Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Now is that rare time of year where being way out in the Avenues doesn’t feel like being a political prisoner living in exile. For a few weeks out of the year — before the blanket of cold fog transforms the western half of San Francisco into nature’s largest refrigerator — tourists and locals alike experience a brief hallucination where places like SF’s Richmond District seem like attractive, undervalued beachfront property.
Just above the ruins of the old Sutro Baths, the recently opened Lands End Lookout may serve the always-frightful Peerless Coffee in its mini café. But don’t let this neighborhood’s lack of Third Wave self-congratulation get your coffee taste buds down. Even if a bit of the Old West still seems alive here, it boasts some interesting — if not also eclectic — coffee bars.
Take Simple Pleasures Cafe. Its name might suggest a sex toy store if it were in some SF neighborhood a few miles East. Here it is a coffeehouse that claims to be the oldest in the Richmond District, in operation since 1978. Two doors down is their roasting facilities. It’s a social place that serves as an active community center. On these rare fair-weather days, the sidewalk out front can be populated with many of the eclectic local characters conversing on café tables and chairs.
Inside they have the typical colored chalkboard menus that characterized SF cafes in the 1980s. Seating is among big wooden tables in front on numerous odd chairs in back. They offer live music, beer on tap, and espresso shots pulled from a two-group La San Marco machine. The pour is a bit large with a dark to medium brown, healthy crema. Yet the body is robust, with a bold, body-forward flavor of earthiness, chocolate, and tobacco. It’s a flavor profile that practically says, “Screw you and your hipster coffee.” We like that once in a while.
The experience here may feel a bit like you transported yourself to an SF café circa 1987, but that’s not always such a bad thing. Especially when you come to expect a little bit of weird when hanging out near San Francisco’s normally tourist-repellant oceanfront.
Read the review of Simple Pleasures Cafe.
This bakery/café first opened in 2010 as a joint venture of the Goody Goodie bakery and John Quintos, who’s behind Cento, Special Xtra, and Vega. It was originally named “StarStream,” and the coffee routinely followed the Quintos rubber-stamp formula of small La Marzocco Linea espresso machines and Blue Bottle Coffee. However, as the location developed it became less a café and more the relocated headquarters of the Goody Goodie bakery from their sidewalk window — hence the name change.
Coinciding with that change, the coffee service also started taking on its own identity. They serve (dessert) waffles, cookies, and other goods that have earned the quirky bakery its deserved reputation, but the coffee here is no less serious — despite the flowery, heavy-on-pink flea market motif inside. There are two metal garden café tables and chairs along the front Harrison St. sidewalk and a collection of odd items in the interior: patio tables, a whimsical wooden bench, colorfully painted walls, and an odd collection of signage and curiosities that’s mildly reminiscent of Trouble Coffee.
Like Trouble Coffee, they deliberately toss sink shots that don’t measure up to their standards (always a good sign). But what’s particularly impressive is that they have a clear coffee philosophy that comes through: namely, with their switch to Emeryville’s Roast Coffee Co., they want to emphasize balance in their coffee flavor profile without all the overbearing citrus that’s become a tiresome trademark among many new coffee purveyors (see: brightness bomb).
Of course, seeing this philosophy in practice is music to our taste buds. Most North American coffee roasters of note have proven themselves incapable of creating dynamic coffee blends of much merit or finesse. It kills us how the typical Torino, Italy-based blend still runs circles around the Americans. Of all the new coffees we tried out in the past year for home espresso use, almost apologetically the imported Caffè Bomrad topped the lot of them.
But should we really be surprised that the brightness bomb has come to define the quality espresso in North America? To raise that specter of the ever-popular wine analogy again (hey, it’s been at least two weeks), North American wines have run a similar course. Over the past couple of decades, big, bold, fruit-driven, and overly oaky wines with the subtlety and grace of a ball-peen hammer have become the popular choice for American consumers. So much so that wine producers with a different palate in mind have had to circle the wagons with interest groups such as In Pursuit of Balance
Goody Goodie is still tuning in their custom blend with Roast, but for now it has a nice, restrained citric brightness that complements (rather than overwhelms) other notes like chocolate and caramel and some herbal pungency. (Perhaps very appropriate for a dessert café?) They pull modest-sized shots from a two-group Linea with a mottled medium and lighter brown crema in colorful Nuova Point cups. It’s great to witness someone trying to lead instead of following with their coffee.
