February 2006

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Tartine Bakery & Café

Posted by on 28 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This is a rather non-descript French bakery/café. But don’t let that fool you. It has won numerous “best bakery” awards in the area and is immensely popular. (And yes, even Martha Stewart paid a visit here just a week ago.) It is also notorious for its Soviet-style bread lines, which run long out the door on weekend mornings. Most patrons cut it some slack — attributing the lines to the price of demand for quality. But I have to fault part of that to their inability to ring up and serve a croissant and coffee at a rate of faster than one every two minutes. (While they are a fantastic bakery, they are also painfully slow and inefficient.)

The café has dark interior colors, shared tables in tight quarters, and plenty of sidewalk seating. Insanely good baked goods, various wines, and lunch fare. (In the fall of 2005 they opened up Bar Tartine for dinners at 561 Valencia nearby.) Making a serious attempt at espresso, they have a separate, dedicated espresso bar and barista. They once had an antique espresso machine with an unusual design, levers, and valves (it appeared to be an old Faema E61 Legend based on the groups), but they’ve since replaced it with a more standard, sturdy three-group La Marzocco Linea.

The lines queue up outside Tartine Bakery It even smells better than it looks

Unfortunately, their dedication and investment into quality espresso can’t escape the “French coffee curse”. (The barista wasn’t entirely sure of the maker, let alone model, of the machine she was using either — which is also not a good sign.) They serve espresso with a pale, thin crema — which is often the mark of a sour espresso due to an improperly low brewing temperature.

Fortunately, it does not suffer from any sourness in flavor. (As my friends at Mr. Espresso accurately suggested upon reading this post, Tartine often cuts off their shots much sooner than the proper 20-22 seconds of brewing — perhaps in order to handle their customer volume more quickly.) It’s a generally bright-tasting espresso with slight nutty and medicinal flavor notes. But the thin body comes off entirely in the French style, resulting in an underwhelming cup that suggests little more than glorified drip coffee. In the several times I’ve sampled their espresso over the past three years, they have been rather consistent in this regard.

Yet somehow this coffee was inexplicably ranked fifth in CitySearch.com’s 2005 Best San Francisco coffee, as voted by site visitors. This only underscores my marvel at and appreciation for how well the French can dazzle you with food and an ambience to where you are completely oblivious to what’s being served in your coffee cup. Even if it is a nice, classic brown, thick-walled Nuova Point cup at that.

It is no wonder that their business postcards prominently display the image of the classic French café-au-lait-in-a-cat-bowl. Drown an espresso under enough milk, and you can hide a lot of defects. It is not bad espresso by any means (it’s currently tied for #230 on CoffeeRatings.com). But if milk is your thing, I recommend that you put on your snorkel fins and dive in.

Read the updated review.

Tipping the woman behind the La Marzocco Fine espresso shouldn't at least look this sour

History of Coffee: Part IV – Commercialisation of Coffee

Posted by on 27 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Robusta

That famous portal for coffee connoisseurs, DailyIndia.com (?!?), keeps the hits on coming. This time it’s the latest installment on the history of coffee: History of Coffee: Part IV – Commercialisation of Coffee.

The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ of coffee lasted from the mid-19th Century to the late 20th Century. In that time, roasted coffee went from a neighborhood (dare I say artisan?) product, often roasted at home, to a highly commercialized and industrialized commodity that looked and tasted nothing like coffee — all in the name of convenience and modernization.

Beginning with John Arbuckle in 1865, packages of ground, roasted coffee were marketed and distributed regionally. By glazing the roasted beans like an Easter ham, Arbuckle developed a method for retaining some of the roasted coffee’s freshness while transporting the product over longer and longer distances. This process was later extended to national and international distribution networks.

The pursuit of profit — rather than quality — also lead to heavy use of cheaper robusta bean stocks. Ultimately, the death of coffee culminated in the introduction of coffee’s Orange Tang equivalent, instant coffee, in the 20th Century … where the end product resembled processed grit-in-a-can rather than anything you would call coffee.

The author, James Grierson, has written four other parts in this online series on the history of coffee: Coffee Knowledge.

