Olive-oil specialty stores have been popping up all over town, so I thought I'd do some digging to see what the home chef or amateur foodie might find in these trendy boutiques. To determine my favorites, I used a method: At each location, I tried a lemon olive oil, a "house specialty" olive oil or vinegar and the house basic olive oil, and I also checked out the gift offerings.
Baker & Olive (locations in Del Mar Highlands Town Center and Encinitas): A favorite of local chefs, this shop has the best prices and some of the freshest offerings I encountered. Its balsamic vinegars come from Italy, but most of its oils come from California, Chile, Australia and Tunisia. It offers several blends and infused oils, but what set Baker & Olive apart were the single varietals, such as Hojiblanca from Australia, with its creamy finish. The lemon olive oil was light with very little rind bitterness, and the basic blend had a strong green-olive start and a smooth finish. My favorite was the espresso balsamic, with a hearty bite that would hold up well on a grilled steak. Prices here were reasonable, with the 12.7-ounce bottle going for $16.99. A gift pack—four 3.4-ounce samplers—is $24.99. I liked watching local chefs and regulars stream into the store for fresh-baked bread and conversation with the friendly and knowledgeable staff.
Temecula Olive Oil Company (locations in Old Town, Solana Beach and Temecula): The who's-who of olive-oil venues, Temecula's Old Town store had more jams, mustards and lotions than actual olive oils, and tastings were limited to staff picks and seasonal items. It didn't offer a lemon olive oil, but it did have an excellent blood-orange EVOO with a sweet, strong flavor. The house specialty—911 Hatch Chili Vinegar—was a welcome assault compared with the barely there flavor of the cilantro EVOO. The house-specialty basil olive oil—made with 20 pounds of basil to every 100 pounds of olivesówas perfect. I liked the "Just Dip It" blend of oil and vinegar with spices for $16.99 but wasn't wowed by the sampler pack of three 3.4-ounce oils for $23.99. It seemed more of a tourist stop then a chef's grab-and-go.
Seaport Oil & Vinegars (Seaport Village): Smack in the middle of this tourist spot is a beautifully laid-out shop that encourages tastings and conversation. In fact, Seaport hosts parties and catered events on-site and off-site. It sources from some of the same olive groves as Baker & Olive, but its blends are interesting and different, like the Chipotle EVOO with a kick from start to finish and a stand-out White Truffle olive oil that I dreamed of smothering on popcorn. The lemon olive oil was more bitter than the others I tried, but the Ultra Arbosana basic was creamy yet light. Seaport has a good selection of gift offerings, but they were pricey, starting at $39.99. It had an interesting assortment of flavored salts gift packs that I liked better.
We Olive (1158 Prospect St. in La Jolla): This storefront for all things California-olive has a wine bar at the back, serving California wines to be paired with the store offerings and also a small-bites menu. Given its location, I thought the store might be stingy with samples, but it offered tastes of everything. The lemon EVOO had a buttery start and a peppery finish, and the Triple A Blend of Arbequina, Ascolano and Arbosana olive oils was We Olive's excellent basic with zero bitterness and a deep olive flavor. My friend and I went back for seconds on the Champagne Mimosa and Pineapple white balsamics. The gift-pack sampler of five 2-ounce oils or vinegars is $29.99, but it had a wide selection of other gifts packs from an array of California olive-oil producers. We Olive buys its oil direct from the growers and sticks to an all-California palate. Its 12.7-ounce bottles of basic oils and vinegars are $22.19. I loved the wine and olive oil comboóIíll be back to re-sample and imbibe.