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Bread and Oil

May 9, 2011

How I could be blogging about food for two years and not have gotten around to this major and long-held pet peeve of mine is a mystery.

Bread is the staff of life. Bread is great. I love it.

One of the best things I’ve ever eaten was a pain d’epi hot from the oven at Acme bakery in Berkeley, smeared with a generous mound of Pamplie butter. Because while bread is great on its own, it is even better with a little bit of fat and salt. But not everybody is on board with the whole butter thing. And that’s fine.

Good olive oil makes a perfectly suitable companion for bread. And there are plenty of restaurants that have adopted the practice of putting out a dish of dipping oil. In theory, I have no problem with this. However, in practice it doesn’t always work out very well.

There may be a few different problems coming into play:
1)    Good olive oil is expensive
2)    Many people may not pay attention to the taste of oil
3)    The perception of quality is more powerful than quality itself

Really, I should write something dedicated to good olive oil. But for now, let’s just say that first cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is a special food. It has flavor in and of itself. It has character. How it tastes and how it looks is dependent on many different factors. But it can be peppery, vegetal, fruity, or buttery, and its color can range from green to golden.

Often with good olive oil I see the bread as a mere oil delivery device. It’s like a sponge to sop up as much oil as possible. A little bit of salt, and that bundle of heart-healthy fat is on its way to both the pleasure centers of my brain and then to scrub all the bad cholesterol from my bloodstream. Perhaps I have that second part wrong, but I’ve heard olive oil will make you live forever.

Regardless, far too often the dish of oil served with bread is bland and nondescript. Maybe you haven’t noticed. The olive oil at New World Bistro Bar, where I was recently with the All Over Albany crew, was decidedly decent. But they make a big deal about using quality ingredients.

And this is really my issue.

A restaurant has several chances to surprise and delight its patrons at many points throughout the meal. And the bread course is a very early one. It can give an insight into the quality and care the chef takes with even the most mundane of offerings. Good oil can make up for mediocre bread, but poor oil can diminish even the best warm and crusty roll.

But if people don’t notice there is no reason for a restaurant to change. And I’ve found people raving about decidedly mediocre oil.

Like at one of my favorite local Italian places, Katrinella’s Bistro. People love their dipping oil. The oil is no great shakes, but the restaurant jams it full of flavorful stuff. So you’ve got this bowl of garlic, balsamic, Parmesan and parsley swimming in insipid oil, and it’s tasty, yes. It gives the perception that the restaurant cares about ingredients. And I suppose they do more than the next guy that fails to adorn their lackluster oil.

Still, at the end of the day, I’d just prefer a simple and tastier bowl of good olive oil.

This is not an Albany problem. This is a national problem. My first encounter with bastardized dipping oil occurred at a Spanish tapas restaurant in Philadelphia. There the oil was spiked with diced tomatoes and herbs. My dining companion was enthralled with it. But all I could taste was the bad oil.

I’m not sure what the solution is here. Perhaps it’s just trying to make more people aware that olive oil can actually taste like something. And more than just taste like something, it can actually be super-delicious completely unadorned and unflavored.

Be on the lookout for those restaurants that serve you the good stuff, because these are the ones that are truly special. The other folks are just putting lipstick on a pig.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. RealFoodMom permalink
    May 9, 2011 9:23 am

    Agreed. Good bread, good oil and salt = yum. If a waiter brings oil with balsamic in it (yuck) to my table, I ask for just plain olive oil. The waiter will then think I am a weird, picky customer. I don’t want salad dressing on my bread, just oil (or butter).

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 9, 2011 9:58 am

    Sounds like you need a trip to the new Saratoga Olive Oil Co.

  3. May 9, 2011 10:22 am

    I agree that good oil requires no adjuncts, but not every restaurant caters to the same crowd. A reasonably-priced family restaurant doesn’t need to go top-shelf (and likely wouldn’t without jacking up prices in general, in which case they price themselves out of their market) but certainly a finer dining or otherwise foodie restaurant should take pride and care in what it serves.

    • May 9, 2011 10:25 am

      And that said, I’m a sucker for coarse-cracked pipalli (long pepper) with my bread and oil (top-shelf oil or no). But that’s my personal preference.

  4. Angelos permalink
    May 9, 2011 10:40 am

    This is why my father ships 17 kilos of olive oil from our trees in Greece to me (as well as a can for my brother, and my dad’s brother’s restaurant in Kingston), right after he supervises the pressing. The most amazing stuff.

  5. May 9, 2011 12:58 pm

    Amen, Brother! What’s better than a basket of crusty bread with a meal. I too will go (way) out of my way for a decent olive oil. Many years ago I was introduced to a very reasonably priced ($30 / gal) Sicilian EVOO – Don Luigi – at Aroma Osteria in Wappingers Falls. Since then I make a regular trip to Arthur Ave in the Bronx to stock up with a case directly from their distributor – Teitel Brothers Grocers. Paired with a home made peasant bread – I’ll put up my Don Luigi against your Pamplie butter any time.

  6. May 9, 2011 2:39 pm

    Sounds like you need a Trip to the Honest Weight Food Coop, they have the best Olive Oil selection around no questions!!!

  7. June 4, 2014 12:23 am

    Have you read Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity (2012)? See also

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