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Restaurant Review | Oleana impresses with varied, innovative menu

Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 08:02

Oleana is the kind of restaurant that could easily suffer from being over-hyped. It boasts an impressive 28 Zagat rating and was named Boston’s best Middle Eastern restaurant by Boston Magazine in 2012. Plus, getting a reservation requires thinking ahead — often, calling a week in advance won’t guarantee you’ll be able to get a table at the time you want. Fortunately, Oleana more than lives up to the hype — for anybody looking for a culinary adventure in Cambridge, Oleana is the place to go.

Tucked away near Inman Square, the restaurant is a 10 to 15 minute walk from the Central or Kendall T stops — so for those without cars, getting there does require a certain level of commitment. It’s certainly worth the effort, however; with its varied, distinctive menu and collection of mouthwatering desserts, Oleana provides customers with an exceptional dining experience.

Options for dinner are broken down into several categories: meze, fish, meat and sides. The best way to truly enjoy Oleana is to order several meze — appetizer-size dishes — for the table. The options for meze are much more extensive and innovative than the other alternatives — and sampling several of these smaller plates allows patrons to fully experience the breadth of Oleana’s menu. (The restaurant’s staff recommends ordering two or three dishes per person.)

The spinach falafel, which comes with tahini sauce, beet yogurt and cress, is an absolute must-have. The food is placed delicately on a thin piece of bread that patrons are encouraged to wrap around the falafel so that it can be eaten like a sandwich. It’s a remarkably savory combination — and for an extra kick of flavor, be sure to also eat the small pickle included on the plate. The result is slightly messy but entirely satisfying.

Other stellar options include the fried mussels and the muhlama, a Turkish-style cheese fondue. Beware of the fried hot peppers that accompany the mussels — accidentally biting into one can make for an unpleasant surprise — though, fortunately for those who shy away from spice, the Turkish tarator sauce can help reduce the heat. The muhlama, meanwhile, is a delightfully different version of the cheese fondue Americans may be used to eating. Garnished with vegetables, including a handful of flavorful Brussels sprouts, the cheese is filling but not overwhelming. Diners can choose to dip in bread or simply dig in with forks — either way, it is the kind of plate that gets scraped clean.

Dessert at Oleana is also not to be missed. The options are wonderfully diverse and equally appealing, which makes choosing one quite challenging. If indecision strikes, order the frozen olive oil soufflé with dark chocolate créux. The frozen soufflé is somewhat of a revelation. Indeed, this dessert, which boasts an exemplary combination of flavors and textures, as well as an unexpected presentation, is unlike any other.

Part of the fun of Oleana is being surprised by food itself. This is the kind of restaurant where you never know how the dish you ordered will look when it comes out. For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern and Turkish fare, everything from the chickpea terrine to the lamb manti seems to defy expectations. The restaurant pleasantly catches its diners off guard — each meze is an utter surprise. The constant astonishment makes for an exciting and entertaining experience — especially for new customers encountering this innovative menu for the first time.

This being said, Oleana is not for diners who like to play it safe. You will find no Caesar salads or cheeseburgers on the menu; in fact, there is no traditional American food to speak of. This is refreshing for those looking for a culinary change-of-pace, but if you are seeking a restaurant where chicken fingers or mac and cheese grace the menu, Oleana is not the place for you.

Oleana is also the rare restaurant that manages to prevent any chilly winter air from finding its way into the dining area. Its warm décor creates a cozy, welcoming feel, and the staff is exceptionally friendly and helpful. The tapas-style dining makes for excellent conversation, but the noise-level remains a cheerful hum of chatter in the background — considering how full the room usually is, it is surprisingly easy to converse with everyone at the table.

Off the beaten path and a little pricey, Oleana might not be ideal for a college student on a budget; however for those interested in getting away from Davis Square it is a solid option. The food doesn’t disappoint — and it’s well worth the trip, especially if you can get mom and dad to pay next time they stop by for a visit.

Oleana is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. For any questions or to make reservations, call (617)-661-0505.

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