There are perfect nights that you can just tell are going to be perfect nights. Everything lines up auspiciously. The plan: dinner at Oleana. The forecast: thunderstorms . . . later. The feeling in your bones: there will be a spot on the patio waiting for you. You can’t make reservations for these outdoor tables. You have to show up and hope that your timing is right.
There aren’t so many things that work this way anymore. We buy tickets in advance, vet the profiles of potential love interests, and book tables for dinners in far-flung locales before we head off on vacation. This is all very useful. We see the movie we want to see. We don’t date anyone with attributes we believe would be deal-breakers. We don’t eat one of those terrible vacation meals that leave one filled with regret and longing for what might have been. Oh, but it’s predictable. It’s same-same. It’s “you went to Paris and I went to Paris and we both ate the right dishes at the right restaurant because we both follow the right Instagram accounts.” We get bragging rights. We feel we’ve been. But we lose out on serendipity, on romance.
(Are you in a fulfilling relationship? Would you say your partner — that true chum and staunch supporter — has no attributes you might have believed would be deal-breakers?)
The uncertainty that you will get a table on Oleana’s patio heightens the specialness of eating in what is already an enchanted place. It’s a secret garden off Hampshire Street, a fenced-in space of twining vines and flowers in bloom, potted plants and sheltering boughs, opened umbrellas and strings of twinkling lights. Covered seating off to the side offers a view of the greenery, with tilted mirrors that reflect it back to those facing in the opposite direction. For years I’ve wanted to re-create the corner nook, with its round mirrors, trellises, and low-slung Moroccan tables, in my backyard. Someday.
If you can embrace not-knowing, you will be rewarded here. The chef’s choice of four vegetable meze and dessert is a deal: $45. If you find you try to control things more than you would like, if it is hard for you to let go, if you are looking for a gentle and delicious way to increase your stamina for surprise, here is an exercise for you. Arrive at Oleana without a reservation. Let the kitchen decide what you’re eating.
On one of those perfect nights recently, the crowd is lovably Cantabrigian, equal parts tweedy and bohemian, sensibly shod. The service is personal and sparkly. We sit under a turquoise and white-striped umbrella in the garden, where the air swells with ozone and wafting spices. It seems, given the location, wrong not to order the Patio Punch, a drink based on Byrrh, an aromatized red wine, with lemon and mint. Not too sweet, not too strong, and refreshing.
The meal begins with squares of za’atar-crusted bread, oil for dipping, and conversation. It’s leisurely. The meze start arriving. They change all the time, so that the chef’s choice is an entirely different meal from night to night.
So while we have a pea salad topped with a fluff of shaved cheese and a sprinkle of hazelnuts, its greenness and lightness accentuated by mint, you might get charred carrots with lemon labne and hazelnut sauce. We have toast topped with slow-roasted tomatoes and meaty gigante beans; you might get spinach falafel with tahini and beet yogurt. We have fatteh, a dish of caramelized onion and Romanesco topped with a paper-thin, rectangular pita cracker, yogurt, pine nuts, and crisped mushrooms; you might get imam bayildi (“the imam fainted”), stuffed eggplant with corn, peppers, and a dark tahini made with black sesame seeds. We probably both have topik, described on the menu as “stuffed hummus,” a chickpea-potato mashup lashed with sweet date molasses. At the end comes something sweet: Turkish-style profiteroles, maybe — or, if you’re lucky, baby baked Alaska, an adorably miniaturized version of Oleana’s best-known dessert.
A very nice thing to do is share all of this with a friend, and order a few additional meze to round things out. This way, if you want meat, you can have it, although the vegetable dishes are put together in such a way as to be quite filling.
We eat a skewer of charred shrimp with charmoula and slow-cooked Romano beans, the tang of Meyer lemon in the background. We gnaw on lamb chops served with a spill of labne over corn, cherry tomatoes, and zucchini flecked with dill. Both dishes are specials, ephemeral pleasures. We share a glass of wine because we care about Tomorrow Morning Us. “What a lovely place to be a bird,” we hear someone say, watching one bob about the garden. “What a lovely place to be a human,” her dining companion replies.
The wind is picking up. It feels ominous and invigorating. As we eat our dessert, a deep rumble comes from above. The gods must be hungry.
And then the deluge. Fat drops splat on the bricks around us, and people start to run for cover. But we are dry under our striped umbrella, or dry enough. We eat the last bites of baked Alaska as the rain sheets down around us.
134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505, www.oleanarestaurant.com