A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner at Agi’s Counter, the Eastern European diner in Crown Heights. After a meal of pickled-mackerel toast, fried artichokes, and semolina dumplings in chicken broth, I was given the choice of two desserts: grapefruit gelee or cheesecake with blueberry-coriander compote, to which I said “Yes, please.” I was eating alone, but I got them both, ordering the gelee for immediate consumption and the cheesecake to go.
The slightly opaque gelatin arrived on a plate, wobbling joyfully within a moat of bright-green olive oil. Elegant, bitter, and bright: The citrus was balanced with a heavy pinch of salt crystals that also brought out the oil’s vegetal edge. Before I left, I peeked into my to-go bag and saw the cheesecake packed next to a small container of berries and another, unanticipated condiment: more olive oil. I asked my server whether that was a mistake but was assured that, yes, the olive oil was meant for the cheesecake.
The next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to crack it open. For one thing, the cake was great without it. For another: What was it doing here? And the more I thought about that question, the more questions I had. Questions like: Why is olive oil on 100 percent of the desserts at a non-Mediterranean restaurant and presented without comment as if it’s expected? And, Is this the same oil they’d lash over their salad, say, or grilled fish? Olive oil is great, even in dessert — I love the olive-oil cake that seems to be sold at every third wine bar in Brooklyn — but why does it suddenly seem as if it’s drizzled over every dessert in town?
I asked the pastry chef Zoë Kanan. “Olive oil can be a calling card for sophistication,” she explained, and “sophisticated desserts cost more money.” A flourish of EVOO is a quick way to elevate any dessert’s ingredient list that — bonus — adds a nice, natural shimmer. It’s not as if the idea is new — Lilia has offered vanilla soft serve with olive oil, honey, and fennel pollen for years — but the ubiquity is. And before you even ask, yes, Graza has gotten in on the action with a collaboration at Caffè Panna. The shoppy-shop brands — Brightland, Branche, and all the other status oils with bottles that look like they were designed for Byredo hand soap — are almost certainly one reason for olive oil’s current ascent in forward-thinking pastry kitchens.
I checked in with Brooks Headley, an early advocate. At the original Superiority Burger, it seemed like any Greenmarket produce could be spun into gelato or sorbet and anointed with a surprising swirl of oil, or else it would show up blended with peanut butter on griddled malt cake or on some fresh fruit with herbs. He began by quoting Paul Bertolli — “Olive oil is the best sauce” — and crediting Meredith Kurtzman, the gelato savant whose olive oil flavor (and topping) at Otto gave many New Yorkers their first taste of real Italian-style ice cream. He said he has pared his own usage down after seeing the idea replicated at so many other restaurants but hasn’t stopped completely — these days, he prefers to incorporate olive oil into chocolate sauce for banana bread or a maple emulsion for cake: “Sometimes it really does just bring the room together.”
The effect does seem to lose some of its power as it shows up at more places, however. And why does it have to be olive oil, specifically? “There are so many beautiful oils to choose from,” Kanan says. “Hazelnut, or argan, or pumpkin-seed oil could all offer more intrigue.”
For his part, Agi’s chef, Jeremy Salamon, says there wasn’t a premeditated reason behind offering olive oil on both desserts the night I ate there. It just tasted good. Grapefruit and olive oil are a classic pairing, after all. As for the cheesecake? “It’s just a really lovely combo,” the chef says.