Today Blue Bottle Coffee Co. opened up their long-anticipated Mint Plaza café — their first true space (besides kiosks and outdoor carts at the Ferry Building and in the East Bay) to showcase James Freeman’s commitment to freshness.
The café is located at a bend in Jesse St. in the Mint Plaza alleyway — in the corner of the old San Francisco Provident Loan Association building (SF’s largest jewelry-only pawn shop, if that gives you an indication of the neighborhood’s dicey past). It’s a bright space with tall ceilings and tall windows that look out on Jesse and Mint Sts. Along the windows is a series of stools with counter seating. Inside there is limited seating at the siphon bar (more on that below) and one long, high table surrounded by stools.
Of course the emphasis is coffee in all its various forms. But there’s also a worthy dessert menu (Caitlin A. Williams is their pastry chef).
For their “routine” espresso blends ($2), they use a three-group La Marzocco GB/5. As you would expect from Blue Bottle, the barista concentrates on timing a slow and deliberate shot — producing an espresso with a richly textured, medium brown patterned crema. It has a beautiful color in the light of the space, a potent aroma, but a thinner body than you might expect for something of this quality. Still, it has a classically robust Blue Bottle espresso flavor of roasted tobacco with an edge of a sweeter honey. Served in a classic brown Nuova Point cup with a glass of water on the side.
Single Origin Espresso
Of course, as a showcase for Blue Bottle Coffee, this is just the beginning of the coffee experience here. James has established a weekly rotation of single origin espresso shots, served from a dedicated old copper, manual, two-group La San Marco machine. Today’s special single origin roast was a Brazilian Camocim Bourbon. Producing one of the very best, if not the best, blended espresso in town, Blue Bottle’s single origin Camocim Bourbon will knock your socks off and comes highly recommended at $3. (James apparently knows me too well, as he personally served me up one before I even had the chance to ask!)
It has an exquisite aroma. The crema is a rich, mottled, and frothy medium brown — a touch thinner in size, as you might expect from a single origin espresso, but it has texture for miles. It has a robust flavor — there aren’t any elements noticeably missing, which is common to single origin espressos — and tastes of chocolate and some tobacco smokiness. Served in a white ACF cup — it is an outstanding recommendation over the “standard” blend.
For this café’s opening day, the siphon bar earned Blue Bottle a front-page story on the “Dining In” section of the day’s New York Times. And the place buzzed with the feel of a grand opening. James was beaming over his latest pride and joy, cameras were about still taking photographs of the place and its coffee, and many of the local coffeescenti came by to welcome the place (including Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters while I was there).
So what is this “siphon bar”? For one, it’s not necessarily anything radically new or different. It is essentially vacuum pot coffee made with a special system imported from Japan, except it uses halogen lamps as a heat source and cotton cloth filters that James told me should last a whole year. (Cafe Bello, for example, has offered vacuum pot brewed coffee for the past four years — even though it’s no longer listed on their main café menu.) The New York Times may have gone ga-ga over their fixation with its price tag — which they quoted as $20,000 for the setup — but James dismissed some of that figure on many of the peripheral parts they purchased, training, etc.
However, the siphon bar presents a unique way to experience some of Blue Bottle’s most exquisite coffees. They offered three different bean options. I had their Idido Misty Valley Ethiopian ($10) — which comes accompanied with chocolate sea salt caramels. The pairing may sound a bit pretentious (I’m leery whenever coffee people try to shoehorn familiar wine tasting rituals on themselves), but it works quite well — enhancing both the flavors of the delicate, clean coffee and the richer chocolate and caramel. In any case, the café could barely keep up with the novelty demand for their siphon bar coffee.
James Freeman may have made his start in the East Bay, but as a resident north of the Panhandle, he has made this location a showpiece and a true coffee destination for the city. Some Blue Bottle loyalists might piss and moan because “Blue Bottle was way cooler when you could drink espresso shots made by a tattooed slacker over a sewer cover in a back alley,” but we’ll take good coffee over misplaced adolescent attitude and poser angst any day.
Read the review of Blue Bottle Cafe at Mint Plaza. — with ratings based on their standard espresso blend.
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