in the fireplace.)

Whether you dine indoors or in the courtyard, make a reservation as far in advance as possible. The place is popping.

The food we had was an inventive assortment of Mediterranean flavors, with delicious, unexpected tastes (their website describes it as "Arabic influenced foods of the Mediterranean with a strong lean towards Turkish"). The chef, Ana Sortun, received the James Beard Foundation Award for being the American Express Best Chef of the Northeast in 2005. I know this because the medal was hanging on the wall.

We were all more than happy with our dishes. I had a vegetarian special that was a lasagna involving corn and yogurt, topped by a kale-like green. Delicious, and a very generous portion (it's now in my refrigerator for tomorrow's lunch). The lemon vinaigrette on my farm greens was a nice surprise ("How can I get this into my life?" is the closest I can come to the thought that flashed into my head as I took the first bite.)

My husband said that his Trout Spanakopita with Cucumber, Avocado & Salmon Roe was out of this world. Our friend was equally happy with his Misty Knoll Flattened Lemon Chicken with Za'atar & Turkish Cheese Pancake. The taste he gave me immediately convinced me that Za'atar, which I'd previously never heard of, was what had been missing from my existence. In case you haven't heard of it either, it's a widely-used Middle Eastern spice involving toasted sesame seeds, herbs, and salt.

In terms of appetizers, my husband loved the Chick Pea Terrine with Apricot, Pistachio & Tahini Sauce. Our friend got his favorite appetizer, Fried Mussels, Hot Peppers & Turkish Tarator Sauce, and was not disappointed.

We shared two desserts. The Chocolate Hazelnut Délice was nothing to complain about, but to us the winner was their famous Baked Alaska. The Nebbiolo, an Italian red wine, tasted good to me, a very unsophisticated wine drinker, but my husband thought it was a bit young. We stopped when we couldn't eat another bite, though I noticed that, aside from the regular wine list, there were a good number of dessert wines and even a few after-dinner beers on the menu.

By the way, there is free parking for restaurant patrons in a small parking lot directly across the street and another diagonally across the street at 139-145 Hampshire Street. It's important since there is very little Cambridge residential street parking for cars without Cambridge parking permits. On Sundays only, the permits aren't necessary.

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