"There are three enemies of olive oil," says Nadim Beyrouti, proprietor and hospitable host of Oliviera in Nice, France. "Light, heat," he pauses. "And hungry friends."
This is just one of the many things we learned about olive oil from Nadim, a passionate advocate of good, local oil. He owns a tiny restaurant and shop in Nice's old quarter. His two-person staff cooks every meal in an open kitchen with one gas burner and a broiler in a kitchen half the size of my own. And while these meals are invariably transporting and delicious, the real star at Oliviera is the olive oil.
The first thing you see when you walk into Oliviera, off the cobbled streets of Old Nice, is a corner counter full of huge olive oil decanters. Each has a small chalkboard with its name and price. These are Nadim's stock in trade; he offers a small menu of dishes as well, but they're designed to show off his olive oil.
We ate there twice. The first time my husband I ate there we wandered in, serendipitously, on our first evening in Nice. The tables were just being set up, and we were hungry. He fit us in around a whole evening booked with reservations. The second time we ate there we had lunch at the very end of an afternoon. This day was even more special, because Nadim had just returned from his annual trip to the local producers in the mountainous growing regions around Nice.
Each time we ate there the very delicious food was transported to a new level by each olive oil he drizzled on before we dug in. We tried bread with a very green, slightly bitter olive oil. We had a starter dish of soft-cooked eggplant with a yellow oil that tasted gently of green bananas. The rabbit on egg noodles (his "Michelin" dish, he jokes) received a dousing of a rich, golden and citrusy oil that was good on everything else we dipped in it. There was an oil with the scent of almonds on my salad and phyllo dough wrapped cheese, and then - at the end of our evening supper there - the pièce de résistance: tiramisu with olive oil.
This sounds like a gimmick, perhaps (dessert with olive oil?) but it was sublime. The olive oil is very unique and unusual; it's a fruity "Tanche" olive oil that has been aged and actually fermented in a special process. Drizzled over the rich, rather chocolatey tiramisu, both flavors elevated each other into a savory, heady blend. It was incredible. I wanted badly to buy some of the dessert oil, but it was not for sale.
Nadim did, however, break out his huge, colorful relief map of the area and show us just where each oil came from. He showed where he traveled up the coast and inland to buy oil from the small producers and farmers. We also bought four precious bottles of olive oil, one of each of our favorite varieties. We're hoarding this (hiding it from light, heat, and hungry friends!) and having olive oil tastings with good bread once in a while.
We also bought a jar of green tomato and ginger jam; we could smell the new batch, simmering on the stove in a big shallow copper pot.
This little place was a treasure, and one of the highlights of our trip to Nice. Nadim was a wonderful host -- much more than a restaurateur or a shopkeeper. He loves olive oil, and he clearly builds his menu to proudly show off these oils. He doesn't really even think of his little shop as a restaurant; you feel like you're invited into his home.
"When people ask me where to eat in Nice," he says, "I tell them - 'Don't eat out! Eat at home!' Why would you want to eat at a restaurant when you can eat at home?"
We can't agree more, especially when you have one of his oils in your cupboard.
They do not, sadly, deliver to the United States. Nadim says that the delivery costs were just too much. So if you're ever in the south of France, stop in Nice and pick up a few bottles of olive oil from Nadim at Oliviera. You'll get more than just oil; you'll get an education, and a fine meal too.
• Read more about Oliviera at their website: Oliviera.com
More on olive oil:
• How to Taste Olive Oil
• Understanding Olive Oil Labels
• Good Quote: Mark Kurlansky on Olive Oil
• The Great Olive Oil Scam. Don't Be Duped.
• Kitchen Keeping: Put Your Olive Oil on a Coaster