Does the old adage go, distance makes the heart grow fonder, or is it, distance makes the stomach grow bigger?
I think some of both happened for Jon and me during the two years he was in grad school at MIT.
Cambridge reminds me of a New England colored Brooklyn, with its beautiful old homes and low-key hip-ish family neighborhood feel (depending on which part you're in, as it's much bigger than I originally imagined, and without a car we only explored bits and pieces). Those bits and pieces are somewhat walkable, and very livable. Amongst the New England charm, images from various John Irving books pop into my head, as do thoughts of pilgrims with funny hats, socks and shoes (the mind wonders, the mind wanders).
To celebrate our five-year anniversary this past February, and later Jon's graduation, we feasted at Oleana restaurant, a James Beard Award winning Turkish extravaganza in Cambridge with prices that are low compared to NYC. According to its Web site, the cuisine "centers on the Arabic influenced foods of the Mediterranean with a strong lean towards Turkish." What this means is that every bite is a gift and the depth of flavor and smartly sprinkled spice in each dish is remarkable. For me, a restaurant as superb and special as Oleana defines why I love to eat and why I love to spend time eating. It also sets the bar high for restaurants that dare charge more than $25 an entree or sell themselves on a celebrity name or pomp and circumstance.
Oleana is a soft, warm restaurant that doesn't get too loud, even when it's full. In the winter there was a cozy fire going, and this past June, the back garden was in vibrant bloom. You can't go wrong with the menu. I recommend sharing everything so you can taste more. Jon's absolute favorite dish is an appetizer called Sultan’s Delight. It's a piece of tamarind-glazed beef with smoky eggplant purée and pinenuts. You can call it glorified brisket if you must, but lemme tell ya, my Grandma Flo is a great cook and she never made it like this! The beef is as tender and soft as the palm of my hand (trust me, it's soft), and the eggplant mellows the tamarind's tartness.
Other favorite starters, called Pret a Manger on the menu, are the Warm Buttered Hummus with Basturma (a dried, spiced beef that was new to me) & Tomato, the Whipped Feta with Sweet & Hot Peppers, and the Ricotta & Bread Dumplings with Red Wine, Porcini and Lettuce.
For mains, the Halibut Wrapped in Fig Leaf with Fig Butter, Orzo & Egg-Lemon Verbena Sauce was prepared so beautifully, and the combination of flavors melted in my mouth. The verbena sauce was good enough to drink. On my palate, savory dishes that count figs as an ingredient gain a higher sophistication.
We also like the Lamb Steak with Turkish Spices & Fava Bean Moussaka and the Flattened Lemon Chicken with Za’atar & Turkish Cheese Pancake.
I've only had Baked Alaska four times in my life. Being a lifelong foodie, I happen to remember that the first time was in kindergarten. Sadly, I didn't have it again until six years ago on a riverboat cruise of the Pacific Northwest rivers with my Dad. Neither can compare to the Baked Alaska with Coconut Ice Cream and Passion Fruit Caramel at Oleana. The passion fruit caramel sauce is one of those earthy flavors, like truffles and dirty martinis, that I live and lust for, and the creamy coconut instead of a more traditional ice cream flavor sends this dessert into the creative stratosphere. Jon's Dad and I had a spoon war over the Frozen Chocolate Mint Soufflé & Chocolate Tartlet with Mint Salad, and another highlight of the dessert menu is the Sicilian Almond Cremolata with Warm Chocolate Panino (the warm chocolate panino alone would be dessert). Sadly, the Olive Oil Ice Cream with Poached Apricot Galette did not even lay a finger on Otto's.
Parish Cafe in Boston has one of the most original dining concepts I've tasted. Every item on the menu is created by a well known Boston chef. So for example, while I could be eating the L'Espalier sandwich (fresh Maine crabmeat salad with homemade spicy remoulade served on peppercorn brioche with sliced avocado and mango), which was dreamed up by Frank McClelland, the chef and owner of L’Espalier in Boston, my dining companion could be chowing down on The Icarus (a spice rubbed, marinated, sliced pork sandwich served on a sesame roll with a dried cherry-mustard) created by Chris Douglass, chef and owner of Icarus, Boston. Oh and at night, don't forget your ID like I did on Jon's and my four-year anniversary. No ID, no sandwich.
Oddly enough for such a cold, windy, New England clime, Boston has ice cream shops up the wazoo. My favorites are Toscanini's (Cinnamon, Grapenut, and Belgian Chocolate stand out) and Christina's (along with the basics, they have bizarro flavors like Avocado, Sweet Corn, and White Asparagus), in Cambridge. There's also local chains like J.P. Licks and Herrell's, and Emack & Bolio's, which originated in Boston and is now national.
Sadly, Jon spent most of his two years eating multiple meals a day at the MIT student center, but when he could escape from school-jail, he raved about the prix-fixe Saturday brunch at Henrietta's Table at the Charles Hotel on the Harvard side of Mass. Ave.
Even though everyone else and their mother recommends it, the one meal we had at Legal Seafood should have been illegal, and we never went back.
Also, I never actually drank Pete's coffee in Boston, but I meant to as I like it and it's from there. And, I love the pastries and coffee at Carberry's Bakery in Cambridge.
Before Jon left for school, we made a list of things to do (Duck Tour, Swan Boats, kayak the Charles), places to go (Walden Pond, Newport, R.I., North Adams, Mass.) and restaurants to try (East Coast Grill is another favorite), and slowly we crossed some off the list. During my last visit there, to attend his graduation, we realized it was time to make a new list, for when go back and visit -- together.
Photos 1-2: Harvard Bridge from the Boston side. How many Smoots did you walk today?
Photo 2-3: On Walden Pond