Opening in May 2009, this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet is located inside the SFMOMA museum on the fifth-floor Rooftop Garden. It’s a rather elite affair, given the open space and the artworks that surround it. There’s seating on concrete floors and benches among modern sculptures, but there are also white metal café tables for seating.
They use Mazzer and Astoria grinders, offer Bonmac filters for single origin drip, and (quite unusual for Blue Bottle) a three-group
Mistral Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette with manual levers.
They pull espresso shots with a medium brown crema and darker brown spots. It’s served quite short for a doppio, but it’s the right amount of potent: very well balanced, broad flavor profile of herbs, pungency, and some tobacco and honey. They use a special SFMOMA blend of five different beans, and it is a true blend — almost something of a rarity in the U.S. It’s one of the best homogenized examples of a blend that Blue Bottle offers. Hopefully they will make a blend like this more widely available.
Served in a Heath ceramics demitasse with a side of sparkling water. About as good as museum coffee can get.
Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden.
Opening in October 2011, this new location of the Mission/Potrero Hill’s Coffee Bar expands their reach downtown to something you can actually walk to. The space is small and can get quite packed in a rush, but it’s clean, well-lit, and has a lab-like feel with its white countertops and lower cabinets.
They offer no indoor seating, but there is a short stand-up window counter and a few wooden sidewalk chairs and a bench in front. Even without the seating, it’s a wise choice for a new location — filling a void that many downtown patrons of decent coffee have lacked since the closure of Caffè Amici nearby. And they should clearly see this opening as a major neighborhood upgrade.
The shop is set up to impress, as they offer scale-weighed hand pours — weighing being de rigeur for getting your TDS right in a shop since about 2010 — and espresso drinks from dueling two-group La Marzocco Strada machines. (To say nothing of the impressive baked goods from Sandbox Bakery.) To their credit, the menu is relatively simple and the options are focused.
They still seem to be dialing in on the quality of their espresso here, however, as it didn’t measure up yet to the standards at the Coffee Bar mothership. Using Mr. Espresso beans, they pull shots with a decent layer of a mixed medium and darker brown crema. The flavor is complex with an emphasis at the herbal pungency end. Served in black ACF cups.
Downtown SF not only again has good coffee, but the bar has been raised.
Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.
Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.
Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.
James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”
While it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.
At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.
Curiously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12″ in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.
Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.
We’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…
As we last left our story, SOMA‘s ever-morphing Sightglass Coffee was glacially executing on its grand designs to become a major SF roastery and a spacious coffee destination. It had been over a year since we last walked among the spent heroin needles of nearby 6th Street, so much of our new Sightglass experience had been through retail brightness bombs sold throughout the Bay Area using Sightglass’ own roasts.
This past week we finally got the chance to revisit Sightglass, and we can safely say it has largely succeeded at its very ambitious goals. We say “largely”, however, because we have more than just a little qualified ambivalence for what exactly Sightglass has become.
Sightglass’ original cubbyhole is now merely the doorway entrance to a vast warehouse space dedicated to exposed wood beams and coffee production. There are a couple of split levels upstairs for staff and vast amounts of stand-up counter space all around the floor plan. But while the square footage of this coffeeshop has expanded some 100-fold, there is seating for only about a dozen more people than before. There is window counter seating along the 7th Street sidewalk. But between that and the bicycle parking at the other end of the building there is virtually no place to sit.
The deliberate scarcity of seating is a decidedly useful move to ward off the laptop zombie set. And we wish far more places catered to stand-up espresso service the way it is a cultural institution in places like Italy. But somehow a place like Four Barrel makes their zombie-warding mojo seem natural and organic to the space, whereas at Sightglass it comes off like a lack of planning.
The vibe inside is a bit unique for a Bay Area coffee shop. In some areas, children sometimes play on the floor with parents in an unusual day-care-lite-like fashion. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable bent towards employing comely female staff and an unusually high proportion of both staff and patrons wearing cycling caps. Yet there is an unusual shortage of the obligatory piercings and body art. And as if an homage to Four Barrel and its mounted boar heads, the sparse decór inside includes the occasional mounted desert animal skull.
