Saturday, February 09, 2008

from Cambridge, with warmth

Satiated with foods from the salty ocean waters the night of my arrival (Legal Seafood, for the curious), the next night we set out to eat at Oleana. I like being in spaces where celebrity chefs rule. I suppose it fills fill a void I have in not caring much (anything?) about popular culture and the stars that parade through it. Oleana has two celebrities – both women. I am into women succeeding in politics and in the kitchen.

Ana Sortun is Oleana's chief chef and owner. And it’s a charmed set up: she cooks with produce from a local farm named after her baby girl, Siena. I want to be their CSA member! I want to be part of the Siena family! Okay, okay, I’ll not get carried away here. But you can see how all this would appeal to me.

Ana won the James Beard award for the Best Chef in the Northeast in 2005. Madisonians will remember (should remember!) that Odessa Piper, former proprietor and chef at our own l’Etoile (digression: does anyone besides me notice how the NBC news anchor always says “our own” correspondent so and so? Creating fictional communities, because we lack real ones...), won a similar award, for Best Chef in the Midwest, back in 2001, when I was cooking in her kitchen. (Admittedly I did not prepare the signature, prize winning parmesan cup with greens the evening it was judged to be sublime. But I did throw it together on other nights…)

Then there’s Oleana’s Maura. She won Boston’s Best Pastry Chef award twice in the last decade! And no, it’s not because there aren’t others. Boston has a strong Italian influence with a lot of damn good canoli bakers. Though I suppose that does not fit the image of the best of the best.

Oleana fuses flavors from the eastern side of the Mediterranean. Turkey, for example. Spices from Egypt. The menu is lovely to read: Grilled Haloumi in Leaves with Yellow Foot Mushrooms and Ouzo, Grouper in Parchment with Moroccan Spices, Meyer Lemon and Fried Almond Couscous …

So, of course, you want to know what I ate. I’ll be honest: I picked the main dishes before I even set foot in the place. The haloumi, followed by the grouper with Moroccan spices… Oh, and I can't not mention the Prosecco aperitif with the juice of blood oranges, accompanying the whipped feta and hot pepper spread at the start of the meal, and the espresso baked something or other at the end, served with a refreshing espresso Sicilian granita.

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On the ride back, our Lebanese cab driver asked about the food at Oleana.
How much? - he wondered.
Mid-twenties for mains, I said.
Reasonable, he nodded. Of course, my wife, she cooks the best food.
Married long?
Eleven years. We fight, but we understand each other. You? Single?
I am. But friends with my ex.
That’s good. I’m friends with my ex girlfriend. We meet once a year, catch up.

Food, the great welcome mat: I invite you into a conversation. In the space of ten minutes, we will review decades of life and sigh.

Do you wonder why I take meals so seriously?

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At Oleana, there are wall hangings in the warm hues of middle eastern countries. With a fire place in the corner. Tiled-tables, waiters towering over you in the tight space of a long room. A bottle of Mediterranean wine (Cassis! At Oleana! The so very familiar Domaine de Bagnol!), a cup of Turkish coffee for one and an espresso for the other. I can hardly remember that outside, there’s a layer of ice and a dusting of snow.

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