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5/2/11 Oleana: Amazing Arabic in Cambridge

I was a fan of Ana's from waaay back when she first arrived here, through catering and her formative and impressive turns at 8 Holyoke, Aigo, Casablanca . We followed her and we loved her food . But three really bad service experiences at Oleana in 2001- kept us away until tonight. We both still found the room boring and unappealingly appointed and the tables waaay too close(I can recount word for word the conversations on either side of me,and neither group was speaking loudly.) But the food, now THAT was some food!

I'd have to say(very uncharacteristically) that everything was a highlight, but, if pressed, I would give the four star nod to the app. of Turkish BBQ'd Octopus w/ vermicelli in a ginger broth

(w/ at least 3 more elements in there)- a robust and lovely bowl of tenderness and textures, protein, carbs and greens. Wow.Major wow. A dish like that tells you all you need to know about the genius of the chef behind it. Also brilliant was the Prosciutto and Sage Wrapped Roasted Parsnips w/ Creamy Ricotta, Greens and agro dolce elements. So many textures and layers of flavors playing together in bright clean counterpoint. No culinary mumbling here. Ana's signature Chinese anise flavored short rib at Casablanca was always a fav, and she has another short rib hit at Oleana- Sultan's Beef, w/ a tamarind glaze and side pool of babaganoosh. App. portions went from normal(beef) to very generous(parsnips). Somewhat related to her Sari's Lamb (at Casablanca)- is her entree of Braised lamb chunks in filo, topped with a yoghurt spread and sitting on a bed of luscious 'Everything Green". When the busser asked if he could clear, we told him Yes, that we had decided not to eat the china.(But that was only because we had managed to get up every bit of everything that had originally adorned that plate.) Ana operates from a wide base of knowledge about all foods Arabic. One of the delights after a dinner here is realizing how clean you feel, even if you ate alot. No heavy rich dairy-laden or fatty foods. Lots of vegetables, and, especially, lots of greens. And, revealed in all, a masterful hand with spices and textures.

As tempting and original as many of the dessert components were, we passed because a) No room left at the Inn, and b) I am morally opposed(really?yes) to $14 desserts that do not involve amazingly labor intensive moves(handmade filo or puff pastry, pulled sugar, among many) or caviar/truffles/foie gras.

Service was excellent. Nobody rushed us, neither the 'tall- Steven-Tyler' waiter(very informed about the food too) or the Hollywood handsome busser. We super enjoyed our meals and will return soon, to the wider spacing of the patio tables. I really do think that Oleana has, along with a small handful of places, one of Boston's most unique menus. And aren't we lucky for it.

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Oleana
134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, MA 02139

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  1. I'll note that Sortun is of Turkish ancestry, and Turks are not Arabs. I'd characterize Oleana as serving a modern pan-Mediterranean style of cuisine, not Arab, as her food draws from cultures all over the region, from Portugal all the way around to the Maghreb, leaning a bit toward Turkish, yet is not highly traditional.

    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

    2 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      Hey! This is a little late, I realize, but I just stumbled upon this thread. Just want to let you know -- Ana's not of Turkish ancestry. Or Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern. She's of Norwegian descent (her full name, Oleanne, means "promised land" or "heaven" in Norwegian). And she's from Seattle. This is an oft-made mistake, since her last name's uncommon. Hope that clarifies things for the future.

      1. re: perpetual waitress

        thanks much; i could not remember for the life of me her family roots except that i knew she was from seattle (interestingly enough, seattle was a real pioneer in the woman exec.chef phenomenon) as is andy husbands.

        As an update, we have eaten here twice recently and i swooned over the Tuna kibbeh; and the Azuluna Pork, Crispy Pea Paella, Fried Fiddleheads & Paprika Sauce(this dish has varied a lot at 2 different meals, but can be tremendous) . And my fav of all, the Red Lentil-Coconut Kibbeh, Zucchini Chutney & Curry Sauce -a set up on the monkfish plate, which i ordered as a side. It features lovage- one of my fav herbs, all too rarely used.

    2. I'm a big fan of Ana since way back as well and totally agree with the mastery of textures and spices...I can't wait to try that octopus. I get what you mean about the $14 dessert, but that's the Baked alaska. Others are a dollar or two cheaper and do have multiple labor-intensive elements, such as the Chocolate Crème Brulee, Date Terrine, Rose Petal Jam & Cocoa Sherbet for $12.