As if to proclaim they can mimic more than just Four Barrel, there’s a trusty turntable by the coffee service area for playing vinyl copies of the Beatles’ Revolver or the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim EP — giving it a little of that Stumptown Portland feel.
But enough about interior decorating: what about the coffee? For one, there’s an ample wall of the stuff for retail purchase. It’s not even the “$15 a pound” stuff we mentioned earlier this week: we’re talking the $19.50 for 12 ounces category. At which price, we want bottle rockets shooting out of our ears when we sip this stuff. After sampling some of their Guatemala Finca San Diego Buena Vista Yellow Bourbon at home, let’s just say we’re not giving up our Barefoot Coffee take on Edwin Martinez’ Finca Vista Hermosa — despite some recent local press love.
The general quality of barista here seems to have raised a notch with their expansion. In store they offer Chemex and Hario V60 brewing of three different cultivars — plus the usual espresso drinks, a few baked goods, and the usual Hooker’s Sweet Treats salted caramels. And to pull those shots they employ both Slayer and La Marzocco Strada machines at opposite ends of the service area. Explaining the difference between the two espresso machines to a friend who was there with us, there’s really no other polite way to say this: owners Jerad and Justin Morrison are total name brand fad whores. So we merely described the machines as “last year’s model” versus “this year’s model” — and then proceeded to pay on their iPad checkout system, established here since the week the iPad went public.
Living up to their reputation as worshippers at the altar of the brightness bomb, they pull espresso shots with a rather one-dimensional, medium brown, even crema that struggles to coat the surface. It is very bright and flavorful in a citrus-meets-malt way, but surprisingly not overwhelmingly so. Though there is a tinny, almost metallic taste in the finish where it lacks any real sweetness or molasses-like smoothness.
Of course, a lot of people in North America enjoy this flavor profile. But it becomes particularly problematic when it comes to American’s love of milk-based espresso drinks. Their cappuccino is what we might call a “supermodel” cappuccino — pretty and perfect on the outside, but vapid at the core and lacking any real substance. Despite the beautiful appearance and accompanying latte art, their cappuccinos are tepid, milky, and lack any real punch that can hold up to the milk. We honestly cannot recommend the cappuccino here, as the primary brightness notes in the espresso are lost to become something insidiously bland and rather flavorless.
It’s fair to say that by establishing both their roasting operations and a large service area, Sightglass has positioned themselves as one of the premiere coffee destinations in San Francisco. These days, that says something. However, we cannot help but feel there’s a missing attention to detail here that holds Sightglass back from being among the very best — this despite a web site that proclaims their “deep attention to detail.”
There’s nothing inherently flawed in name brand fad whoring if you get the execution right. But without that execution, you risk appearing as though you’ve followed a checklist for a paint-by-numbers Third Wave coffeeshop — rather than being something with a soul and substance of its own. We don’t even mind if your interior design ideas were lifted from the Stumptown and Four Barrel catalogs as long as your attention to detail comes out in your coffee. Forget the other details for a moment: a washed-out, bland cappuccino just doesn’t cut it.
An almost poetically symbolic example of this attention-to-detail problem was evident watching the team perform maintenance on their on-site Probat roaster (aka, “the sightglass”). They re-applied the mounting bolts to their Probat … without washers. Sometimes it takes just a little extra effort to do it right.
Read the updated review of Sightglass Coffee.
Ever eat a hamburger at a 1950s-themed American diner? In Hong Kong? Maybe their waffles didn’t taste like fish sauce, but it’s not uncommon to discover something lost in translation. (E.g., “Why does my hamburger bun taste like rice vinegar?”) On the spectrum of authenticity, this is the culinary equivalent to finding luxury handbags in the Hong Kong night markets with designer labels like “Guchi” and “Koach”.
Which brings us to Paris Baguette. Downtown Palo Alto recently added the latest installment of a growing Korean-owned chain of French-themed bakeries. However, use of the word “chain” here is an understatement. Although there are some 15 U.S. locations scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and California (including Santa Clara), there are 50 locations in China and some 2,900 locations in South Korea alone.
