I do not like staying up late. I'm hard-pressed to answer the phone when it rings after 9pm, let alone swipe on some lipstick and walk out the door for a 10pm (!) dinner reservation. But when a friend requests a birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant in Cambridge, regardless of the hour, I strap on my sandals and go.
I don't discuss restaurants much around here, but it wouldn't be fair to keep last night's meal a secret. I've been to Oleana at least half a dozen times, and every time it's like new. Chef Ana Sortun's food resists the routine chew and swallow pattern of everyday eating. At Oleana, it's more like chew, wide-eyed pause, sigh - which sounds more like a hum when your lips are closed and smiling - chew, lock eyes with one of your dinner companions while silently screaming "YES!," chew, swallow, murmur (this time out loud) "Oh my...," and then the grand finale: grab your friend's spoon, dig it into your dish, hand it over, and watch the whole thing unfold all over again. I have also witnessed variations on this sequence, including heads thrown back, swoons and slumps against nearby shoulders, spontaneous applause, and sharp, single smacks of the hand against the table. In the face of such culinary genius, improvisations along these lines are to be expected.
If you're reading this post from a computer somewhere in the Boston area - and I'm tempted to say that the "Boston area" includes points up to a three hour drive away, maybe further - I urge you to stop reading immediately, and make a reservation at Oleana for their next available table. Bring a friend, so you have someone with whom to share the five-course (plus dessert) vegetarian tasting menu. I go the tasting menu route every time, and I am never disappointed. Incidentally, my omnivorous dining companions always claim that their fish, meat, and poultry entrees are second-rate compared to the many small vegetarian plates that crowd our table.
Oleana. 10pm. I wasn't sure where I was going to find an appetite at that late hour, but as I pushed a nub of za'atar encrusted bread through a pillow of whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers, there it was. And it lasted through to the very end, this suddenly nocturnal appetite of mine. There were perfectly roasted parsnip fingers, forkfuls of greens both earthy and bright, and warm spiced olives. I not only burned the midnight oil, I slurped it right up.
Two dishes stood out: The first was a "cucumber spoon salad" served in something like a small yogurt jar. A layer of creamy sorrel Greek yogurt lined the bottom of the jar, and then came chopped cucumbers, grapes in some form, and sorrel granita. I think I could eat this "salad" every single day, forever, and never tire of it. The second extra-special moment came with dessert. I've ordered it time and again, and it never fails to wow me: Sicilian almond cremolata with a warm chocolate panino alongside. Oh, dear friends. It gets me every time. Imagine something like ice cream, but made with almond milk instead of cream, slip some candied sliced almonds between scoops, and there you have it. It's creamy, but light enough that the meal ends without the lopsided thud of a too-rich dessert. I haven't quite figured out how to eat the panino without getting chocolate all over my face, but I am committed to biting into as many as it takes until I get it right.
And you know what? I'll have my next chance in just one short week, because another friend of ours has requested Oleana as the site of his birthday dinner. Once again, come Saturday night, we'll be pulling up our chairs - this time at the slightly earlier hour of 9pm - and gearing up for a second vegetarian feast.
I can't wait.