      What I really have trouble with is the prices at her cafe, Sofra, especially given the small portion sizes, lack of comfortable seating, and no table service. The pastries and food I've tried are amazing and full of exotic, high quality ingredients, but I can't afford them, especially when the wait is so annoying even at off-peak times. And I know she gets those spices from a guru in NY who only imports the best....I bet the per pound price rivals gold
      !

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      Sofra
      1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

      18 Replies
      1. re: Madrid

        Good spices are just not THAT expensive. Just check out Penzey's...

        1. re: StriperGuy

          What I find more galling is the pint of cherry tomatoes in season for something like $6. I know they are individually shammied but c'mon!

          1. re: Bob Dobalina

            What you may not know is that they are both shimmied and shammied. Hence the high cost.

          2. re: StriperGuy

            This should probably be in a separate Sofra thread, but I think a major reason for the prices at Sofra is the short shelf/counter life of the sorts of sweets they sell. Things soaked in syrup get soggy quickly, things with dairy fillings taste off, etc. By and large the sweets at Sofra are in good, often great condition when you buy them. I know you're a fan of the places up the street in Watertown, as am I for many things. But the sweets there, although cheaper, are often just a bit past prime condition. I've had too much soggy baklava in my lifetime to want any more. I'd rather pay $3 for a single perfect pastry once every two or three weeks than $1 for a so-so version twice a week. Pay more, enjoy better food, and eat less -- that's my motto.

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            Sofra
            1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

            1. re: FoodDabbler

              Perhaps true on the desserts, but when a basket of 8-10 cherry tomatoes is $6...

              1. re: StriperGuy

                I agree on the desserts, they are excellent and I don't buy them very often at all. I was thinking as well of the prepared foods...I got some excellent zhoug, for example, and it seemed high...but then, those prepared foods at Arax, etc. are perhaps not out of the range.

                I know this is going to get split into a new thread any minute now but the spices actually are relevant to the food at Oleana since she uses them...and she used to sell them there before Sofra opened. I think Penzey's and Christina's spices are fine for my purposes, but they are far above supermarket quality and I must admit to drooling over the web site of the guy in NY who does Ana's spice blends. I suspect that there are some truly superior spices in the world and if I could afford it, I'd do a tasting comparison. His site is
                http://www.laboiteny.com/spices.html
                and it has links to two vendors, one cheaper than the other. Two of the most expensive blends, Dali and Salvador, include saffron and are $27 for 2.5 oz. Other blends go as "cheap" as $19 for 2.25 oz. You can get tricked by the prices because some are sold in smaller "doses."

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                Sofra
                1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                Oleana
                134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, MA 02139

                1. re: Madrid

                  Well, I grind, and blend all my own spices. Anything that is pre-ground, no matter the semi-mythical quality get's stale in a matter of weeks to months.

                  Here are the actual spice blends, and the prices here are just plain silly:

                  http://www.theingredientfinder.com/sh...

                  I assure you that if you by fresh whole spices, and grind your own, there is nothing magic about what they are doing, other then a quasi magic ability to separate some folks from their $.

                  In fact to grind, and pre-blend saffron is practically criminal because it goes stale so quickly once ground.

                  The Catalan blend for example is $15 for 2.25 ounces. Here on tienda.com is the absolute finest smoked Spanish paprika (the primary ingredient of this blend) two 2.25 ounce tins for $9.95.

                  Or here, $15 for 1.5 ounces of tarragon, rosemary oregano and basil, seriously?

                  http://www.theingredientfinder.com/sh...

                  To quote Sidney Frank who invented Gray Goose Vodka and sold it to Bacardi for $1.3 Billion: "Americans want to pay more."

                  http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/bizfina...

                  1. re: StriperGuy

                    Having had spices from many "premium" suppliers, I actually have to admit that Saffron King Behroush's are indeed better than any other.

                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      I agree that touching those beautiful saffron threads in any way before you are going to use them is totally criminal. I have whole everything that comes whole (not paprika). I also wonder what the "shellfish essence" is....maybe the same thing knorr puts in their "shellfish" bouillon cubes? And you need to toast before you grind...stripes I usually agree with you 100% (except maybe not about the cold brew coffee) so I sure don't want to argue here...but ....when I look at the spices at Sofra, some of them have seemed whole. And I have noticed distinct quality or maybe just personal preference differences between different sources of oregano in particular...mexican or greek or spanish, and even same country, different vendor. I'm done now!

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                      Sofra
                      1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                      1. re: Madrid

                        Don't get me wrong, there is a definite difference in qualities of spices, purveyors, etc. To a point.