To put this in perspective, Starbucks operates 6,727 stores in the entire U.S. This means that, on a per capita basis, Paris Baguette locations saturate Korea some 2.75 times as much as Starbucks saturates America. Viewed purely in terms of locations per square mile, Paris Baguette locations carpet bomb Korea 41.6 times as much as Starbucks locations do the U.S. If you remember those jokes about there being another Starbucks inside a Starbucks’ bathroom, just imagine 41 of them in there.
Fortunately, Paris Baguette is not too freakishly Paris by way of Seoul — even if it glows like a gaudy Vegas casino from the outside. There’s some sidewalk café seating in front. On the inside (casino mirrors aside), it consists of stacks and stacks of self-service baked goods to be pinched by passersby armed with wax paper and tongs. There strangely isn’t much else to speak of for lunch options. And beneath the tall glass windows, there are clumsy, long, almost school-cafeteria-like tables — save for being topped with faux marble.
And yet this location proves that being lost in translation isn’t always a bad thing. Whereas most of the coffee in Paris is wretched, they make an honest attempt at sourcing and producing good coffee — at which they are mostly successful. Despite its gaudy flaws and cultural mistranslations, the coffee service here manages to be some of the best in Palo Alto.
They sport heavy Ritual Coffee Roasters branding and a shiny, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the service counter. They even offer Hario V60 pour-overs. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema in black ACF cups. It has a basic warming flavor of spice and some herbs, and the coffee has the potential to be much better than it is — but it is still quite decent. They also offer healthy milk-frothing and latte art for milk-based drinks.
Read the review of Paris Baguette in Palo Alto.
Today’s New York Times reported on another chapter in this year’s ownership-change-for-funding-for-growth saga of quality independent coffee chains: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Asks a Friend to Help It Grow – NYTimes.com. This past May, the subject was Stumptown Coffee Roasters — generating quite a bit of angst among many loyalists who cried “sell-out!” This time the subject is Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, whose expansion plans seem to have stalled or required less-than-ideal compromises.
If 2010 was the year of the Great Coffee Rush — where prospecting independent roasting/coffeeshop elites in the West packed their covered wagons and migrated East to help fill a gaping quality coffee void — 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the investment, merger, and acquisition. The article notes Intelligentsia’s 2009 acquisition of Ecco Caffè — and, more importantly, how its planned Potrero Hill roasting operations have yet to materialize.
Of course, when was the last time that a major roasting operation in San Francisco didn’t materialize months, if not years, behind the original schedule? (Think Four Barrel, Sightglass, etc.) Even so, it’s becoming clear that as the quality independent coffee industry has matured, the next stage of its evolution now requires wealthier investors to fund their ambitions.
Next month Berkeley hosts its first ever coffee and tea festival, and the SF Chronicle used the opportunity to mention Berkeley’s coffee and espresso roots: Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival. The piece adds a bit of worthy Berkeley coffee history, even if it’s a slight retread of a 2009 piece in The Daily Californian. Both articles discussed Caffe Mediterraneum’s merits as the birthplace of the caffè latte. And, hey, Berkeley is where I had my first real cappuccino way back in those ancient 1980s.
Opening in July 2011, this new coffeehouse expands Glen Park‘s neighborhood coffee offerings. It’s located a little off the beaten path, nearest a freeway exit from the Glen Park BART station. Outside they have a couple of sidewalk tables. Inside is a modern, semi-sterile interior of orange and gray walls and exposed chrome and stainless steel.
They proudly display the bios and details of their suppliers on the walls, from Mr. Espresso coffee to the two-group, chrome Faema E61 machine to the Grass Valley artist who made the Cup sculpture that overhangs the shop’s entrance outside. They also sell Mr. Espresso coffee beans with the Cup label stuck on the package.
Using their coffee and shiny E61 (and Mazzer and Macap grinders), they pull a very short shot with a potent, darker brown crema. It’s surprisingly not syrupy, given the pour size. It’s actually a little ballzy to make an espresso this short in this neighborhood, so kudos to them. It has a potent herbal flavor of cloves, etc., that’s missing a little top-end brightness in the cup. Their milk-frothing is decorative but unusual and on the thick side.
Maybe it isn’t as unique as having a Cafe Bello — which has long established its own unique flavor profile and style by locally roasting their own for a number of years. (Helping to fend off that espresso sameness issue.) And maybe the location isn’t perfect and the interior is a little sterile. But they still make a good espresso.
Read the review of Cup.