This review has been a long time coming. I've held off on writing it because since my first visit, I have been on many return trips to Oleana, each time experiencing food that I could write reams and reams of text about, leaving me in the casual blogger's version of analysis paralysis. I mean, I'm not sure if I have a subconscious fetish for Mediterranean food, but Oleana has to be one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at. It could be the wonder at the unusual combinations of ingredients far outside my usual comfort zone. It could be the special place it has in my heart for curing me of the college trauma I endured with chickpeas during one ill-conceived venture into a late-night International "Midnight Breakfast". Or it could be the falafel. The falafel definitely has something to do with it.
In all seriousness though, the falafel are amazing: light, flavorful, and perfectly balanced between chickpeas and pickles and tahini-yogurt sauce. I make it a point to order it every time I go, and would not hesitate to have multiple portions of it for a meal. It's one of the dishes where immediately after eating it, I was inspired to take a shot at my own rendition. Hell, I'm writing this at 11PM and it occurs to me I'd probably murder a small animal in exchange for a few of those falafel right about now.
Another favorite is the Sultan's delight, another appetizer involving tamarind-braised beef and eggplant puree. Each of the two parts holds up well on its own, but the combination is something that I hate myself for not thinking of first.
Of course, as with the other times I tried to write this review, I drift dangerously close to writing a food-list of nigh Homeric proportions. So let me cut myself off here and say that there's always something interesting to try at Oleana--whether it be a roast duck breast with vermicelli that's reminiscent of Vietnamese "bun", or fish cooked on ceramic tile, nothing is ever run of the mill. Oleana seems to be one of the few places remaining around these parts where you can eat something and have next to no idea what sort of preparation went into it. That alone makes it worth the trip.
Of course, if that isn't enough of a draw, the restaurant is plopped in the middle of Cambridge, with plenty of things to do nearby. It also has all the standard restaurant amenities, like (presumably, I wouldn't know) good alcohol, friendly waitstaff, a relaxed dress code, and a nice environment with outside patio dining to boot. But for me, at least, the food is the real draw.
There are many days when I want to slap the Michelin Guide writers across their collective faces for not covering Boston in an official capacity, because if they did then more people would know about places like Craigie. I'd been there once before and enjoyed the (albeit expensive) experience very much; thus it was with great excitement that I returned nearly a year later for the full 8-course Ultimate Craigie Experience tasting menu. Yes, that's right; I'm about to wax vaguely poetic at you. Prepare yourselves.
(Side-note: Before we go any further, I'd like to apologize for the slightly shoddy photography; the lighting from the window shifted as the evening went on, the interior lighting was pretty bad at our table, and let's face it--I was too busy paying attention to the food to fiddle around with getting the perfect shot. Another side-effect of my staring was that I paid nearly no attention to what the servers were telling me about the ingredients, so forgive me for any blunders I may make--plus, half the fun is figuring everything on the plate out myself anyway. I also may be giving the dishes impromptu names of my own. Cough.)
We started with the Fish List--Hamachi, Tasmanian Trout, and Sardine. The portions were dainty, but I get the feeling that was very much on purpose--I wanted more to eat as soon as they were gone. Judging by sample menus and some cursory online research, there seems to be a thing for starting out with a trio of amuses to start--not that I mind, of course. They did their job well. The fish itself was prepared simply but it was fresh and tangy and light and woke my appetite the hell up.
Next was tuna sashimi with what I believe was some light chili oil and avocado puree, with tempura flakes (?) and scallions on top. I like to think of this dish as the Deconstructed Spicy Tuna Roll--Tuna, spice, avocado, little fried crunchy bits? Loved it. Or maybe I'm just completely full of shit and pulling things out of nowhere; who knows.
