“Tell me if I’m boring you,” Loui breathlessly prompts me. “I’m just so passionate about about this olive oil that I sometimes get carried away.”
“Bored?” I think, about the olive oil that Loui’s family has been producing for generations (they’ve lost count how many after several hundred years)? The immaculately grown, handpicked, cold pressed, non-filtered, and beautifully packaged olive oil, whose superbly mild grassiness is center stage at Champaign’s new foodie destination, Grovestone. As Loui Liagridonis, proprietor of Grovestone, walked me through the island of Crete in Greece, and how the specific blend of Manaki and Koroneiki olives produces a full-bodied grassy flavor, sans the acrid pungency of other olive oils, I was anything but bored.
On the contrary, I felt elated by the background story, and all the details of how this Limited Edition Private Reserve Ultra Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($55/.5 L bottle) came to be. It made me feel that this space, where the over-there and over-here, the past and present, tradition and the cutting-edge comes together in Grovestone’s artisanal élan is truly a gift worth celebrating. And that is strikingly appropriate, as one of Grovestone’s main roles is being a culinary gift store, producing gift packages ranging from perfect pairings of infused oil and vinegar ($15) to beautiful baskets ($24-whatever your customized desires require).
In this twin city where specialty food stores are aplenty, Grovestone fills several niches that Champaign-Urbana now enjoys with larger metropolises: the spice house, a taproom of fresh oils and vinegars, party space, and foodie lab. There is also a wall of highly curated wines that are all less than $20.
Everything that Grovestone offers is of the highest quality and purity. For example, Grovestone is the first retail store in the US to test for the acidity of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in their on-site lab. The acidity for EVOO ought to be 0.8% or lower, but this percentage usually rises as time passes. Grovestone is able to maintain the standard level of acidity, and therefore high quality, of their limited edition EVOO. Another example is that the infused olive oils from California and Italy are made with fresh, organic ingredients ($8.95/small bottle and $17.95/tall bottle). The same goes with their infused balsamic vinegars. Loui only offers vinegars that do not contain caramel flavors, artificial flavorings, preservatives, and are also gluten free. It then shouldn’t be a surprise that 90% of his herbs and spices are organic. They are also ground and mixed in-house. (Though not all infused vinegars and oils are organic.)
The thing I love the most about Grovestone, besides its products, is that you are enthusiastically encouraged to explore. “Try anything!” Loui urged me. “Except the wine,” he laughed. “But seriously, I would hate for someone to have to buy a bottle of jam or herbs to find out if they like it or not.”
Loui’s enthusiasm for experimentation is infectious. He emboldens you to combine vinegars, spices, and oils to create fantastic flavors. With the oils ranging from saffron, basil, to blood orange and truffle, and the vinegars covering fig, apple, chocolate and pomegranate, there is much inspiration to be had. For example, when I tried the strawberry balsamic vinegar, Loui suggested it would make a perfect drizzle for ice cream (it really would). He also shared that he recently made a glaze out of espresso vinegar and chipotle oil (dear, me!) and mused about tossing French fries made in olive oil with the truffle salt he had in stock (yum!). So, despite the immaculate and museum-like quality of the store, customers should feel welcome to explore with gusto.
The center table is full of things to sample, and I would recommend the Mediterranean dipping seasoning for olive oil, which has an incredible roasted garlic and rosemary profile. The Greek seasoning is wonderfully redolent of mint and oregano, and would also be perfect on fish or meats.
Even if you aren’t in the buying mood, I would recommend walking through the retail space. The store’s interior is a gorgeous, contemporary take on the light-filled kitchen — tall ceilings, white walls, gleaming steel, rough woods and bare light bulb chandeliers. It combines the calm of the spa with the groundedness of the hearth, with a light nod to an alchemist’s laboratory. I immediately imagined how wonderful it would be to host a party in the space, and lucky for all of us, you can book the space after hours.
Grovestone is a deeply-thought out space. From its consistent ethos, products, and aesthetic, there is the sense that each turn has been lovingly considered before presentation. It’s that personalized feeling that welcomes customers into discovering new flavors and delights. As the holiday season approaches, Grovestone couldn’t have opened at a better time.
Grovestone is located at 1707 W. Kirby Ave., Champaign, in Old Farm Shops. It is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
All photos by Jean Lee.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Achladokambos is an island in Greece, and that Manaki referred to a region in Greece. Manaki is a type of olive. Not all of the infused oils and vinegars are made with organic ingredients.