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New England Regional | The Tastes of Cambridge

Mediterranean Morsels

From Marrakesh to the Bosporus in three (or four, or five) courses

November-December 2003

The Mediterranean diet has become a kind of gold standard for healthy eating among the cognoscenti. Oleana, near Inman Square, proves that it can also satisfy the inner epicure. Drawing eclectically from Levantine, Arabic, Southern European, and North African cookery, well-traveled chef and co-owner Ana Sortun (formerly of Casablanca) offers a marvelously varied and spiced array of dishes from the sensual cuisine de soleil.

OLEANA

134 Hampshire St., Cambridge.
617-661-0505

Dinner and private lunches.
Free parking available.
Open seven days.
Reservations accepted.
Oleana's comfortable earth-toned dining room seats nearly 70, but it's not one of those fashionably boisterous, brittle bôites that oblige diners to shout their conversation. In warm weather, both flowers and herbs grow in the delightful walled garden with outdoor tables—one might glimpse a cook dashing out from the kitchen to snip a sprig of fresh Greek oregano.

Start with flatbread topped with a Levantine herb, za'atar, and then consider the unusual prêt à manger section: quick, uncooked items to nosh even before the appetizers. The Armenian bean and walnut paté with string cheese and pomegranate ($4) proved sensational, with fresh mint striking a subtly green note against the earthy bean/nut base. An appetizer of grilled, ouzo-marinated shrimp ($9) lacked ouzo's characteristic licorice taste. Its accompaniment, a small tasty casserole of peppers, tomatoes, onions, and a fried, wonderfully chewy haloumi cheese, stole the show.

If, as some say, cooking is 70 percent shopping, then the local organic farms that supply Oleana's fresh vegetables and greens deserve toques of their own. We tried the "vegetarian tasting menu" (five mezze—small dishes—and dessert, $38). The medley included a fatoush salad, featuring Syrian bread cooked crisp as papadam, with sesame and lemon juice dressing; a light, exquisite soufflé of eggplant and kasseri, a Greek cheese; pan-fried ricotta-and-bread dumplings served with kale, porcini mushrooms, and Parmesan for a flavorful mix of textures; and the exotic fideos, a complex dish built on nutty toasted vermicelli and chick peas, plus tomatoes, onions, chilis, cocoa, vanilla, and saffron singing in chorus against a toasted-orange-zest aioli.

The delicious grilled lamb steak with Turkish spices ($22) arrived at medium-rare perfection—tender, juicy, and exuding pungent tastes, one of them fresh mint. A yogurt and dried mint sauce topped the accompanying fava-bean moussaka, made with ground lamb and accented with cinnamon and raisins.

The wine list helpfully arrays its bottles from "light" to "full" in each category. It produced several decent glasses, although the Caves de Tain ($9) tasted more like Chianti than Syrah; we left it unfinished. A baked Alaska with coconut ice cream and passion fruit caramel ($9) was beautiful and scrumptious, but we recoiled from the nougat glacé ($9), which tasted like perfume.

Memories of subtle flavors and friendly service followed us out onto the street. It had been a night in the sun.

~C.L.