SF Spice Shop Is Full of Flavor

Like any spice hunter worth her, um, salt, Olivia Dillan, proprietress of Spice Ace, a San Francisco mecca of all things flavor enhancing, expertly briefs customers on the characteristics of the 300 spices, peppers and dried herbs in her inventory—if only to prevent bodily harm. Do not, she warns, sample more than one sansho peppercorn at once. The Japanese export’s intense lemony aroma may tempt you to overindulge, but just a single bud packs an astringent, palate-crushing punch and enough mouth-numbing effect to induce mild-to-moderate anxiety. Despite her cautionary words, Dillan likens the stuff to Pop Rocks candy and recommends steeping the peppercorns in vodka for provocative cocktails.

Don’t let Dillan’s former life as a software executive fool you—her culinary education runs deep. Slow-simmered marinara sauce, redolent of oregano and garlic, practically runs through her veins (a condition inherited from her Southern Italian grandparents); and thanks to her Greek step-grandparents, Dillan’s outlook is always sunny with a chance of lamb meatballs—lovingly infused with dill and lemon.

“Food is my true obsession,” says Dillan, who would unwind from stressful Silicon Valley workdays by braising cumin-scented lamb shanks or grilling haloumi sprinkled with oregano and mint. “Spices aren’t just great for enhancing flavor, they also do wonders for stirring up memories.”

 

Dried chili peppers, cardamom pods and a bright punch of dehydrated raspberry powder are among the offerings available at spice ace.

On her 2012 honeymoon in Venice with husband Ben Balzer, Dillan decided—while sailing by the house of legendary spice hunter Marco Polo, no less—to take the plunge on opening a chic spice shop in a former Pacific Heights bridal boutique. Her due diligence comprised months of adventuring to such far-flung destinations as Madrid’s San Miguel Market, Thiercelin in Paris and Istanbul’s famous Spice Bazaar. “My travels have helped me appreciate the specialness of native spices,” says Dillan, who sources her supplies from top-secret small-batch farmers all over the world.

Spice Ace, which opened in October 2012, has a modern-apothecary charm: Bright white shelves are crisply arranged in a grid pattern, and the deep cubbies are stocked with thick glass jars teeming with the good stuff. The shop’s stylish uniformity calls to mind Dillan’s high-tech past, but judging from her dreamtime exploits, the now-full-time professional foodie is taking her cues from another chapter in her personal history: “Last night I dreamed about making my late mother’s rice pilaf, flavored with saffron, cayenne, raisins and chicken livers,” says Dillan. “I still couldn’t do it justice.”

This was originally published in California Home + Design's Winter 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.

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