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Archived Posts from this Category
Still reading? OK, here’s the long version. So what made me lob such an incendiary, sweeping, and judgmental hand grenade? This past week I came across this headline from Roast Magazine‘s news feed: Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine – Coffee Recommendations From the World’s Greatest Restaurant Chef.
The post cites a Telegraph travel article that’s completely innocuous. But it’s the loaded presumptions behind Roast‘s headline that forcibly poked me in the eye and compelled me to respond.
Because, you see, I’ve never trusted a great chef’s opinion about good coffee. And I’ve come to believe that I probably never will. This is yet another example of why all journalistic efforts and awards that classify coffee as some mutant, orphaned subdivision of food seem misguided and wholly inadequate.
Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts — at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savory creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.
So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?
In recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you. (Yes, there are even absurd apps based on the premise that chefs eat better than anyone else on the planet.)
The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.) And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV (though maybe on a slightly leaner budget).
So when American super-chef, Thomas Keller, says he can often be found eating at an In-N-Out Burger, that might help elevate public esteem for the cult favorite burger chain. But that says more to me about Thomas Keller than it says about In-N-Out Burger — which is, quite disappointingly, just another mass-produced, paper-hat, greasy-burger-on-a-bun fast food chain of a slightly different hue. It might also explain why the coffee at Mr. Keller’s restaurants is so poor.
A few years ago when we dined at Keller’s notorious French Laundry, we noted how the espresso there scored lower than a Starbucks at the SFO airport. A good friend of this Web site who ranks high in the local coffee industry (who shall remain nameless) also dined there this past weekend and reported pretty much the exact same disappointing coffee experience. And that’s quite consistent with the poor coffee service we’ve experienced at virtually all of Keller’s restaurants.
But it’s not just Keller.
On an episode of Dangerous Grounds in Rome this season, superchef Mario Batali sent Todd Carmichael to Tazza d’Oro to experience what he thinks is the best Italian espresso, period. Now I love Tazza d’Oro. A major inspiration for this site was the battle between the locals in Rome’s centro storico for who had the better espresso — Tazza d’Oro or Sant’Eustacio il Caffè. But as good as it is, there’s a lot of local legend and historical folklore behind Chef Batali’s choice.
Mr. Carmichael eyeballs Tazza d’Oro’s roasting operations and notices all the Brazilian coffee produced by mechanically harvested megafarms, suggesting how he could do better. And as I recently concluded, even the best espresso from a recent trip to Napoli — a city known even more for the quality of its Italian espresso — could not crack SF’s Top 15. Even look at the Batali-owned U.S. locations of Eataly: there are Lavazza cafés in the U.S. where any Eataly in its native Italy would never consider hosting them on the basis of Lavazza’s vast size and pedestrian quality.
Chef Batali has an impeccable palate for Italian food. But his taste for coffee seems clearly borrowed rather than personally developed. Though who can blame him given everything else he has to obsess about? Even if his habits of hanging out with that vapid sea hag in $1,000 yoga pants, Gwyneth Paltrow, and his trademark I’ve-given-up-hope footwear might suggest that not all his tastes are winners.
Speaking of that ever-popular wine analogy, let’s turn our attention to great chefs and their relationship to wine. Food and wine are like the yin and yang of fine dining. Yet nobody corners great chefs to ask their personal opinions about their favorite wines — so why would coffee even be relevant? Sure, said chefs will be asked about pairing wine with food. But almost never are they asked about their independent opinions about wine.
Why? Because all the respectable wine snobs know that’s not where these chefs excel. When Wine Enthusiast visited Chef Redzepi’s Copenhagen dining scene a few years ago, it failed to even mention wine anywhere in the article. A curious omission for a wine-obsessed magazine.
In 2007 Wine Spectator interviewed Thomas Keller and did an exceedingly rare thing: they asked him directly about his wine preferences. Did he wax about the lush qualities of his favorite vintage of Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru? No, instead he noted that his favorite wines were young Zinfandels — big fruit bombs, often heavy on alcohol, that were once most commonly known as “jug wines” not all that long ago.