Trip Report: House of Coffee

Posted by on 27 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew, Roasting

This place literally put the Outer Sunset on the map for CoffeeRatings.com. This neighborhood is hardly known for good coffee, and it is often neglected as a rural, unsophisticated neighbor to the high cuisine and glamor of parts east. But what the Sunset District has going for it is a bit of breathing room and more rational rents that have allowed local microroasters, such as the House of Coffee and nearby Alvin’s, to survive and even thrive for years.

Henry Kalebjian and his family run a chain of three coffee houses on the Peninsula (SF, Burlingame, and San Mateo), and he’s been roasting at this location for some 40 years. Walk up during the morning, and chances are you will be greeted by the smell of roasting coffee from their San Franciscan roaster. In fact, you’ll smell it well down the street. (The San Franciscan roaster is a classic drum roaster design, btw.)

House of Coffee on Noriega St. Henry roasting Java beans in their San Franciscan roaster

There’s a beat up table out front and several indoor tables and chairs. They have covered their interior walls with roasted beans, coffee cups, grinders, machines, Nutella, European biscuits, and various other things available for purchase. Henry apparently learned about the potential of retail space long before Starbucks ever did.

While they use a two-group La Spaziale and serve only in paper cups, they serve a properly short shot with a great dark brown crema of decent thickness. Flavorwise, it doesn’t quite live up to its looks; it has a deep, dark smoky flavor with just a touch of an ashy aftertaste — and barely any sweetness. Still, it’s a notable espresso for the many things they do right.

Read the review.

House of Coffee's 'Wall of Coffee' If you can swim past the retailing, you'll find HoC's barista station

The House of Coffee espresso -- for those who like their morning 'paper' (cup)

CoffeeRatings.com in this month’s San Francisco magazine

Posted by on 25 Feb 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

A shout out to CoffeeRatings.com in the March 2006 issue of San Francisco magazine (page 40): THE HOT SPOTS – One-shot wonders – San Francisco magazine. (Update: someone thankfully posted a graphical version of the print story as well.)

Friends in the area have asked me since this article was published, “Did you really walk 500 miles?” What? And take MUNI instead? Even after then-mayor Willie Brown proved that it is about as fast as walking … and yet far more dangerous?

Truth be known, I have a collection of used Fast Passes dating back to 2000. (Hey, it’s not garbage — I’m supporting The Arts.) So I am no stranger to MUNI — even in its worst days of the late 1990s. (I am still haunted by nightmares of the regular hour-plus no shows of the J Church during rush hour.) But the best way to really get the lay of the land and uncover espresso shops in every dark corner of the city is to do so on foot.

Average a mile every other day for almost three years, and it adds up. Even if I don’t have the pedometer to prove it. Though the permanent damage that many of these cafés did to my taste buds and central nervous system is a different story…

Coffee Sugar Sex Magik

Posted by on 24 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

It’s no wonder why health care is in shambles in this country. Every two-bit researcher with a corporate-sponsored grant proposal collects their check, publishes their paper, and some low-wage PR grunt in their administrative office issues a press release. Major media, given their rip-and-read reporting laziness and blissful ignorance of science, publishes every piece of news release drivel that comes over the wire — not even pausing long enough to let it sink into their brains. Consumers read this regular stream of confusing and contradictory medical research and, from week to week, have no idea whether to drink ten cups of coffee a day or to swear it off altogether.

So what’s the latest idiot piece that doesn’t seem to go away, even as much as we may try to avoid it? Researchers at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas discovered that caffeine increases the female rat libido. So what do many of the newswires report?: “Is coffee the female Viagra?”

No, seriously.

Of course, if you’re hot to trot on a Saturday night and are looking to score with vermin, this is excellent news. Apparently you should be looking for love in the dumpster behind the local Starbucks. But chances are that you do not qualify for this group. Yet to spice up the story, people have made a leap of faith from rats to humans, from caffeine to coffee, from sexual interest to blood flow, and the next thing you know newswires, bloggers, and the like are eating it up like Hugh Hefner after word of a Viagra shortage.

Who cares if there isn’t any relevance, let alone truth, to this concept? And who cares if the university that performed this reputable and renowned medical research actually posted the following on their Premedical and Predental student section of their Web site?:

During its long history, Southwestern University has never “got anyone into medical or dental school.”

