As one of the millions of Americans who don’t like falafel, I feel somewhat chagrined today. Like many of my countrymen, I made a series of mistakes, errors of perception that drove me further into the darkness. First of all, I thought the fried chickpea balls I had tried were competently made, when in fact they weren’t. Then, I thought this bad falafel was a good representative of Middle Eastern cooking, at least of the kind I was likely to encounter at restaurants. Since most of the kebabs, hummus, and other Middle Eastern staples were no better than the falafel that I tended to encounter in New York, I felt justified in thinking, and even saying, that I didn’t like Middle Eastern food. My wife, who has Israeli dual citizenship, thought this misguided; but then she said the same thing about buying an Audi on Craigslist, and look how right I was about that!
Then I ate at Oleana, and my whole perspective changed. The Cambridge, Mass., restaurant is run by the James Beard Awardwinning chef Ana Sortun, but I should note that Oleana is not the first or even necessarily the best modern Middle Eastern restaurant going. Michael Solomonov’s Zahav, in Philadelphia, and Philippe Massoud’s Ilili, in New York, are both examples of chefs trying to push one of the world’s most complex and ancient cuisines into the culinary mainstream.