La Oliva in Granada. A Life-Changing Restaurant Review.

Every once in awhile, you will have a food experience that is not just a food experience. 

It is more than that because it lingers long after it’s over. It is more because while it happens, you wonder if it's real. It is more because it creates a small world in and of itself. 

It grabs your teeth and pulls you into a land where every bite matters and every taste sparks mind more than mouth.

Generally, you can trust the food of a place with huge towers of garlic hanging from the rafters
Caught in the act of scheming about John's food (while inexplicably wearing two scarves)...

By day, Granada's La Oliva is a corner store hawking high-quality foods and culinary gadgets. 

By night, the Cordobesan owner and chef Francisco closes the shutters, unearths a two-burner stove, and transforms the space into an intimate, two-table sanctuary of food exaltation. 

Retail jars of local confituras, glistening packages of panforte, and bottles of slim sherry vinegars hover in the shadows around you. This is the setting for your food experience unforgettable. 

We were seven—two-thirds of the available seating—and with a reservation made only a week in advance, we were lucky to get in.

A small group scoots into the table beside ours, and once we're all settled, Francisco closes and locks shop to ensure no disturbances will mar this night of gustatory bliss.

The EVOOs included Arbequina, Piqual, and a blend of Piqual, Picado, and Hojiblanco olives. They ranged accordingly in flavor from sweet and mild to strong and biting.
Our dear Francisco going over the sherry prospects with John's dad. As the dinners are kept small, Francisco is able to stay in close contact with everybody and explain or answer questions whenever desired.
How will the night run? He asks, and answers:

There will be twelve to twenty courses—he improvises according to the night's progression. there will be free-flowing, carefully-paired wine and sherry. You will know what you are eating, and why.

And don't fill up on the bread.

With a clean palate (for surely you have avoided coffee and eaten mild foods all day?), you are now ready for your experience at La Oliva

Here was my experience:

After Francisco's introduction, we received three small bowls of Spanish extra virgin olive oil. Tasting from mildest to strongest, one realizes there's a reason Spain produces over 50% of the world's olive oil supply. 

When it comes to that pure olive juice, Spain knows what it's doing.

A Manzanilla fino sherry called La Jaca from Andalucia followed the olive oil, a smooth and mildly sweet liquor that is aged like a high-quality balsamic, where a bit of the last batch is always left in the aging barrel so that when each new batch is added, its flavor and composition is influenced by its predecessors.

Each flavor for each person: partridge pate, mushroom cream, sundried tomato and herbs, and Iberian ham
A thick and hearty spread made with red pepper, onion, garlic, cod, green pepper, and olive oil

For our fifth tasting pleasure, we received four culinary spreads atop olive oil crackers called regañás. The assortment consisted of partridge pate, cream cheese with porcini mushrooms, sundried tomato with herbs and EVOO, and cream of Iberian ham.

Next up was an Aspencat spread made of red pepper, onion, garlic, capellanes (salted blue herring), green pepper, and olive oil served simply with potato chips. 

(Sometimes the best route is also the easiest).

A light dish of small quartered tomatoes bathed in fresh basil-infused EVOO then pleasantly interrupted the meal, just in time to trick us into thinking we were being healthy before a plate full of cured Iberian meats came out. 

In the selection was thinly-sliced Jamón, salchichón Iberico, lomo Serrano, and chorizo

This was the plate that will ruin me for all cured meats that I find in the future. Happysad.

The light tomato basil salad flanked by perfectly thin slices of Iberian meat.
Remojón Granadino, a typical Andalucian dish made with orange, radish, spring onion, salted cod, and black olives

Keeping the meat train running, our ninth dish was fresh Iberian chorizo sausage boiled in Manzanilla wine and served in a sauce of EVOO and the meat's juices. 

Tasting this sauce, one must temporarily disregard the advice to not eat too much bread... 

Flagrant and liberal dipping is a necessity here.

My own tastebuds tell me that number ten was perhaps the best dish of the night...Consider whether you would ever think to put orange, radish, black olives, spring onion, and salted cod together in one bite, garnished with a bit of paprika and EVOO.

You wouldn't dare? Meet Remojón Granadino

I dare you.

Another beautiful shot of the Iberian meat layout, courtesy of one Eric Feigenbaum

Keeping the spirit of fresh vegetables alive, a big beautiful bowl of spinach leaves with garlic-sauteed shrimp was then set before us, otherwise known as Gambas al Ajillo (recipe to follow).

A traditional Spanish fish soup made with the head and bones of hake then warmed our senses. Added to it was sauteed onion, short noodles, and a small amount of emulsified mayonnaise for creaminess.

Gambas al Ajillo, a simple dish with spinach that perfectly captures the essence of freshly-cooked shrimp and garlic
The creaminess of this traditional Spanish fish soup was made by slowly emulsifying mayonaisse into the broth

The head and bones of the aforementioned hake were then followed by the rest of its body, sauteed skin side down, salted, and covered with a saffron cream sauce. 