There’s nothing wrong with young Zinfandels or having preferences for inexpensive wines. This isn’t to suggest that great chefs have disproportionately philistine tastes when it comes to wine (or coffee). But professing favoritism for what was once associated with wine’s misery market is hardly what the public expects when seeking the sage wisdom of Thomas Keller’s “distinguished wine palate”.
As for Mario Batali, he promotionally offers his name on a “Mario Batali Selection™” line of wines — curated by Mario and typically offered in the $15-20 range. But nobody believes that’s what he chooses to drink. In fact, Chef Batali seems too preoccupied having his team of ghostwriters come up with new material for his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine — “What I’m Drinking” — where each week Chef Mario celebrates new ways to damage his liver through the versatile elixir of hard liquor.
What Chef Redzepi, Chef Keller, and Chef Batali — and many great chefs like them — all have in common is knowing the limits of their own tastes and opinions outside of food. What they all have become quite good at is knowing how to delegate, choosing surrogates whose opinions they trust: whether that’s a pastry chef, a sommelier, or someone in charge of the coffee service at their restaurant.
All of which isn’t to say that René Redzepi has no taste for decent coffee. Coffee Collective is a Copenhagen, if not world class, coffee institution. But the loaded pretext here is that because Chef Redzepi knows how to forage and make the world’s most delicious moss, that somehow this qualifies him as some kind of coffee oracle. This when his coffee palate is likely far less informed than some 28-year-old local Copenhagen bike messenger who still lives with his parents. I’d rather hear that bike messenger’s opinion about coffee. However, Chef Redzepi has earned his respect and celebrity for what he’s accomplished with food — even if he hasn’t earned it for all things related to taste.
Being an outstanding chef does not bestow any magical abilities to divine good coffee from bad, just as being a certified Q grader doesn’t qualify you as an expert on modern Scandinavian cuisine. So let’s stop pretending that chefs are something they’re not — as if being the executive chef at the best restaurant in the world isn’t enough. They can barely cope with wine or dessert, let alone coffee.
Perhaps if we stop insisting that our food savants must also be multi-disciplinary Renaissance men and women in all matters of taste, we might start deservedly recognizing the coffee specialists for what they truly excel at.
Curiously enough, Chef Redzepi opens the presentation by giving complete credit to his head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, for Noma’s coffee program and suggests that Mr. Kleppe should give the talk. Chef Redzepi then proceeds to monopolize the presentation — with Mr. Kleppe standing on stage nearby.
Continuing our series on espresso in and around Napoli, we return to the island of Ischia. This bar/restaurant at the Sant’Angelo tip, near the commune of Serrara Fontana, is known mostly for its fish. Not entirely shocking, given that the place is named “by the fisherman”. And it is, after all, perched with highly desirable sea views at Ischia island’s southernmost rock outcropping.
Out front there’s a lot of patio seating with deck chairs and parasols: it looks like the deck of the Titanic washed up here. Further back inside is more of a cavernous space that’s carved in curved stone walls with a few café tables. And in addition to serving fish and pizza, in back there’s a stocked bar that also serves espresso.
Using an older four-group lever La San Marco 85-LEVA-4, they pull shots with an even, relatively thinner darker brown crema in IPA cups. It has a bold Passalacqua flavor of herbal pungency, some wood, and just a touch of tobacco without being too smoky.
A little pricey at €1.20 at the bar, but not surprising given the remote location. While it was rated a respectable three tazzine and one chicco in the 2013 Bar d’Italia, for what ever reasons it entirely dropped out of the 2014 edition.
Read the review of Dal Pescadero in Sant’Angelo frazione di Serrara Fontana, Ischia, Italy.