Proceeding down the fish-parade, we hit something on the heavier side, Tempura Fried Crab. The crab was tempura-fried and accompanied by a sauce that tasted strongly of something resembling blood sausage, and topped with dried scallions and bits of cured pork product. I personally the transition from the previous dishes' flavors, light and seabreezey, to something as rich as fried crab and blood. The sauce in particular took me by surprise. I don't remember what it was made of, but it tasted somewhat like pureed chinese sausages--yes, like the ones you can get for $2 a pack at an Asian grocer. It was an unusual combination and I loved it, but some of the other tables who were also having the tasting menu didn't seem to be such big fans--I saw a considerable amount of poking about with this one.
Hopping completely off the seafood theme, we have a green garlic and split pea soup, with caramelized veal sweetbreads, paprika oil, and scallions. This soup ran directly against my expectations for pea soup--Usually I take it slightly minty, creamy, and very very bright green. This was rich and savory with just a hint of spice from the paprika oil. And I don't care what your reservations are about eating animal guts, if you don't like sweetbreads when they're prepared as well as this, then you may as well donate your tongue to science and food research. On second thought, please don't.
Following this, house-made buckwheat pasta with lamb ragout topped with lamb bacon. I think the best way to summarize this dish is that it's like being punched in the mouth by a sheep (Lambs' Punch Pasta, if you will). The ragout infused the pasta with intense lamb flavor which was only accentuated by the salty goodness of the lamb bacon. Mmm. Making the pasta with buckwheat was definitely a good choice here, since it's earthier and subtler than regular wheat, plus tender enough to leave the majority of the chewing-flavor to come from the bacon.
Where would we be with a pork-less Craigie meal? On a mass murder spree, probably. Thankfully, we were all spared from that by this course of grilled pork belly with white asparagus puree. This dish wasn't fancy. It wasn't cutting edge. But I really don't care, since it doesn't need to be. Pork belly is amazing in that if you're serving it like this, all you really need is the unctuous meat and fat and maybe a bit of something to make the flavor less one-dimensional, which is what the white asparagus was there for. The only shame is that there was also a grilled bit of leaf on top--I don't remember what exactly it was, perhaps some chard? Either way, I wasn't really sure if I was supposed to eat it, as it was incredibly hard to bite and ended up tasting of burnt gasoline. And personally, I dislike inedible garnishes; they're just gaudy and stupid-looking to me. Bit disappointed there.
Ah, Venison Two Ways. My high-school Latin teacher would be proud (old wine and fat venison anyone?). Unless I'm sorely mistaken, Tony Maws himself brought out this dish, which is pretty cool. On the left, venison sausage/mini-burger, and on the right, medium-rare venison leg marinated in miso and spices, sitting on top of a variety of sauces (one of which I recall involves pistachio). I have a minor confession to make here. I may or may not have followed the first slice of venison leg with a string of possibly not PG-13 profanities detailing all sorts of inappropriate sexual acts. At least I didn't get removed from the restaurant. Ahem. Let's move on...
At this point I was getting to the full side. I mean... After ragout, pork belly, and venison, who wouldn't? Thus it was with perfect timing that the dessert amuse came out--Vermouth gelee with white chocolate and some sort of herb sauce-thing. The gelee and herbs were refreshing while still retaining a touch of sweet from the chocolate. The first spoonful was a bit of a shock. I initially thought it was a bit strange in its flavors--slightly on the bland side, even--but it served as an admirable palate cleanser, cooling the mouth in preparation of dessert. Well played.
We had two people at the table, and ended up getting two different desserts. Now that's value for money right there. The first was the Chocolate Monstrosity seen above--Chocolate gelatto, chocolate cake, a sorbet of what I think was peanut butter, with some nuts, some crunchy bits, and a chocolate-peanut-butter sauce. If a Reeses and a Kit-Kat immigrated to America and had a respectable college-going child who rose up from poverty to the middle class, this would be it. Everything on this plate was delicious, and damn I wish there was more of it.