                        Want fresh Saffron, score some from www.tienda.com and make sure it is bought just after the harvest. Great quality, decent prices.

                        Heck, McCormick makes EXCELLENT products as long as they are fresh.

                        That said paying $15 for 1.5 ounces of oregano, tarragon, and basil (which is terrible dried anyway) if far more Barney Frank than anything else.

                          1. re: StriperGuy

                            I have ordered from La Tienda in the past as well as from Spanish Table, but in the last few years I've gotten my saffron from Christina's. Have you tried Christina's and if so is La Tienda higher quality?

                            OK I said I was done but was in Belmont today so I stopped by Sofra so I'll be done soon! The spices packed in a "tower" and labeled Oleana are mostly not ground. However, most of the "La Boite" blends are ground. Interestingly, the prices at Sofra seem to be lower than those at the two vendors linked at the La Boite site: "Chios", a ground blend of basil, tarragon, oregano, and fennel, 1.5 oz, is $12 at Sofra, $15 at Ingredientfinder, and $17.99 at gigachef.

                            OK now I'm done.

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                            Sofra
                            1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                            Oleana
                            134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, MA 02139

                            1. re: Madrid

                              Saffron King is in an entirely different league than Christina's. An example: I love black cumin, and Christina's black cumin tastes like a musty closet; Saffron King's is wonderful. I have probably tried 25 of his spices, and each, for whatever reason, is more aromatic, ripe, fresh, something or other, than those of any other supplier.

                              1. re: almansa

                                I'm actually not a big Christina's fan myself. I do agree they have a freshness problem.

                                Penzey's does NOT and is a 1/3 of his prices. Have you tried Penzey's? Are his spices that much better?

                          2. re: Madrid

                            Just to further clarify, in particular with regard to Oregano, Greek, Mexican, Italian are such different strains as to almost be entirely different herbs altogether.

                            The delightful perfumey character of some Greek varieties, the punch of the Mexican ones, the, well, Oreganoey character of the classic Italian. I keep all three in the house most of the time, and switch up depending on my mood.

                2. re: Madrid

                  ok. maybe, on the desserts. Re :Sofra, agree w/ your first sentence completely but have not had one single sweet there that made me want another. MAy be that choco cookie. Just interesting but not my thing. just being consistent with my frequent rant about no great bakeries in boston. But then i'm driving a small bus on that one. A minivan probably.

                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                    i'm not sure you mean no great bakeries, vs. no great patisseries. I consider Clear Flour, Iggy's, Canto 6 and Japonaise excellent for what they produce. But since Delphine's went away, I haven't found a great patisserie (Japonaise comes close).

                    1. re: teezeetoo

                      tz,we have great bread i think. But not talking bread; just sweets. delphines did not impress me either; never a fan. And just to clarify, for me, a few good items does not a great bakery make.

                3. The original comment has been removed
                  1. I'm not a fan of the room, either, although if you can snag the table for 4 at the far end (from where you enter), you don't have the feeling as much that you're in your neighbor's lap. An alternative that has worked surprisingly well is to do takeout. As long as you order judiciously and don't have far to go, the food survives being packed reasonably well. For a while we often did this after a movie at Kendall. We'd call in an order as we left the theatre, pick it up after a 5 to 10 minute wait at the restaurant, and be enjoying it at home in about 10 minutes.

                    1. re: FoodDabbler

                      i also live in cambridge; what do you order from the spring menu? i was only there once several summers ago and not impressed; i wanted to return when the ingredients are at the peak.

                      1. re: cambridgedoctpr

                        I did this order-from-Kendall business some years ago, between 2005 and 2007 if I remember correctly. Since then our recreational habits have shifted a bit, and much of our fun is had in Manhattan. (When we last ate at Oleana it was in person, last fall.) I don't know if they still allow takeout. In any case the present menu is somewhat different from the ones we ordered from. I took a look at the present menu on their website and put a Y, N or M (maybe) against dishes based on my judgement of whether they would survive being packed. Things where texture seemed vital (crispness, etc.) got an N. Your judgements may differ from mine. Incidentally, I know from your posts that you live in Cambridge and don't think as highly of Oleana as I do. On the whole, I think your tastes in food overlap many of mine (we're both fans of Golden Garden) so I hope you'll give Oleana another chance and I hope you'll like it.

