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Review of Oleana (Long)

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Review of Oleana (Long)

VivreManger | Jan 19, 2003 07:46 PM

Since Oleana has not gotten much attention on the board, I thought a long review might be useful. I am curious to learn the reactions of others. On Monday night, 13 January I dined with two nephews at Oleana’s. I called around 6:00 hoping to score a table for 7:30, but settled at first for 9:00. When I was pleasantly informed they do not hold tables for more than 15 minutes, I bumped the time up to 9:15. The neighborhood is not parking-friendly, but a off-street lot is available, a fact I realized only after I had cruised around – with ultimate street success -- for ten minutes. The maitre di’s reception was friendly and we were led through the main dining room, past a warm, wood-burning stove to the bar. The main room is packed with tables. The dining area near the bar is less crowded – at least at 9:15 -- and has a view of the kitchen. That evening the temperature seemed about 10 degrees Fahrenheit so the third dining option, a garden terrace was not available. In the summer it is supposed to be very attractive and presumably less crowded.

Unfortunately not all the anticipated items were on the menu that evening. The Lemon-Pomegranate Bombe was without pomegranate. I did notice the deep-fried mussels – a classic Turkish appetizer. Hummus and bastirma, grilled octopus, and a shrimp saganaki were among the appetizers. In addition to the grilled lamb steak and cod cassoulet, other entrees included duck breast, and monkfish in marsala orange sauce. The diners next to us ordered the lamb and duck, with which they were very pleased. At our table, the three of us shared two appetizers, the shrimp and octopus, and three main courses two orders of the monkfish and one of the cod cassoulet.

Over all, the meal had good moments, but the recipes still need a bit of tweaking. The grilled octopus with spicy Sicilian bread salad & warm mozzarella was good, though the parts were better than the whole. The combination of warm fresh mozzarella (buffalo, I believe) works very well with the peppers, capers, bread, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil et al. To spear that piece of cheese and bite this spongy, creamy slice, marinated in a spicy vinaigrette and vegetable and bread concoction is a delight. The grilled octopus tendrils – they looked more like calamari than octopus – were also tasty, though not as good as the grilled calamari at Delfina’s in San Francisco. However I never felt that the octopus taste and texture were well-integrated with the rest of this excellent dish. I would have been happier to have dropped the octopus and increased the mozzarella. The shrimp, onion, cheese saganaki was fine, but nothing exciting. The shrimp were good quality. I would have preferred that the onion be caramelized to add some zest to a mild dish. Of the two main courses, the monkfish was more successful than the cod. The marsala sauce which had a touch of orange complemented the fish very well, a delicately prepared and served timbale of basmati (I believe) rice and a garnish of vegetables finished the plate. I would have liked to have tasted more of that fish, but what I had was excellent.

The other dish, cod and cassoulet, was disappointing. For a cold winter night it was ideal, but the dish failed to integrate its separate tastes. A cassoulet should be an assertive, smoky, bean-creamy, rich thick pot au feu with delightful chunks of fowl, pork, lamb, or whatever else, ready to vary and stimulate the taste buds. If you add bread crumbs – which I personally can do without – they should form a crust at the top so that the rich sauce can harbor its own distinct smooth consistency, bubbling away beneath. Remarkably, in a cassoulet each element should retains its own distinct flavor and texture while contributing to an integrated whole. This cassoulet kept on stepping on itself. The crunchy bread crumbs were scattered throughout, preventing the sauce from achieving a rich smooth satiny consistency. The cassoulet itself consisted of beans and bacon, a rather poor country cousin to the real thing. The piece of cod was admirable, perfectly well-cooked, but it might as well have been sitting on top of a pile of Indian pudding, for all its relationship to the beans below. Somehow Ana Sortun took the classic Boston proverb, “Oh Boston, oh Boston, the land of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God!” as the basis for her recipe. This cod did not speak to those beans.

A bit of tweaking might do the trick, perhaps wrap the cod in a rich smoky bacon or a fine prosciutto and quickly pan-fry it to acquire those tastes before introducing the fish to the beans. Alternately or in addition, some smoked fish could have been added to the beans to bridge the taste divide that way. Some kind of integrating element is needed. We ordered a ’99 red sancerre, a wine I did not know, but which went well with the cassoulet.

The deserts, prepared by the pastry chief, Maureen Kilpatrick, had good and bad points. One nephew had the salted almond ice cream with chocolate soufflé cake and, pining after the lemon-pomegranate bombe, I settled for the pear sorbet vacherin. The combination of almond and chocolate is always effective. Here it was heightened by crunchy salty almond slices circling the desert. The combination of taste and texture was delightful. On the other hand the chocolate center-piece was a bit dry. My nephew said that the new desert only restaurant in Harvard Square, Finale’s has a better cake. My pear sorbet was on the whole very good, except for a certain cloying aftertaste whose source I could not identify. The vacherin was good, but it could have been a bit thinner and more delicate so that the taste and texture of each element could have been more easily enjoyed together. As it was, the vacherin supported the sorbet like some stolid solid heavy white cloud.

As we were leaving -- it was past the closing time of 10:00 PM -- the hostess was sitting at the bar enjoying the warm buttered hummus stuffed into cigars of bastirma – it looked like an appetizer, to be sampled next time. Ana Sortun’s food is worth a visit, but not every element works as well as it should. Perhaps next time pomegranates will be in season or a bit of its molasses will stand in for the fresh fruit?

Price: The meal with wine and tip for the three of us came to $166, of which the most expensive single item was the red sancerre, $40. That price incidentally is on the lower third of what is offered. Generally appetizers run about $9, the main courses run in the high teens to mid-twenties, and the deserts are about $9 as well. Note that price included only two appetizers and two deserts. Had we each ordered more the bill would have hit $190.

Their web-site gives sample menus, prices, and photos.

Service: The wait staff is consistently pleasant and helpful.

Rating: My frame of reference is restaurants in Turkey, as well as in Boston, SF, and Paris. In terms of Mediterranean cuisine Oleana gets more credit for imagination than for execution. One can easily eat far better in Istanbul or SF than here. For Boston this is an interesting place, but on the basis of one visit I would not put it among my favorites. However it is worth a return engagement.

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