Restaurant Review: Oleana

Oleana, a clever name for this terrific little restaurant, is surrounded with walls as blue as the Mediterranean and offers Middle Eastern dishes done with a decidedly Turkish spin. Named after its owner, Oleana means “hidden paradise” in Norwegian, and that is exactly what you will find here. Expect simple char-grilled meats and savory rice and vegetables galore in a myriad of forms from blatant rough cuts to indescribably delicious smoothness. And it seems that diners are eager for the haunting flavors this kitchen has to offer. On weekends, even with confirmed reservations, diners may have long waits as serving staff and kitchen struggle to supply the nonstop demand. The traffic might be lighter if you choose to dine earlier in the evening or during the week.

Though our wait was long, the warm ambiance created by the richness of the wood, stone and iron, was inviting and time seemed to pass by quickly. The bar was small, so we opted to wait in the lounge area, which consisted of a low bench scattered with Arabic style leather patchwork pillows and a small wood burning stove. Although the lounge was intrusively placed in the walkway of the main kitchen, it was still comfortable enough to dissolve Boston’s cold weather woes as we enjoyed a spicy glass of Middle Eastern style Sangria, while sitting by a roaring fire.

You are encouraged to begin your meal with a prˆt a manger, small finger foods that are eaten with bread. A popular favorite that has been on the menu almost since the restaurant’s inception includes warm olives with wild oregano and sesame seeds, a perfect start to any meal. The deviled eggs, with tuna and black olives, were extremely good. The creamy blend of fresh tuna and herbed mayonnaise was a delightful twist to an old classic. The spicy carrot puree and Egyptian spice mix with nuts and oil arrived somewhat bland, but since it was such a creative blend of textures and flavors, I would try it again. In addition to the finger foods, there are a variety of tasty appetizers, ranging from Pumpkin B”rek with apple, arugula and tahini to Tamarind Glazed Shortrib with tabouleh. One of my favorites was the fried mussels, which was made more savory since it was doused with peppers and tart Turkish Tarator sauce. Warning: the fried mussels are not meant for the faint of heart, one wrong move with the peppers and you may loose your taste buds!

A knowledgeable and helpful staff was anxious to help me select from the wide variety of entrees offered. I was even able to consult the award winning chef and co-owner Ana Sortun, about which entrees were her particular favorites. With her advice I selected a unique fish dish, cinnamon crusted halibut with spinach, which promised to be a fabulous experience. Served lightly poached with fried almonds and celery root skordalia, it carried the aromas of Oleana’s signature blend of Middle Eastern spices. It also managed to balance these with the sweet taste of cinnamon. The grilled lamb with Turkish spices is an entr‚e that should not be missed. This simply prepared grilled lamb steak with savory yogurt sauce, served with fava bean moussaka, was robustly delicious.

The kitchen also recommends the lighter vegetarian tasting menu, which boasts the chef’s choice of five different entrees, which may include eggplant souffl‚ with arugula, garlic and almond soup or red lentil kofte, and is accompanied by a dessert.

Desserts rarely trump a good Middle Eastern meal, but Oleana’s selection of homemade ice creams, pastries, and crŠmes were exquisite. Once I found out that the pastry chef, Maura Kilpatrick had won accolades from the likes of The New York Times and Food and Wine Magazine, I knew any selection I made would result in total bliss. I sampled tiny profiteroles filled with creamy homemade honey vanilla ice cream based atop a swirl of sweet syrup made with fresh mulberries and pomegranates. It was amazing. You could also try the caramel apple parfait with black walnut baklava or the baked Alaska; served with coconut ice cream and passion fruit caramel sauce.

The unique spice combinations, remarkably flavorful deserts and pressed coffees really set Oleana apart from other Mediterranean restaurants that I have visited. A three-course dinner for two came to about $80. While this was a little expensive for a student’s budget, after considering the quality of the food, atmosphere and service, I thought it represented a good value.