The second dessert was a soured milk panna cotta, which ended up being the cover photo for this post (Scroll up to remind yourself how nice it looks. Go on. I'll wait.). It was served with a granita and a mango-champagne sauce. This was definitely the lighter of two desserts, with the panna cotta playing wonderfully with the mango-champagne sauce. However... I am not, and have never been, a fan of granita in any form, so that was a bit of a drag.
The meal finished with a complimentary Bloody Mary-esque treat--Rhubarb Soup with apricot ice cream. A nice touch, and very much appreciated. The rhubarb and apricot had enough zing between them to shock us out of our post-feeding stupor and back home safely.
And now to the slightly less glamorous side of things. Firstly, the bill--It IS $115 per person here, but really it's worth every penny. What you're paying for is the experience--the chance to love, the chance to be disappointed (equally important if you ask me), and the chance to curse violently in reaction to your food. What more could you want? Plus, a "normal" meal would run about $60-$70 at Craigie regardless, so you might as well pony up the extra cash. Having dropped 3 hours and nearly $300 in total (and that's without wine, by the way), I regret nothing. This does mean, however, that it can't be an every-day thing, as much as I want it to be. Sad face.
The only other nitpick I have is that Craigie was exponentially more crowded this time than when I last visited. Perhaps I was lucky last time, or perhaps Craigie has managed to generate an unbelievable amount of buzz in that time period. Or maybe this is just another symptom of Boston picking up as a "Food City" (ew). Whatever the case, I'm glad Craigie has this sort of business--they deserve all of it and then some--even if I did have to get a bit jostled before my meal.
But all that is just a bunch of nitpicking from a barmy old codger. If anyone ever bothers to ask, I'd recommend Craigie wholeheartedly, the tasting menu in particular. There's no bullshit here, no pretense--no truffle oil on this, or ring molds with that, quick-put-some-parsley-sprinkles-on-it--just really good food.
I first discovered Boomers when one of the guys at my gym told me about this unholy wrap that was basically chicken caesar stuffed with french fries. For under $9, I got a bottle of coke and a wrap the size of my arm of such concentrated heart-stopping evil and deliciousness that I don't think it will be matched for a long time. On the back of that first experience, I vowed to go back for more. And I have. Wraps, burgers, subs, I've probably gotten so much off their menu that I must have that sumbitch memorized by now.
Now I could do my usual deal. Wax poetic about the food, atmosphere, whatever. But I feel like in this case all I have to say is that my survival in college is due solely to Boomer's, that they have awesome food in plentiful amounts for a good price, and that since they're a shady joint next to a laundromat in middle-of-nowhere Worcester, not nearly enough people ever get around to eating there. And that's a fucking shame.
Lately there's been a lot of buzz going around Boston about Guchi's Midnight Ramen. For those not in the know, it's a future restaurant of some sort specializing in late-night ramen. Only it's not open yet. For now, they're keeping themselves busy taunting the unruly masses with small amounts of tickets to limited-time "guest appearances" at other restaurants at midnight. Yes, that's right. A restaurant so meta they don't have an actual restaurant. Anyway... After deciding that we couldn't be arsed to camp the eventbrite website for the tickets, a bunch of friends and I decided to visit another local joint that was also offering late-night ramen, without the crazy tickets-for-admission system.
Uni Sashimi Bar is an extension of Clio, an up-scale restaurant in the Eliot Hotel. It's located in a pseudo-basement alcove of sorts, accessible only by going through Clio. Given the nature (and, of course, the price point) of Clio, most of the people there tend to be dressed nicely--you know, collared shirts and all that. The stark difference between their dress and our motley crew of hoodies and sneakers was apparent as soon as we stepped into Clio. So it was understandable, I suppose, that the staff immediately pegged us for the "late night ramen" crowd... But a small part of me still wanted to snap at the staff that we would be dining at Clio, rack up a huge bill, and leave a penny tip.