It doesn’t matter — all those pesky details just get in the way. This reminds me of my favorite old physicist joke, which illustrates the lunacy of postulating and debating for hours upon the foundation of a ridiculously erroneous assumption. The punchline goes, “We first assume a spherical chicken…” (Physicists live by the simplified mathematical abstraction.)

And to prove that things have a life of their own, here’s a press release today from Drinks Business Review: Java Sutra introduces libido-boosting coffee – Drinks Business Review. With the opening headline, “Java Sutra, a Portland-based company, has introduced a nutrient-infused coffee that is claimed to boost sexual energy in men and women,” it’s clear that there’s a market for spherical chicken if everyone just believes in it.

Trip Report: Toy Boat Dessert Café

Posted by on 24 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Since 1982, this playfully-themed café has served soda fountain drinks, coffee, and sandwiches. The owner, Jesse, has lined its walls with old toys, a PEZ dispenser collection, cartoon figurines, and model airplanes. A coin-operated horse ride sits in its center. Outdoors there is a bench and a single table.

Musical entertainment in front of the Toy Boat The wall of chaos that is Toy Boat

Hipster young women (and men) behind the counter are meticulous baristas who know how to work their 20+-year-old La Cimbali M20 lever machine (which itself is serviced by a lone Mr. Espresso technician). They preheat the serving cups while filling a small brew pitcher (it would be better to pour directly into the cup to avoid the heat transfer). Serving an appropriate, yet rare, shallow pour, they resist the temptation (or pressure) to fill the cup completely. Their technique produces good results from their Mr. Espresso beans. A rich aroma. A dark brown, partly congealed crema with a thick, syrup-like body. Its flavor packs a dense sweetness of molasses, caramel, and some chocolate.

The lone Bay Area technician who can fix a La Cimbali M20 Toy Boat espresso, as served by Jesse

At my last visit, the flavor ran a little more towards the tobacco spectrum with less sweetness and potency. But this was just minutes after they had the machine serviced to fix a leak in a seal. And any excuse to return to the Toy Boat is usually a pretty good one.

Jesse is one of the veterans of San Francisco’s quality coffee business. When I mentioned that I was thinking of attending the Western Regional Barista Competition in Petaluma next month, he commented on how he attended similar events some twenty or so years ago and hadn’t really seen a reason to return. Apparently, back then the big trend was very pedestrian by today’s standards — such as frothing whole milk. Though I’ll take that anyday over today’s emphasis on frippery such as espresso cocktails.

Read the updated review.

Godzilla and friends guard the exits

Philadelphia: International coffees

Posted by on 23 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer published an article that shows there’s more to Philly coffee than La Colombe Torrefaction: Philadelphia Inquirer | 02/23/2006 | International coffees.

They review a number of different international styles of coffee available in the area, including the following:

  • RoseLena’s old Viennese-style coffeehouse
  • Ray’s Cafe & Tea House for $8-a-cup Jamaican Blue Mountain and Vietnamese-style coffee
  • Nam Phuong, Cafe Diem, Cafe Nhu Y, and Vietnam for Vietnamese-style coffee
  • Estia and Jovan’s Place for Greek or Turkish coffee
  • Tierra Colombiana for the true Colombian style specialty

The article also makes mention of Joe Sheridan, who in 1952 supposedly helped to first introduce Irish coffee to the U.S. at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle coincidentally published an article on adulterated coffee: Coffee drinks give ‘I’m buzzed’ a double meaning.

My favorite quote in the article?:

A coffee drink can be as simple as pouring a shot of liquor into a cup of coffee — the Italians call this “caffe corretto,” or “corrected coffee,” which is funny because Italian coffee rarely needs correction, whereas coffee in American bars is often delinquent or even outright felonious.

Trip Report: The Canvas Gallery/Café

Posted by on 23 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This vast space with high ceilings is a combination gallery, café, and lounge. It’s immensely popular, and it can sometimes be difficult to find a seat despite the space. The layout is smartly sectioned off with mobile gallery walls so it has more privacy than an open gallery space might normally have. They offer free wireless Internet with any purchase, so there are many people parking for extended periods with their laptops here. They have numerous sidewalk tables and chairs in front. Inside there’s a number of high stools and tables, dining tables, and seating along a bar.

