When the Loon and I decided to do a culinary tour of Boston, a city touting some of the best chefs and restaurants in the country, right from the get-go, we knew Chef Ana Sortun’s Oleana in Cambridge had to be on our “must go to” list. And, wow, this unique and thriving house of flavor did not disappoint.
Chef Sortun was awarded the highly coveted James Beard Foundation “Best Chef in the Northeast” in 2005. She also competed on Top Chef Masters in 2010. It was from our obsession of watching Top Chef that we first learned about Ana.
Ana was trained at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and opened her first restaurant Moncef Medeb’s Aigo Bistro in Concord, MA, in the 90s. Not much later, she continued to hone her culinary skills and perspective at 8 Holyoke and Casablanca in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA. While at Casablanca, a friend of the owner invited Ana to study in Turkey. She accepted the challenge, and by doing so, it opened up a new world of flavors, spices…and an approach to food that was entirely new to her.
She recalls learning that in the Eastern Mediterranean, spice was used to create a richness and depth. Layered flavors, but without the heaviness. She discovered the ‘mezze’ style of eating, which is to experience several lighter, mostly vegetable-based dishes before hitting the main course of protein. Sortun says “chefs always focus on flavor and appearance, but few think about how one feels after eating a long meal.” The Loon and I can certainly attest to that notion (not that we’re complaining, though!)
Ana brought this new passion for Eastern Mediterranean spices and cuisine back to Boston. She also knew that using only the very best ingredients was paramount to her vision. In 2001, this vision became a reality when she opened Oleana in Cambridge to immediate rave reviews. The New York Times said: Sortun’s food “is at once rustic – traditional and deeply inventive.” Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post proclaimed: “Should you have time for only one place to eat (in Boston), make it this place.”
Oleana is small but beautiful, located in a quiet and unassuming part of Cambridge. Relaxing and comforting are words that come to mind when I think of our experience there. There is an outdoor patio that is gorgeous, even award-winning. It was still a little too chilly for the patio to be open when we were there, but we could tell just by looking at it why it was so popular with locals. We now understand what people mean when they say there isn’t a better place to dine than Oleana, especially on a warm Cambridge evening.
Now, on to the food. The glorious food. Our server, Ryan, could not have been more attentive, and guided us through an incredible dining experience. Even Chef Ana came out and checked on us. In spending some time with her, it became even more evident why this place is so special. I did ask her where she got the idea of the name Oleana…it was simple…it’s her full name (duh, Kris). This nugget of insight led to us learning that she is Norwegian. Well, that’s all it took, being that the Loon is Norwegian as well, a bond was instantly made. More about our conversation and subsequent interview with Ana later (Keep an eye out for our all new Chef’s Corner).
I digress…Let’s get back to the food.
We started off with a series of ‘Meze’ dishes…(sort of like an appetizer..but not near as heavy as the usual American fare). First, lightly fried cauliflower, served with a Moroccan-style butter with a touch of honey and almond in it. It was topped with Dukkah, a spice blend mixed with sesame seeds and almonds. Incredible.
Next, we were brought grilled octopus over feta polenta with a sweet pepper relish and olive jam. Are you kidding me?
And we’re just getting started. Ana sent out the next dish to us…an incredibly tender beef short rib in a tamarind glaze, sitting on top of a smoky eggplant and pine nut puree, topped with dill. This dish is called Sultan’s Delight. How can someone make something so incredibly delicious? You’ll have to have Ana Sortun answer that question.
It just keeps coming. Another surprise from the kitchen: Spinach falafel over a beet tzataiki yogurt sauce, topped with house-made tahini sauce with pickled vegetables on the side. Look how vibrant this dish is! And flavor? Through the roof!
All right, we had come this far into Oleana paradise, there was no going back…(like we’d ever want to). We had an amazing round of Meze dishes. Now, let’s get onto the main dishes. The Loon, naturally, went for steak. To be specific, he had a super tender and flavorful hanger steak over a grilled pita with eggplant puree, along with a salad of marinated eggplant, asparagus and fava beans. Finished with a preserved lemon and herbed butter. It was so delicious, The Loon nearly became delirious.
Fortunately, my plate helped bring him back into focus. Lemon chicken served over a Turkish pancake made from 3 different cheeses. The chicken was seasoned with spices and Za’atar, a wild herb, similar to thyme, blended with sesame seeds and sumar. Unbelievably scrumptious.
Well, why stop there? Were we full? Sure…but it was a satisfied full. You didn’t feel as though you were about to drop into a food coma. So, why not logically bring out dessert? In fact, why not two desserts? There are not words adequate enough to describe the two dessert dishes we had from Pastry Chef Maura Kilpatrick.
Let’s start with the epic Baked Alaska. The base of this tantalizing work of art was a coconut Macaroon, topped with coconut ice cream, and then entirely encased with an incredible meringue…and then baked and flambèed, finished with a passion fruit caramel sauce. Yeah, no words.
And finally, one of the best desserts we’ve ever had. It’s called a Tahini Katmir. The katmir is a thin yufka pastry, which is Turkish flatbread. It is stuffed with a tahini cream and then pan seared, served warm. This was served with a fun parfait, starting with a Halvah cream on the bottom (Halvah is a Middle Eastern confection made with sesame flour and honey), then a layer of espresso granita, and topped with Fairy Floss (The Loon’s new favorite thing to say)…which is sesame cotton candy. And then…that’s all served next to Straciatella ice cream, made with Halvah and sheets of chocolate running through it. We had reached nirvana.
Our dining experience at Oleana exceeded our already high expectations. To say the food (not to mention the extensive wine selection) transcends the mundane, would be such an understatement, it would be ridiculous. There is truly something magical in the dishes that Chef’s Sortun and Kilpatrick have created.
The awards and accolades that Chef Sortun have received merely underscore and validate the passion she has brought to life. She even married the man, Chris Kurth, who owns the farm, Siena Farms, that provides the freshest, beyond-organic produce there is to Oleanna. (Siena, by the way, is the name of Chris and Ana’s daughter). Ana has also opened Sofra Bakery & Cafe in Cambridge, as well as Sarma – a Mezze bar in Somerville, MA…both to rave reviews.
Thanks to Ryan, our amazing server, and the entire team at Oleana that made our dining experience one we will hold dear to our hearts forever. We can hardly wait to come back again (next time…when it’s warm, out on that patio).
And most of all, thank you Chef Ana, for you generosity, your passion, and your talent.
Oleana, by all means, is a ‘must do’ when heading to the Boston area. Trust the Loon and me, you will NOT be disappointed.Oleana 134 Hampshire Street Cambridge, MA Phone: 617-661-050 Website: http://www.oleanarestaurant.com/index.asp Hours: Sunday – Thursday, 5:30 – 10:00pm
Friday – Saturday, 5:30 – 11:00pm.
Reservations strongly recommended (can be made through Open Table on the Oleana website). Dress code: Casual Free parking diagonally across the street from the restaurant (139-145 Hampshire St).