We arrived right around opening time, at 11 PM. After about half an hour, we were seated at the bar. Contrary to the vibe that Clio was going for upstairs, Uni tried very hard to evoke a casual, almost "underground" feel. Everything from the oil-stained cardboard menu to the rap music was made to give the impression of a laid-back "ramen joint" that Boston has been sorely needing for a while now.
The first thing that jumped out at me about the menu (aside from its cardboard-and-sharpie nature, I mean) was the prices. $10 for a bowl of ramen was a bit on the high side, but still reasonable, I suppose. $8 for a bun though, was pretty steep. My first thought was that at $8, it'd better either be a pretty fucking big bun.
I ended up going with the duck bun, as I'd already had pork buns up the wazoo previously and I wanted to try something new. It came out on a plate covered by a wet cloth napkin whose purpose I was not clear on. Perhaps there are some extremely messy eaters around, but the buns weren't remotely greasy or hand-dirtying. All the napkin did was lend an air of pretense to the bun, which unfortunately was quite average size. The inside of the bun contained a disappointingly small amount of duck, accompanied by a bit of crispy fried yuba and the standard cucumbers and pickled radishes. The entire thing taken together ended up being a bit too dry; more sauce, perhaps hoisin, or even just a greater amount of duck for the fat and juice, would have done it wonders.
This was followed by a bowl of the Traditional Ramen. Though it isn't mentioned in the menu, there was a good bit of chili in with the pork, which lent a nice punch to the whole thing, especially when mixed with the broth. The broth also had a good amount of body from a taste that I found familiar but couldn't really peg until I googled "uni late night ramen" and found out that it was a hunk of parmesan. While untraditional, it was still quite delicious and something that I will definitely have to play with myself in the future. Unfortunately the bowl was quite small--especially for $10. The amount of noodles and broth included amounted to barely a few mouthfuls, and to be honest I felt a bit cheated. If I'd known about the portion size, I would have ordered two bowls ahead of time. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm prone to some pretty big fat-attacks, so I guess it's possible this portioning is appropriate for your average midnight Joe, even though I've definitely seen bigger for cheaper.)
On the bright side, the ramen came with an onsen egg--an egg that is slow poached in its shell at something around 160, 170F for an extended period of time to simulate cooking an egg in a Japanese hot spring. The result is softer and more velvety than a traditional poached egg, and eating it here made me wish again that I had the equipment to make this reliably.
Unfortunately it all went to hell with dessert. The ice cream sandwiches were like macarons--tiny, highly priced, slightly pretentious. However, when it came to taste, these did not compare. The cookies were hard enough to decapitate someone with, and the result was that the entire thing was incredibly hard to eat. Trying to bite through the cookie properly only resulted in the ice cream squishing out and getting everywhere. I guess that teaches me not to get dessert at a ramen bar.
Don't get me wrong. I liked the food at Uni. The problem I have with them is they can't seem to decide what they want to be. The decor and general atmosphere are definitely pushing the casual-ramen-joint-people-visit-after-work--the cheap, delicious place that people can visit at late hours after a hard day. And I admit when I was attacking my ice cream cookie with Puff Daddy in the background, I almost bought it. But that illusion was shattered when the bill came, roughly $50 for 2 buns, 2 bowls of ramen, and 2 small cookies. Granted that includes tips and taxes, but we did not have anything to drink at all--I imagine the people who like sake will end up paying much more than that. I liked Uni's food, but I probably won't go with any sort of regularity until they stop it with the pretentious desserts and the bad price/value ratio, especially on the buns--I don't want to be That Guy, but even Momofuku Noodle Bar has similarly sized buns for $6 a pop, and they're in fucking New York.
For a while now I've been getting an earful from my roommate about Evo's Kobe Beef burger, especially in comparison to what I feel like is the best burger in the City and top 5 in the state, the burgers from Boomers. After being treated to multiple rants, references, and rhapsody about the quality of the burger here, I decided to come check it out on a Friday night with a party of 4.
