In Europe, where small specialty shops abound, it wouldn't be unusual to find a store that specializes in selling extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But in a city like Houston that is home to mega grocery behemoths like Central Market and Whole Foods, it's not just unusual but a nice surprise too.
Located in the CityCentre off of I-10 and Beltway 8, the husband and wife-owned Olive & Vine sells the kind of stuff you'd find in an upscale farmers' market - fresh, straight-from-the-farm, imported extra virgin olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars from Modena, Italy.
When you walk in, they'll tell you a bit about the merits of the EVOO and why grocery store-bought EVOO won't taste as good, and while it's good to know, all you really need to do is taste. The difference is there for you to experience, and Olive & Vine is set up for you to do exactly that. It's a taste-before-you-buy kind of place, and when you find what you want, they'll bottle it right in front of you.
I hadn't planned on being one of those people who taste everything, but everything tasted so good that I couldn't help myself. Instead of a quick in-and-out visit, I spent the better part of an hour tasting all 18 olive oils and 18 balsamic vinegars in the store.
EVOO flavors like Cilantro and Golden Roasted Onion, Herbes De Provence, Tuscan Bouquet, Meyer Lemon and Rich Roasted Garlic were standouts because I could immediately imagine how I'd use them. The Meyer Lemon would be excellent on fish, for instance. The Rich Roasted Garlic would go great with any type of bread, while the Herbes de Provence would make a wonderful chicken marinade.
The pre-mixed balsamic vinegar and EVOO combinations were even more notable in terms of flavor. A Strawberry Blush balsamic mixed with Meyer Lemon EVOO was fruity, fragrant and tangy, and I knew without a doubt that this combination would make a wonderful salad dressing. A Peach Mist Balsamic with Tuscan Bouquet EVOO was likewise extremely flavorful and refreshing, while a Chocolate Decadence Balsamic paired with Smokey Chipotle EVOO had me imagining how my friends would ooh and ahh if I served it.
More so than the oils, I enjoyed tasting the aged balsamic vinegars. Flavors like Summer Blueberry Balsamic, Peach Mist, and Tangy Tangerine captured the essence of the fruit, were wonderful on the nose, like a good wine, and tasted delicious. The Traditional Balsamic Condimento, aged up to 18 years, was one of the best I'd ever tried, thick and sweet, almost like a balsamic reduction.
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I'm a grocery store geek who likes to roam the aisles to find that one-of-a-kind gourmet condiment. But more often than not, I'll buy things I haven't tasted and leave it there on the shelf, not knowing how to use it. This isn't what happened when I took home bottles of Strawberry Blush Balsamic and Meyer Lemon EVOO, which are nearly half gone in the two weeks since I got them. Both were bottled right in front of me in dark glass jars to preserve their freshness, and since I chose the smaller size, they were just $9.99 each.
In fact, the price was the nicest surprise. Considering the quality, I would have been more than happy to pay more, but virtually everything in the store is a flat rate price of $9.99 for a 200ml bottle (white truffle oil is $19.99). So be forewarned, because even though the tastings are free, when you taste, you'll want to buy, and at that price, it's easy to buy too many.