And then it was devoured.

Francisco shows the bounty of this incredibly-simply and perfectly  prepared hake
A silky saffron cream sauc eon the hake, keeping the dish mild and rich with a touch of exoticism

Wine time again. 

This round: a red from Castilla with a mere eight months of age called 2011 Recoletas Roble. It was a Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero estate. 

Once again, the perfect tart and tannin-rich accompaniment for the forthcoming food had been chosen (and yes, more food came...).

The fourteenth muse, called cocido, was in Francisco's opinion the "national recipe of Spain." 

Made with chickpeas, vegetables, and meat, ours included green beans, carrot, potato, pumpkin, various stewed Iberian meats, and a finish of chopped spring onion and a sherry vinegar splash. 

As my one negative critique for the night, I'll say that this was the least-inspiring dish. The bland vegetables, unbolstered by a similarly boring broth, reminded me too much of what one would find bagged in the frozen foods aisle.

Our cocido madrileño, my least-favorite dish of the night due to the boring vegetables and lack of real flavor oomph.

I quickly recovered with the help of another legume, the [highly superior] Spanish version of pork and beans: habas con jamón, or warmed baby fava (broad) beans and garlic served over thinly-sliced Jamón and splashed with EVOO. 

Why doesn't America do more with the beautiful fava bean?

Fact: Baby fava beans and ham are going to become a staple whenever in season at my house.
Chicken in parsley-garlic broth over Spanish mashed potatoes with a simple wedge salad in the background

More home-style food ensued with moist chunks of chicken in a broth of garlic, parsley, bay leaf, and Manzanilla Sherry served over mashed potatoes.

Then, at stage 18, more salad.

A traditional style one finds in Southern Spain, a quartered lettuce head served in this case with a dressing of balsamic, garlic, and salt. 

I'm slowly becoming more of a fan of end-of-the-meal salads, as it's great for cleansing the palate and readying one for dessert. 

And yes, there is still dessert to come in this meal of a lifetime.

If you happen to be saying something along the lines of, "What is wrong with these people? How can they STILL be eating??" I fully understand your feelings, but I don't have an answer for you.

From bottom right: a sheep's cheese soaked in EVOO, a dried sheep's cheese, manchego, and a semi-aged goat cheese served with a caramelized onion and raisin jam. All but the Manchego were from the Granada region.

So, dessert:

Cheese, of course. Manchego plus three more, all from Granada. It'll be hard to replicate this exactly, but you'll have a pretty good shot with this Spanish cheese assortment (Manchego, Mahon Reserva, Idiazabal and Murcia al Vino).

A Pedro Ximenez sherry accompanied. The smooth and inescapable flavor of raisins resonated surprisingly well with the cheeses, and unforgettably with the sweets to follow.

For example, how about a baked sweet potato cream with sugar and rum (Ron Moddero), topped with EVOO and vanilla? 

Yes, please.

AND FINALLY, number TWENTY-ONE: What other than an assortment of the so-very-Spanish turrón, a confection typically made of honey, sugar, egg white, nuts, and whatever other flavors seem yummy. 

This time, we found represented the delectable flavors of chocolate, vanilla, custard, lemon, and marzipan.

Francisco pours EVOO over the puree of sweet potato cream made with sugar and rum
Our turrones: custard, lemon, marzipan, vanilla, and chocolate
Twenty one dishes (for the sake of weary eyes, I neglected to mention a couple minor dishes) for 38 euros and a stomach that, while full, was nowhere near the heavy-laden feeling one gets after eating a full meat-and-three dinner. 

This riddle I can only attribute to the will of the food gods, benignly allowing us to enjoy the end result of such amazing food without slipping into an immediate coma.

The catch to this dinner was it's integrity. 

There were no foams, no fancy designs, no complex sauces. This was amazing food at its simplest, something that many restaurants have left behind in pursuit of something more rootless, more shocking, and often much less inspiring. 

Francisco understands that at its base, the experience of eating should simply be one that makes people feel good

I will leave Spain with a confirmed knowledge that one can hold on to basic culinary tradition without any snobbery or pretension and still cause diners to leave utterly happy and fulfilled.

Eric, Linzee (John's brother-in-law and sister), Francisco, and yours truly, having to support each other due to our near-inability to stand after all that food.

All fulfillment aside, if I'm worn out just from typing about all this, you can imagine how I felt after eating it all.

Tired. Blissfully, satisfyingly tired. And ready to relive it all in the world of dreams.

If you don't see yourself in Granada anytime soon, placate yourself with these cheeses in your very home, this pricey but delicious Spanish food basket assortment, or, you know, cook it yourself. I recommend Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen .

Stay with me as we head off next to the high town of Ronda!


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