This restaurant is often considered the best in Southern Italy and certainly one of its most famous. It’s earned two Michelin stars, and it’s known as something of a Chez Panisse of Italy: an emphasis on locally grown ingredients sourced from the chef’s 6 hectare farm, Le Peracciole (purchased in 1990), but elevated to a fine dining experience.
Located at the heart of the remote hill town of Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, it’s situated on a mountain ridge that overlooks both the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno (hence the town’s name). Driving up in a torrential downpour, we accidentally pulled in for cover into the garage for the restaurant service staff — decorated with large murals of various fruits and vegetables — and arrived via the service entrance. Not that it mattered, because whether we stumbled upon the pre-service staff dinner or found ourselves in part of the kitchen, the staff were exceptionally friendly and accommodating.
Alfonso Costanzo Iaccarino started this operation as a hotel in 1890. Today it is both a hotel and restaurant (the latter begun in 1973) owned and operated by Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino. The two patrol the dining room with its pink and white walls, ensuring their brigade offers impeccable service (and it very much is).
One of the few buildings on site is La Cantina, their world-famous, 25,000-bottle wine cellar. It begins as you enter a 17th century Neapolitan building. It then leads to an earlier wing from the 16th century. And it then descends some 40 meters at an angle into the earth into what was originally a 6th century Etruscan tomb. At the bottom of the tomb they also age some of their cheeses.
Besides the over-the-top tasting menu (eel mousse?!), they also offer a coffee service that aspires to the level of uniqueness and memorability as the food here. (Contrast with the more pedestrian — albeit top-quality — approach taken by Copenhagen’s Noma.)
They wood-roast their own private coffee label through nearby Caffè Maresca, and they swear by La San Marco as the best espresso machines they can get their hands on. They pull very short shots of espresso with a darker and medium brown crema and heavy chocolate tones to the flavor, and they serve it in cartoon-colorful Solimene ceramic cups from Vietri sul Mare with lids and two saucers.
To create a more unique experience, they serve their espresso with five different sugars — each produced at different levels of refinement. It may not be close to the best espresso we’ve ever had, but they clearly make the effort and do what you’d expect from such a special restaurant to make the coffee service equally as memorable. At least more than just the sticker shock you get from its €5 price tag.
As over-the-top Italian restaurants go, Don Alfonso 1890 offers some of the best service we’ve experienced anywhere. The food is outstanding and showcases an emphasis on simple, quality ingredients for which Southern Italy is known. That said, we’d still have to give a slight edge to more of the culinary refinement you’ll find at a place like Guido Ristorante Pollenzo up north.
Read the review of Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 in Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, Italy.
This bar/café and restaurant is located within the ruins of a Ravello palace, the Palazzo della Marra, built in the 12th century. Opening in the late 1990s, the brothers Giuseppe and Gerardo Foti dedicated it to their father (and hence its name).
In 2002, we first encountered it as the Palazzo della Marra restaurant: the cuisine aimed high, and it was arguably one of the best, most innovative restaurants in Ravello. The brothers have since reformulated it, however, and now the original name belongs only to the next-door bed & breakfast. In its place, the Figli di Papà name has come with a decidedly more casual restaurant that is still one of the better options in town. (Bay Area restaurants are no strangers to the concept of downscaling their ambitions for populist, recession-friendly burger and pizza joints.)
Most importantly, the espresso here is also some of the best in town.
There are a couple of outdoor seats out front along Via della Marra with an upstairs gelateria/bar area. Downstairs there a number of restaurant tables and also outdoor patio seating along Rampa Gambardella. The upstairs bar is so casual, you might not even realize you’re in it — mistaking it instead for a transition to a stairway. But look and you’ll likely find a couple of locals standing at the tiny bar, watching the day’s news on TV. Let them know you’re not just passing through to the stairs, and you’ll get service.
Behind the bar, there’s a two-group chrome Fiorenzato lever espresso machine at the ready. The barista is conscientious and methodical with the machine’s levers, and he pulls a shot of Caffè Toraldo with a darker brown crema and the occasional lighter, medium brown heat spot.
