La Oliva:the best restaurant in Granada is not even a restaurant
As you step from the cobbled street of calle virgen del Rosario, Francisco welcomes you as family; he is practically vibrating with passion and expectant joy at the shared experience to come. Walking through the door you immediately feel the warmth of a loving abuela, ready to fatten your belly with home-style dishes. I almost expected him to pinch my cheeks and exclaim that my mother hadn’t been feeding me enough. This is the first impression of La Oliva, olive oil shop turned occasional restaurant, run by Francisco Lillo.
The premise is uncomplicated and refreshing, which is rather symptomatic of Andalucian food. Francisco collects fresh, local ingredients from Granada’s venerable markets, then cooks a 14 course tasting meal of whatever best represents his treasured city and its produce. At the end of the meal, you are handed an envelope, into which you discretely slip the amount of money you think it’s worth. No questions asked.
Inside, the skeleton of the olive oil shop remains; reclaimed wooden shelves line the walls, creaking with innumerable bottles, along with faded posters of once-famous toreadors and flamenco dancers. In the small interior space, four traditional walnut tables and tejido chairs are laid out informally to accommodate only eight diners.
It does feel like an Andalucian family kitchen, not a restaurant, and this is the point. To dine at La Oliva, first you have to have heard of it. (Fortunately, this almost guarantees the absence of inebriated, sunburnt tourists requesting paella and chips.) Next, you must contact Francisco directly to ask if he is able to host a dinner on your chosen dates. If you’re in luck, he promises a tasting menu showcasing his beloved local cuisine, which he describes as ‘gastronomic comfort food’.
The meal begins with a tasting of three olive oils from Granada, of notably different flavour profiles. One fragrant and fruity, another pleasantly bitter, the last one subtle and buttery. At this point, it becomes evident that the meal is to be both a gastronomic and educational experience. Gossamer-thin slices of jamón ibérico, thick coins of peppery salchichón and fatty chorizo, heady with the smell of smoked paprika, are offered next. The subsequent courses offer more, bountiful examples of the region’s ecological larder in the form of patês, olives and gazpacho, filling small terracotta plates and bowls with vibrant colourful morsels.
The meal continues with a series of simple and precise dishes; there are no extraneous ingredients or techniques to be found. In fact, Francisco’s kitchen consists of just one plug-in gas burner and a fridge crammed into the back room of his shop. All dishes are then finished and plated on another small walnut table in front of the guests.
Fresh spinach is wilted in extra virgin olive oil, perfumed by slivers of pungent sweet garlic, topped with disconcertingly large prawns, unlike the miniscule offering we purchase in the supermarket. Many more courses ensue, including tuna, hake, chicken and a tender cut of pork in a sweet sherry sauce, whose richness deftly dodges the saccharine notes of many a poorly-made sherry sauce. Each dish is offered with local wines and a veritable biography of the dishes, the city and its history. Each course encouraging spirited conversation between host and guests. Each contented and satiated guest is his purpose fulfilled.
The meal concludes with honey-sweet and dewy fruit, including strawberries with a chiffonade of basil, marinated in a Pedro Ximenez reduction, redolent of plump Málaga raisins. Finally, a tumbler filled with dark chocolate ice cream, embellished with a generous drizzle of orange infused olive oil and sea salt. This sweet, salty and bitter concoction ought to be a prescription – along with a dose of Francisco’s infectious enthusiasm – against gloom and melancholy.
Orchestrating a pedagogical 14 course menu in the back of a shop on a single burner is nothing short of culinary wizardry. Eating Francisco’s food is to look at Andalucian cuisine through his lens; his compositions are an honest and authentic expression of local flavours, magnanimously and graciously offered. This will not be the best tasting meal you’ve ever had in your life, or maybe even that month, but when you leave you will feel like it is. Why? Because it is food with soul and warmth, and a touch of duende.