                        Warm Olives with Za'atar   Y
                        Spiced Carrot Purée & Dukkah   Y
                        Deviled Eggs with Tuna & Black Olives   Y
                        Warm Buttered Hummus with Basturma & Tomato   Y
                        Whipped Feta with Sweet & Hot Peppers   Y
                        Hot Pepper Labne with Olive Oil & Dried Mint   Y
                        Spring Vegetable Crudités & Muhammara   M
                        Fatoush – Chopped Escarole & Fennel with Orange, Fried Pita & Sumac Dressing   N
                        Cheeses – Homemade String Cheese, Mozzarella & Shanklish with Spiced Figs   Y
                        Moroccan-Style Barbecued Octopus - Rice Vermicelli, Mushrooms & Hot Ginger Tea   N
                        Spinach Falafel with Tahini, Yogurt, Beets & Crinkled Cress   N
                        Mango Spoon Salad, Green Hummus & Green Tahini with Fried Shishito Peppers   N
                        Spicy Fideos & Chick Peas with Green Chard & Orange Aioli   Y
                        Fried Mussels, Hot Peppers & Turkish Tarator Sauce   N
                        Tuna Kibbeh Nayeh with Turkish Spices, Pickled Onion & Herb Salad Y
                        Sultan’s Delight; Tamarind Glazed Beef & Smokey Eggplant Purée with Pinenuts   Y
                        Vermont Quail with Baharat, Barberries & Pistachio   N
                        Crispy Duck Wings with Mustard Greens, Black Harissa & Nigella Seeds   N
                        Pancetta & Sage Wrapped Parsnip, Ricotta, Pinenuts & Roasted Grape Agrodolce   N

                        FISH
                        Cod Baked in Red Pepper Sauce with Fried Clams & Marmalade of Greens   N
                        Trout Spanakopita with Cucumber, Avocado & Salmon Roe   N
                        Organic King Salmon with Black Garlic-Tahini Sauce & Beet Crouton with Cabbage & Shallot Confit   N

                        MEAT
                        Vermont Lamb with Turkish Spices, Pide & Everything Green with Garlic & Yogurt   M
                        Misty Knoll Flattened Lemon Chicken with Za’atar & Turkish Cheese Pancake   N
                        Azuluna Pork Saganaki with Potato, Leeks, Chanterelles, 
                        Wild Greek Herbs & Kasseri Cheese   M
                        Azuluna Sujuk & Date Brioche; Hazelnut Sarma & Celery Root-Endive Remoulade  M

                        SIDES
                        Moussaka—Minced Lamb & Eggplant Pie with Whipped Fava   M
                        Dark Leafy Greens with Toum   Y
                        Flattened Potatoes with Lemon & Oregano   N

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                        Oleana
                        134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, MA 02139

                        Golden Garden
                        63 Concord Ave, Belmont, MA 02478

                        1. re: cambridgedoctpr

                          On re-reading your post I realize that you may have been asking what to order to eat in rather than take out. That's a harder question to answer. The menu changes seasonally and I last ate there, as I said, in the fall. In general, I've had better experience with several small plates than with the one-app-one-main formula. The flavors in the small plates seem purer and more striking. I also like variety. Most of the last 10 items of the small plates on the present menu are new to me and if I were to go there tonight I would order many of them.

                          1. re: FoodDabbler

                            thank you, actually interested in both possibilities take out and eating in. i like turkish/arabic food and have had great meals in NYC and Chicago but was not impressed when i went to Oleana though even Homer sometimes nods.

                            Am also a fan of GG, Tamarind Bay, and the late lamented Tabla.

                            Thank you for answer.

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                            Oleana
                            134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, MA 02139

                    2. Perfect timing for this thread. Husband and I just went back to Oleana yesterday- had been a couple years ago and remember enjoying it, but not being blown away like we were last night. We splurged a bit and got three meze dishes - the Parsnips mentioned above (which were really good, although I liked them more than Husband did); a Squid and Greek Sausage dish which was okay; and an incredible asparagus dish that was on special- asparagus topped with a Hungarian pepper cream sauce and black truffles. Holy crap. Seriously. The best plate of asparagus I've ever had. Ever.

                      I had the trout spanokopita as my main and Husband had the lamb. Both were excellent, but I'm so happy I got the trout. The lamb was so heavy I would never have been able to come close to finishing. The trout, on the other hand, was a perfect springtime dinner option. Light, flavorful, and fresh.

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                      Oleana
                      134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, MA 02139

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Kirs

                        wow, seriously, that asparagus sound to-die-for. thanks for the report!