It has the flavor of cloves and spices and the most exquisitely textured crema we’ve had in the area. Served in Caffè Toraldo-logo MPAN cups. And to show their soccer club alliance, “Forza Napoli” is even printed on the receipts.
Read the review of Figli di Papà in Ravello, Italy.
The Internet is hardly known as a medium for civil discussion and debate. There are exceptions, of course, but today only the Internet historians will remember when flame wars and childish insults may have briefly raised eyebrows before they became too commonplace to notice anymore. What still raises eyebrows is when there actually is civil discourse online — and especially when it is abruptly shut down and censored.Last week we exhumed the old why-is-restaurant-coffee-so-bad yarn, invoking recent social media gossip about high-end restaurants that either raised the Nespresso white flag or developed serious coffee program, such as Copenhagen’s infamous Noma — the running #1 ranked restaurant in the world. Then earlier this week, a famous coffee blog we enjoy — Dear Coffee, I Love You — posted a review of their recent meal and coffee service at Noma: Coffee at Noma, The World’s Best Restaurant « Dear Coffee, I Love You. | A Coffee Blog for Caffeinated Inspiration..
My reaction to the post split in two opposite directions. First, on the positive side, I always appreciate a good story of where someone is proving that you can make decent coffee at a restaurant. But on the negative side, I couldn’t get over the fact that here was the #1 ranked restaurant in the world that was essentially reinventing flavors and food, and yet the most thoughtful coffee service they could come up with is serving manual pour-over coffee from a Hario V60. Something you could quite readily do at home yourself, no imagination nor creativity required.So I commented on the post, using one of my throwaway Facebook accounts that so many lame Web sites require to comment these days. (As socially loaded as it is these days to say, “I don’t own a TV”, I prefer the more modern variant, “I don’t have a legitimate Facebook account.”) In my comments, I noted how Noma’s rather pedestrian pour-over service was a bit of a let down — given everything else for which the place is known.
Sir Brian W. Jones (posting on Facebook as DCILY) and a certain Devon Nullz (a Facebook-allowed variant of /dev/null) held a brief, but civil, exchange in Facebook comments. But just before I was able to respond to Mr. Jones’ last reply, something very odd happened: all the Facebook-hosted comments on the post disappeared. Not just my and/or his comments, all the Facebook comments on the post.
Yes, the nuclear option.
Fortunately, through the magic of Google caching, I’ve exhumed the discussion here because it is blog-topic-worthy. Bonus for the chance to perhaps continue to discussion … since Dear Coffee, I Love You pretty much abruptly announced last call at 9pm and threw everyone out of the bar.
Now we know we’re talking about how low the bar is set for coffee among all great restaurants. But this is a restaurant that’s making bite-explosions of flavor with fried reindeer moss, fermented crickets, etc. Normal conceptions of food have been turned inside-out, cryogenically transformed, and re-presented as something totally new.
So when the coffee service comes, what do they offer to live up to those heights? What amazing boundaries of the culinary world do they bend to the point of breaking? We get a V60 pour-over that every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years. Something you can essentially make yourself at home with a scale and a blog post.
Pour-over coffee in a V60 is the culinary equivalent of East-meets-West fusion cuisine from a food truck. If coffee service has to live up to the new frontiers promised by a $260/head dinner, food truck cuisine isn’t how to do that.
Yesterday at 5:23pm
And then it ended. Poof.
To Mr. Jones’ credit, perhaps he quickly realized he was dealing with a complete nut job (on the Internet? Really?!) and thus he didn’t want to continue to the discussion any further. I can’t say that I blame him. But in doing so, a legitimate point has been completely whitewashed and dismissed: we readily give restaurants a pass for their coffee when it doesn’t live up to the standards set by their food. The #1 restaurant in the world serving pour-over V60 coffee might not be as bad as Nespresso, but it is still a culinary cop-out.
