Olive You

Dear Dara takes on the salty, savory, occasionally even burning issue of olive bars in our time

The olive bar at the Lakewinds Natural Foods in Minnetonka is a pretty, stainless-steel and tile-ringed affair, and the olives in it run $8.29 a pound. They had green olives stuffed with all the goodies—sun-dried tomatoes, feta, jalapeños, almond, garlic, the works. They also had all the prestige olives: The Cerignolas, French Nicoise, and so forth. The Kowalski's on Lyndale in south Minneapolis had a dozen sorts of olives, at $8.99 a pound, including some very interesting fat, purple wine-cured olives from Chile, and good French Picholine—a green, fresh, crisp olive with a buttery finish. The Uptown Lunds had 14 sorts of olives when I visited, at $8.49 a pound, including, Andrea, your prized Lucques. Were they the same as your prized Surdyk's Lucques? No. They were a little wrinkled, a little bit more bitter—but I don't know that anyone besides a food critic doing a side-by-side comparison would notice. (Lakewinds Natural Foods, www.lakewinds.com; Whole Foods, www.wholefoodsmarket.com; Lunds, www.lundsandbyerlys.com; Kowalski's, www.kowalskis.com)

Speaking of food critics doing side-by-side comparisons, visiting all of these olive bars showed me a few things I never would have realized otherwise: One, we have a lot more olive retailers than olive distributors, and you find a lot of the same things in a lot of very different places. (I saw one identical "five olive blend" under various names at ten stores.) Two, the grocery-store olive bars are priced so that the store breaks even if you buy the most expensive olive they have on hand—the Nicoise or Lucques, say, and they just make a killing if you buy the cheaper olives, something cracked, little, and green smothered in spice and peppers, for instance.

I also did a little reading on the history and logic behind supermarket olive bars, and learned that the main profit-driver behind these things is Americans' collective inability to correlate our eyes with our stomachs: We always buy more than we need when we're left alone with a boundless buffet, big containers, and a ladle. This leads to a very strange, counterintuitive place: You actually stand a good chance of saving money by shopping at the super-gourmet stores (see below), because at those places a clerk controls your access to the olives, and when he or she shows you a tiny container as well as a medium sized one and a giant one, you stand a good chance of picking the small one. Compound that with the way olives are priced at supermarket olive bars, and you start to see the commercial genius of the things. Does this mean that supermarket olive bars aren't worth it? Heck no—they're fantastic. They're also more expensive than olives bought at either specialty ethnic markets or high-style gourmet boutiques.

The Big Three:

Olive bounty: The impressive array of Olea europaea at Surdyk's
Daniel Corrigan
Olive bounty: The impressive array of Olea europaea at Surdyk's

Truth be told, I've gotten a little shy of these "What's the best X, Y, or Z?" quests lately, because the answer too often is: Surdyk's, Buon Giorno, or Broder's. But the truth is the truth, and I can't do anything about it: Some of the best olives in the metro come from our three local specialty-food gems.

This Italian specialty food market, sister to Broder's Pasta Bar in south Minneapolis, had 11 olives, mostly Italian, on offer when I visited. I had way too many green olives stuffed with things on this olive-bar quest, but Broder's had two that actually could stand as hors d'oeuvres on their own. One was an oversized green olive stuffed with a tangy, tongue-tingling provolone cheese ($14.50 a pound); another was a similarly giant green olive packed with smoky sun-dried tomato ($15.50 a pound). I lost patience with overused sun-dried tomatoes a few years ago, but in this guise the result tastes like some exotic Spanish tapas made with ham, which is a hard thing for an olive to pull off.

Massive Sicilian cracked olives were almost liver-like in their profound intensity and weight. Some vegetarian chef needs to discover these things and turn them into the new portobello mushroom burger. While we're talking olives, I may as well mention that Broder's has the best tapenades in town—they make a green olive paste with red and yellow peppers and anchovies, and a black one with capers and garlic. Each is priced at $15.50 a pound, which only comes out to a few dollars for a fist-sized scoop, and is so profoundly tasty that you could make a meal of them. For the last few years it's seemed like every penny-pinching Italian restaurant has its own merely salty, straight from the jar tapenade served on crostini; I forgot how good the real stuff could be. (Broder's Cucina Italiana, 2308 W. 50th St., Minneapolis, 612.925.3113; www.broders.com)

Buon Giorno
I've been to Buon Giorno two dozen times since it opened, but since I was going there this time from Mendota Heights, I got lost, and ended up in Eagan. I got off the highway to turn around, and, waiting for a traffic light, looked at a line of cars similarly paused at a turn arrow. Every single driver was reading or otherwise examining a cell phone, but right over their heads a red-tailed hawk had hold of some small critter and was struggling mightily in the crosswinds not to drop it on a truck in which a man read his phone. I watched all this, and then on the radio they announced Anna Nicole Smith was dead.

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