Industrial exterior of the Canvas Café Bar inside Canvas Café

In the corner of the central service/bar area when you walk in is their espresso bar — but you’ll need to order further down the counter at the register. At the espresso bar is an older three-group Faema originally supplied by Mr. Espresso, but it is now serviced by Bay Area Coffee Service. The difference is not insignificant; Mr. Espresso would be all over a client who wasn’t making good use of their equipment, offering them training and technical assistance.

Although The Canvas pre-grinds their coffee in advance, they have good turnover to keep the grinds from oxidizing much. However, they serve espresso with a paltry, pale crema. Flavorwise, it’s mostly a diluted turpeny and herbal flavor with some ashiness.

So the question is: why is this place so popular? I gather it has more to do with the space, food (even if the service is painfully slow), and “free” Internet. Because the espresso — while doing a brisk business — is dodgy at best. Some of the wiser regulars seem to indulge in gargantuan cups of milk-based drinks to disguise the unremarkable and bland espresso.

The Canvas is something of a paradox. Usually, it’s the neighborhood Starbucks that attracts the crowds to hang out and drink uninspired cups of espresso-based drinks … and the local café with the great espresso down the street tends to struggle along. Here it’s the opposite. They are the popular hang-out with the weak espresso, and I would honestly recommend going further up the block to the Starbucks on 744 Irving Street (though not yet reviewed) for what should be a better cup of coffee.

You can probably chalk up their disappointing espresso to the phenomenon of when an establishment tries to do too much: food, bar, gallery, music club, private event space … The espresso is just an afterthought, and it shows.

Read the review.

An overworked and underperforming Faema at the Canvas The Canvas Café espresso: zzzzzzzzz

Trip Report: Caffé del Sole

Posted by on 21 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This café opened in September 2005, replacing the barely noteworthy Cool Beans — one grungy café among many in a series of ownership changes at this location. The new proprietor, Antonio, brings a clear Italian flair to this location (he even answers the phone, “Pronto!”).

However, when you approach it, you might mistake it for a Mexican burrito joint. In front are brightly colored Miscela d’Oro parasols over two sidewalk tables. Inside are a few more small café tables and an Italian decorative flair (they cleaned up the place), Internet access, and a flat screen TV airing RAI International. And yes, Antonio airs all the Serie A calcio matches in the café — and he is a fellow juventino (a Juventus fan, like myself). While there, I couldn’t help but get hooked in a conversation about Francesco Totti‘s broken ankle injury over the weekend’s matches.

Patio in front of Caffé del Sole Inside Caffé del Sole

So it wasn’t easy to leave my biases at the door after all this. Despite them all, I can safely say that this café is surprisingly very good for the neighborhood. (It’s not all Italian, as the morning barista when I was there spoke no Italian, a little English, and mostly Spanish — which made me dust off my high school lessons.) From a two-group Elektra machine, they serve espresso properly short, dark, and sweet in handpainted Italian ceramic cups decorated with the Caffé del Sole name on them. (They also use Miscela d’Oro logo cups for their larger format, milk-based espresso drinks.) And while you’d expected imported (an often pre-ground) Miscela D’oro beans to be a bit stale from the overseas transport and storage, the resulting shot is potent, rich, slightly syrupy, and with a pungent base flavor. The crema is a beautiful reddish dark brown.

And in the morning they warm up fresh chocolate and white cream cornetti (essentially Italian for croissant) — so good they reminded me of the bakery I used to visit down the street from an apartment I rented in Ravello a few years ago. This place is absolutely worth a visit.

Read the review.

Caffé del Sole espresso in a hand-painted cup

Albany, N.Y. Leader Cashes In On His Coffee Expertise

Posted by on 21 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

The February 2006 issue of Automatic Merchandiser (how’s that for exciting reading?) features a story on Chris Nachtrieb and his Chris’ Coffee Service: Albany, N.Y. Leader Cashes In On His Coffee Expertise – February 2006 Issue – AMonline.com.

In the late 1970s, Chris Nachtrieb started his Albany, NY Office Coffee Service (OCS) business as a one-person company with a passion for great coffee. Since then, he evolved Chris’ Coffee Service to offer espresso to the restaurant and foodservice industry in the late 1990s … to selling espresso machines and service over the Internet today.

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