And when it comes to pouring wine from bottles, Sir Brian, might I remind you that coffee service isn’t merely the act of pulling a cork. Brewing coffee quite literally is cooking.
And there’s a deliberate reason why Noma’s wine list is curated for rare and special occasion wines — and not just what can be found on the shelves of any Bilka hypermarket in Denmark. Compared to a V60 pour-over, ironically a Clover brewer suddenly seems exotic again by today’s standards. Is it too much to ask to at least syphon brew for something just a little out of the ordinary?
Now we’re not saying that Korean tacos aren’t quite tasty, because they are. But they’re really not that special. (Well, at least here in California.)
Given the more recent comment update history on this post, and this piece today from Sprudge, this topic is worthy of an update. Noma is currently experimenting with espresso service — which they’ve held off doing to date for all the right reasons. Furthermore, their coffee service has had a little time to mature “in the wild.” But one of the good things the aforementioned article surfaces is this talk from last year’s Nordic Barista Cup, recorded about five months after we published this original post.
The title of the presentation, “Milk and Sugar, Please!,” refers to a lesson René and his team have learned about serving highly specialized coffee to restaurant patrons with the highest expectations. They first tried the coffee Nazi route: serving it without cream or sugar and suggesting that it is best without them. Patrons revolted — perhaps out of habit, but perhaps also out of a sense of control in this I-apply-filters-to-someone-else’s-photos-on-Instagram-therefore-I’m-an-artist world we now live in. René discovered that by standing down and placing the cream and sugar at the table for just comfort alone, customers happily consumed their coffee without additives and without resistance.
The presentation opens with René saying that Noma’s head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, is the guy to give the presentation as his dedicated man to coffee — much as Noma has staff dedicated to things like berries, foraging, and moss. (This affirms what we suggested in another post.) And yet René went on for the next 47 minutes unequivocally monopolizing the microphone, spouting out the word “fuck” about every 30 seconds along the way.
The claim is that the coffee is as good as at Tim Wendelboe’s — and arguably the best restaurant coffee you can get in the world. Or at least that’s the aim. To back that claim up, René notes that preparation took eight months, 40 staff, precise bean choices, custom equipment and installation, and a repeated claim to spending tens of thousands of dollars.
Not having actually had the coffee, we can’t comment on its quality. But there’s no reason to think it isn’t great. What we still don’t understand is why some of the best coffee bars in the world do not require eight months, 40 staff, and five flights in from Tim Wendelboe to establish a stellar pour-over brewing service. It makes us wonder: just where is all that time, money, and labor going?
Despite perhaps the supposed uniqueness of new Nordic brewing to light-bodied, lightly roasted pedigree coffees for some less-traveled patrons, it’s still just a V60 pour-over bar. At that, the coffee is not exactly served to personal order: it is brewed in one-liter batches in kettles from a back room public lounge, served in custom-designed 500ml glass containers. For all the creativity and uniqueness that patrons come to expect from Chef Redzepi’s stellar food, the most inventive part of their coffee service should not be the serviceware.
As CoffeeRatings.com celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it’s hard not to feel a little jaded by some of the coffee topics that simply refuse to die. Like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 1.30E+02, some subjects are the undead zombies of the coffee world, no matter how times you try to kill them with fire. (Kopi luwak, anyone?) All of which explains a little of why our blog posting cycle has gone from a few times per week to more like once a month: you’re tired of reading about the same stuff, and we’re tired of writing about it.
However, today we were inspired to reminisce down memory lane about bad restaurant coffee and the commoditized coffee fodder known as Nespresso. This time we blame Sprudge.com and Oliver Strand for exhuming the dead: Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap » Sprudge.com. Now that the blame is out of the way, we’ll join in this zombie apocalypse fight club with the nearest chainsaw we can grab.
The premise of Mr. Strand’s article is rooted in trends towards two polar opposites of coffee service at fine dining establishments — and the TwitCon Level 3 general alert that surrounds them (i.e., don your hardhats and make for your nearest social media fallout shelter, boys).