Initial impressions were mixed. The outside sported the usual almost-run-down facade typical of Worcester, at variance with an automatically opening door leading to the cozy hallway of the entrance. Next door was a market called "The Living Earth." To be honest, I've never even seen this market on my trips up and down Park Avenue, let alone contemplated browsing it. To be even more honest, when I saw it today I thought it was a front for a marijuana operation.
But I digress. The inside of Evo was quite nice, a lot more upscale and less divey than was expecting. The room was lit in warm colors and decorated cheerily but not heavy-handedly, and everything seemed clean and in good order. I was actually expecting a pleasant experience, my starved mind already drawing up visions of the future when this would be my go-to "nice" restaurant in Worcester.
Unfortunately, my dreams were shattered by the first snag of the evening--A 30-40 minute wait for seating. I can already hear protests of "Oh, that's not unreasonable at all for a Friday night in a good restaurant!" Hush. The initial 40-minute wait was not the issue. It was when we came back after 40 minutes and were told that it would be another half hour wait despite there being 4-5 empty tables in plain sight that I started getting angry. The empty tables showed a horrible problem with logistics on their part; either they were understaffed and someone should have manned up, or they really could not keep track of what tables were seated or not. On top of this, the greeters'n'seaters were obviously too inexperienced to even give us a proper estimate on waiting time. Pile on top of this the condescension when they said they would "seat us anyway", and well... Let's just say that the only reason I didn't leave was because I really, really wanted a burger. Luckily, our actual waitress was friendly and much less grating. Likeable, even.
The immediate oddity I noticed on the menu was the beverage choice. Their list of sodas lacked staples like Coke, Sprite, and even Pepsi. It was... Eccentric, to say the least. I ordered a "coke" before realizing it was RC Cola--It ended up tasting like a beverage that I imagine would be called "assjuice." I ended up trading for a ginger ale which was acceptable. But the drinks aren't the point, are they? The burger is.
I, quite predictably, ordered the Kobe Beef burger, medium rare, with the Classic (their term) topping combination: lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and cheddar cheese, served on a buttered brioche bun. Now, anyone who's spoken to me for any amount of time knows I appreciate a good burger. And even more, I appreciate good meat dripping blood and fat and juice. One of the very very few ways to really offend me is to even suggest the notion of a "well-done" steak. And here, dear readers, lies the biggest travesty of the night. My burger came out... Well-done. Now, I don't really mind a well-cooked burger if the rest of it is made to fit it. When everything else has a good amount of punch and the entire thing works together, I can survive if my burger doesn't bleed. Hell, even if it's just purposely fired halfway to hell with charcoal, at least it has flavor. But in the case of the Kobe Beef Burger, where everything hinges on a delicate (and expensive!) patty, where that piece of ground beef is practically a steak... What kind of a half-assed piss-for-brains spastic horse-fucker would you have be to serve it BROWN? I'm not talking medium-well-done-hey-look-it's-still-a-tiny-bit-pink. This was fully cooked and then some. All the flavor was lost as well as all the moisture, and I ended up with a slightly fancier patty that was drier than my Amazon cardboard box and that I could have, really, gotten at McDonald's. Did the beef taste slightly better than, say, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese? Sure. Did it costs 3 times as much? Youbetcha. Yes, I could have done the American thing and sent it back, but at that point between the front desk and the soda and the waiting I was just tired of the place and wanted to end it as quickly as possible. That, and I don't tend to give second chances on offenses of this magnitude.
Was this a fluke? Maybe. Everyone around me was almost moaning in gastronomic bliss (perhaps there was LSD in their water) and when I glanced over, their burgers were at least pink on the inside. Will I give it a second chance? Maybe if I'm extremely bored and I don't have to pay for it. It's not the worst place I've ever eaten; not by a longshot. But after paying $15 for a smallish mediocre burger with mamby-pamby ingredients and a wimpy pile of high-school-lunch-style fries? I can only flash the good ol' One Finger Salute and bid thee farewell.