By Emily Nichols · 11/26/2016    Cambridge · Mediterranean · $$$$

Graduating? Got a promotion? Perhaps you have a half-birthday coming up. If you don’t have an occasion to celebrate, make one up—then lock in a reservation at Oleana. From the moment you enter this Cambridge institution, you’re surrounded by heady aromas, cool marble, geometric tile work, and deeply hued tapestries. Together they set a regal vibe and hint at the exotic delights ahead. Order yourself an aperitif to sip as you settle in (we’re partial to the Cocchi Americano) and get acquainted with the menu.

Sultan's Delight from Oleana

Chef Ana Sortun is famed for her seductive, spice-forward cuisine, which draws inspiration from Turkey, Lebanon, and Greece. This is Mediterranean food that your caprese-salad-loving mom has never seen: carrot hummus dusted with fenugreek and almond dukkah, spinach falafel on petit strips of lavash with tahini, grilled quail studded with pistachios and barberries, and lamb chops with hot pepper labne and freekeh salad (just to name a few). Wildly original dishes like these are the reason Oleana makes regular appearances on the James Beard nominee roster—and why you’re wise to book a table with a couple weeks’ lead-time.

Food from Oleana

It’s not flavors alone that Oleana imports from abroad but an entire approach to dining. The menu is heavily weighted toward small plates (meze), which lets you order liberally and design a shareable feast. Make selections upfront and your servers will expertly pace a steady cascade of delicacies, each one more tantalizing than the last.

While the spices and pace of that meze would feel right at home in Istanbul’s most coveted dining rooms, there’s an unmistakable localness in the way Sortun puts vegetables and fresh herbs on a pedestal. Particularly if you visit during the summer or fall, there’s a good chance they hail from Siena Farms in Sudbury, which is owned and operated by the chef’s husband Chris Kurth. With that seamlessly blended mix of freshness and exoticism, Oleana has become a mainstay. Whether we want to celebrate—or simply cozy up with some amazing food—Sortun has us finding excuses to come back.

Baked Alaska from Oleana

There is no wrong time to visit Oleana, but there is a best time—when the patio is open. Tucked behind the restaurant and strung with lights, this might be the most charming al fresco dining spot on our side of the pond.

We can attest that the Lebanese Cinsaut rosé goes with just about everything. But if you’re interested in branching out, the wine list is conveniently grouped to reflect flavor profiles you’ll encounter on the menu. For example the “Sumac, Orange Blossom, & Bergamot” section houses light-bodied whites, while jammy reds are found under “Smoked Paprika, Baharat, & Figs.”

For a slightly more casual take on Sortun’s famous cooking, visit Sarma in Winter Hill, Somerville—or swing by the always-packed Sofra bakery for breakfast, phenomenal baked goods and groceries curated by the chef herself.

Must Haves

  • Black olives, tuna, and curried mayo add just the right amount of fancy to this classic.

  • You’ve never had falafel with this dramatic of a crispy-outside-to-soft-inside ratio. To be slowly savored with bits of pickles and that magenta-tinged, beet-filled labne.

  • This dish is aptly named because tamarind beef short ribs alongside a cloud of whipped eggplant and yogurt totally rules.

  • Remember that special occasion you’re celebrating? This dessert—a coconut cookie topped with coconut ice cream, cloaked in merengue, and drizzled with passion fruit caramel—is the triumphant finale. Don’t skip it.

Fun Fact

In 2013 Ana Sortun published a cookbook, Spice, featuring some of Oleana’s most cherished recipes. If you know your way around a kitchen and how to hunt down rare spices (hint: Amazon), you can recreate the magic at home.

Tastes of Oleana

So good we can't stop writing about it. Read more about Oleana!

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