The first concerns famed restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma (repeat finalist for best restaurant in the world, and also home of the famed norovirus cocktail) who are producing coffee with care, sourced from the likes of Tim Wendelboe. The second, counter-movement concerns a Grub Street report that 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants have punted on coffee service by offering Nespresso — coffee’s version of Crocs.
Nespresso: the universal symbol of a restaurant that has given up coffee hope.
Given that we wrote about the trend of some high-end restaurants surrendering to Nespresso systems back in 2007, this isn’t exactly news. But our key points back then remain true as ever: introducing the mundane at an exclusive restaurant is always a losing strategy. This doesn’t matter whether your restaurant is putting Yellow Tail Cabernet on its wine list, serving San Pelligrino mineral water bought from the Costco across town, or slinging shots of Nestlé espresso served from a push-button machine: commodity products are the antithesis of why we’re paying $200-a-head and up to eat at your fine dining establishment.
The worst part is that stooping to Nespresso for your coffee service not only shows a lack of thought or creativity, but it is also completely unnecessary. A restaurant need not get in over its head in coffee minutia to do a memorable job of it. One of our most memorable coffee experiences anywhere involved little more than a restaurant that served fresh coffee, sourced from a unique Kona producer, and served in a French press. Simple, elegant, unique, excellent, and highly memorable.
That said, we have experienced some excellent coffee at local restaurants that have really invested in doing it right. We’re saddened by the recent demise of Bar Bambino, who once served one of San Francisco’s best restaurant espresso shots. But we were recently blown away by both the invested attention and quality of the end-product on a recent trip to Redd Restaurant in Yountville. (Great restaurant espresso?! And from Equator Estate Coffee?!?!)
In closing, we do have to politely chastise Mr. Strand’s standards of full-meal etiquette when he says, “I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines.” (I.e., the “you’re doing it wrong” argument.) There’s no better way to close out an audacious meal with a short, well-made espresso — and perhaps this is where the volumetric studies of the latent filter drip coffee re-obsession tends to backfire — followed by the digestivo effects of a fine grappa. Though we do draw the line at cigars.
If you were to read it in the current Roast magazine article (from the Jan-Feb 2012 issue), India is a coffee consumer desert. This week TIME magazine wrote about the entrance of Starbucks in the Indian market almost as if to dismiss any prior coffee consumption there. But after spending three weeks in South India’s coffee-growing state of Karnataka last month, these articles read like front-line trip reports from Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella suggesting that the New World he just discovered is “uninhabited”.
India accurately gets the label of a tea-loving nation. But South India has a coffee-happy culture that arguably rivals most of the places we’ve visited in Europe. In fact, we found far more coffee fanatics in South India than tea lovers. And when we say “fanatics”, we mean people whose eyes light up with delight when you offer the suggestion, “Coffee?”
When we reported from Northern India four years ago, much of the coffee culture was a relatively new, youthful, cosmopolitan import of the modern global café culture. South India also has ample evidence of the modern “third place.” After all this is where Café Coffee Day, India’s largest modern coffee chain, got its start in 1996.
But South India is steeped in coffee houses and coffee culture that goes back to the fading memories of Old Bangalore — from long before the British moved out, “road widening” programs blighted the city with horrendous traffic in place of groves of majestic trees, and global high tech campuses moved in. You can somewhat neatly divide South India between its old and new coffee cultures.
Starting from the lore of the seven Yemenese coffee beans introduced by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur (a region within the state of Karnataka) in 1670, India has been a coffee producing nation. But traditionally only in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. These lush, fertile states represent much of India’s agriculture and the world’s spices.
