It is the rare restaurant that makes it through a dozen years in business and still requires advance planning to get a reservation. Chef-owner Ana Sortun’s Oleana is one. What keeps it relevant? Invigorating, interesting spices, food that is flavorful but not too heavy, an adventurous wine list, and a pastry program that doesn’t get short shrift. Many other restaurateurs might learn from its example. Playing it safe with American comfort food, relying too heavily on bacon and butterfat, and cutting corners on drink and dessert are practices too frequently seen in local restaurants in recent years.
Since Oleana opened in 2001, its cuisine has become iconic. Describing it feels akin to explaining that the MFA’s “Dance at Bougival” is a romantic painting by Renoir, or that Kenmore Square’s Citgo sign is highly visible: If you’ve been, you already know. You’ve tasted dishes inspired by the traditional cooking of Turkey, the Middle East, and beyond, perfumed with za’atar and mint, Aleppo and Urfa peppers, cumin and cardamom. You’ve seen how these far-flung flavors meet the ingredients of New England on the plate. Right now, all of the produce comes from Siena Farms, operated by Sortun’s husband, Chris Kurth; Oleana has been local and seasonal since before local and seasonal was something to be. The food tastes both like home and away.
Something as basic as carrot puree becomes thrilling augmented with dukkah, an Egyptian spice mix that includes cumin, coriander, nuts, and sesame. The humble deviled egg demands to be inhaled when the creamy yolk is blended with tuna and black olives, a double dose of brine. Falafel laced with spinach is set on flatbread against a hot-pink backdrop of beets and yogurt.
Fideos, vermicelli crushed and toasted, have a unique, warm flavor, underscored by chilies. Combined with chickpeas and chard, with a lilt from orange aioli, they seem plain at first; each bite further reveals how delicious, how sneakily compelling, this dish is. Sultan’s delight is a small plate with outsize flavor: tender beef glazed in tamarind, paired with wonderfully smoky, silky eggplant puree studded with pine nuts. Tastes, textures, and flavors that could compete instead build on one another.
The heart of this menu is small plates, or meze, and they are the main joy of eating at Oleana. Happy, then, is the news that Sortun is opening a meze-focused restaurant in Somerville with previous Oleana chef de cuisine Cassie Piuma. (Former sous chef Cara Chigazola-Tobin now fills those shoes at Oleana. Sortun — product of La Varenne cooking school in France, James Beard award winner, author of the appropriately named cookbook “Spice,” and veteran of the local restaurant scene — appears adept at recognizing and raising up talent.) To be called Sarma, the new place is slated to open around Labor Day.
The half-dozen or so bigger plates at Oleana hold their own, too — the impossibly juicy lemon chicken flattened under a brick, skin embedded with herbaceous, citrusy za’atar, served over a Turkish cheese-filled pancake like a more-delicate blintz; the “spanakopita” that puts the spinach filling into trout instead of phyllo dough, topped with a luscious dollop of avocado, crisp cucumbers, and plump orange roe. It’s the California roll’s elegant cousin, all clean, cool flavors.
Maura Kilpatrick is Oleana’s brilliant executive pastry chef — her skills are also on display at Sofra, the Cambridge bakery and cafe she and Sortun run together — and Molly Rabideau is the pastry chef de cuisine. They turn out legendary sweets like a baked Alaska, frothy, toasted peaks cloaking coconut ice cream and passion fruit caramel, and Turkish-style profiteroles filled with buttercream, festooned with sesame cashew caramel and rich, crumbly halva. (Oleana’s nougat glace, sadly not available on any of my recent visits, is one of my favorite desserts in Boston.)
But iconic status can weigh heavily. Oleana’s offerings have grown familiar. The challenge for the kitchen is to make the food taste fresh again night after night, after all these nights. It doesn’t always happen. On one visit, flavors are spot on. On another, they are muddied. “Did Oleana seem kinda tired and wilty,” one friend texted after mulling over a recent dinner we shared.
And on that visit, it did a bit. Seated late, we spent our meal feeling rushed. A server tried to dissuade us from ordering “too many” dishes. We had to push to get someone sent over to advise us on wine director Lauren Friel’s alluring, flavor-driven list. (Did we want something that tasted like “preserved lemon & green cardamom” or “barberries, sumac & hibiscus”? The latter, it turned out, a bottle of 2010 Jacques Puffeney poulsard, pale red, earthy, and a wonderful complement to the food.) The person who ordered Oleana’s generally excellent vegetable tasting menu — a longtime draw for vegetarians — never received the final savory course. A lamb entree appeared hastily thrown together. Over the years, I’ve had beautiful meals and wan ones here. So much depends on the energy level of the staff each night.
One of the best ways around any sense of fatigue is to order newer dishes, seasonal items, and specials — anything with burrata; the tomato and eggplant dishes that have just started appearing on the menu; a lovely, cooling dessert version of bisteeya (minus the fowl) with white chocolate labne, poached peaches, peach gelee, and basil syrup.
Then, if possible, eat outside. Oleana’s dining room centers on a frenetic open kitchen. It feels cramped, the textiles verging on dated, the chairs uncomfortable. (So are Sofra’s; let’s hope for a bit more padding at Sarma.) Al fresco tables, on the other hand, are located in an enchanted garden filled with twinkling lights and lush plants. There may be no prettier or more romantic outdoor space to eat in the Boston area.
Jewel-like, it stands out the way the restaurant’s food does on a good night, when everything clicks. After a dozen years, Oleana retains its integrity. In a town where every good concept has its imitators, there is still nothing else quite like it.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.