In South Indian cities, you can still find old school bean-and-leaf stores (Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s original model, i.e. as opposed to retail coffee beverage sales) where local customers ask for coffee from their favorite Coorg farm by name. But despite this terroir-like awareness among some of South India’s older coffee fans, they typically do not buy their coffee in a whole bean format. As ground coffee, it is often purchased as “coffee powder”. And as a matter of history, economics, and/or taste preferences, coffee powder for traditional South Indian filter coffee is frequently cut with chicory.
In fact, if you were to describe the typical South Indian filter coffee preparation, it is also served with a lot of attention given to hot, manually frothed milk. New Orleans may lay claim to the chicory cafe au lait, but South India has predated that claim with a very similar traditional coffee drink by a century or more. One significant difference being that South India likes to aerate their hot milk by distributing it between metal vessels from side-to-side. Some purveyors even take this form of milk frothing to the level of theatrics, providing their customers with a version of latte art rooted more performance art than design.
This form of South Indian coffee consumption takes place in homes, offices, and in the old school restaurants typically called “hotels” that you will find throughout South India. They may be called “hotels”, but you won’t find a place to lay down — let alone private rooms. Many are vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll even find the occasional “military hotel” — which is shorthand for a diner on the cheap, typically with stand-up self service and a cafeteria-like counter for ordering. South Indians very much look forward to their coffee breaks throughout the day for both the enjoyment of the drink and to briefly discuss family, work, events, etc.
In other words, when it comes to coffee, they’re a lot like Europeans.
India is a dance in contradictions, however. Someone we met near Delhi a few years ago put it best when he told us, “everything you find to be true in India, you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.” And that includes South India’s coffee culture.
The local presses have stated, “India is low on coffee knowledge.” That is as apparent in South India as anywhere else in the country. There is a decent proliferation of modern coffee shops — including even a Caffè Pascucci in downtown Bengaluru and an Illy espressamente in its airport. However, the coffee “language” used by many of these coffee shops seemed dumbed down for a more coffee-naïve public.
For example, a very popular, local coffeehouse for the young Bengaluru professional set called Matteo Coffea outwardly brands itself as a place for consumer coffee education. However, most of this is in the form of basic historical coffee trivia and quotes you might otherwise find on a souvenir coffee mug: e.g., “Did you know that coffee was discovered by Ethiopian goat herders called kaldi?”
A non-chain place like Matteo Coffea is also a good example of the modern South Indian coffeehouse. It has all the hallmarks of a great “Third Wave” coffeehouse in the West: an outward dedication to consumer coffee education, a shiny red La Marzocco FB/70, and selective bean sourcing and roasting operations. However, the resulting espresso shots look a lot better than they taste. India is going through a lot of the motions on quality coffee, but the coffee quality itself has yet to live up to the show. Other modern coffee shops and chains in the region put a modern spin on coffee quality while still sticking to the area tradition of pre-ground coffee mixed with chicory.
High-end restaurants in the area — those guardians of gourmand tastes — seem to know enough about quality coffee to dissuade customers from ordering the traditional South Indian filter coffee, which is often made with the aforementioned “coffee powder.” It’s almost as if they are embarrassed by it. Instead they steer customers towards “black coffee,” which is barely acceptable straight espresso served in very long, but yet not diluted, pours.
And yet our experiences with traditional South Indian filter coffee there were all very positive — even if it doesn’t bow down to the gods of single origin elitism, handling attuned to maximum freshness, nor even the avoidance of milk adulteration. Perhaps the most humbling aspect was when I returned to the U.S. and tried to reproduce South Indian filter coffee at home. Using a South Indian brew pot I bought at a Bengaluru housewares store for $8 — a contraption not unlike the Neapolitan flip coffee pot — I got out my best beans, technique, and milk to ultimately produce one of the three most undrinkable cups of coffee I have ever made in my life. This is harder than it looks, folks.
Bengaluru is also home to the national Coffee Board of India, a large, multistory complex that we decided to visit on a whim. Expecting a closed-door government agency with security guards and suspicious eyes intent on keeping foreigners and trespassers out, we were surprised at how open and welcoming they were.
Showing up on their doorstep and merely expressing our love of good Indian coffee, we were directed to the offices of Dr. K. Basavaraj, who is head of the Quality Control Division. There we received an all-access tour of his lab, test batch roasters, and cupping facilities: all the trappings any Western coffee fanatic would feel right at home with.
Out at “origin,” in the coffee-growing lands of the Kodagu (aka Coorg) district of Karnataka, we visited a few coffee farms. Most were modest agricultural operations, some associated with so-called “coffee curing works” that often seemed in the general business of trading commodities. Collectively they supply the majority of India’s domestic coffee consumption — in no small part because India imposes steep tariffs on just about any imported consumable. (They impose a 100% import tariff on beer and wine, with spirits typically topping 150%.)
You could fault India for growing a lot of “cheap” robusta here — it is half the crop relative to arabica by some counts. However, India grows some of the best quality, best cared-for robusta in the world. And in typical Indian contradictory fashion, one of the more memorable modern coffeehouses we experienced in South India was a roadside hut in rural Nisargadhama, Kodagu that served, among other drinks, decorative Spanish cortados.
No matter what, there is something to be said about a coffee culture where, when you ask a restaurant or café who supplies or roasts their coffee, you invariably get the name of an individual — often with an honorary “Dr.” title — rather than the name of a business. It’s not unlike parts of Hawaii where some restaurant menus list the name of the fisherman along with the fish.
India is such a complex, diverse place it’s next to impossible to try to sum up what it is and what it isn’t, as the answer tends to be “all of the above.” We can only hope that with all the forces of modernization and globalization at play here, coffee doesn’t lose some of its cultural diversity.
Media profiles of Illycaffè‘s Andrea Illy are commonplace. But this one from today’s The Guardian (UK) is better than most: Andrea Illy: family businessman who’s raising the bar for premium coffee | Business | The Guardian.
For one, Mr. Illy talks about the importance of pricing and brand positioning. Regardless of what you think of Illy coffee, offering discount promotions and specials is incongruous with establishing it as a luxury item. You don’t lure customers with a come-on for a cheap fix; you lure them because they want to treat themselves. Discounts cheapen that image and position you for the coffee misery market.
He also notes how Illycaffè ensures that resellers of its coffee have the right equipment and are making it properly, retraining staff if necessary. While this is critical for the perceived quality of any roaster whose coffee beans are served in third-party establishments, our data suggests that Illycaffè has fallen far short of living up to these ideals — at least in the U.S.
Back in 2009 we made a comparison of our espresso scores among cafés with common machines, common roasters, or common chain brands, and we used the standard deviation of these scores as a measure of inconsistency. Illy coffee rated much more inconsistently than different Starbucks chain stores — which are notorious themselves for their very poor consistency.
Consistent with an interview four years ago, Mr. Illy finishes the article with a couple of good contrarian, somewhat incendiary quotes about Fair Trade. For one: “[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods. That is against the laws of supply and demand.” Another: “consumers pay more for Fairtrade because they want to feel good. It’s about solidarity not quality. Why not give to the Red Cross?”
All of which echoes many of our thoughts about the rather trendy role of “Corporate Social Responsibility” in business today, where consumers seem to prefer to outsource their charitable giving to third-party businesses rather than donate directly themselves. As we always ask: don’t tell us you’re going to donate 10% of the sales proceeds to charity. Give us that 10% off, and let us take responsibility and decide who and how much to donate with the extra savings. You’re my coffee roaster, not my Foundation.
We’ve been lamenting the sorry state of restaurant coffee in these pages since 2005. But let it be known that, as of this moment forward, we have officially given up on the possibility of ever being reliably served good coffee in American restaurants.
Sure, there have been a few successes and battles won along the way. There has even been the occasional restaurant that made us think about what’s possible. But reliably good coffee — the way you can safely expect at any restaurant in, say, Portugal — is a pipe dream. We’ve finally come to the stark realization that the war is effectively unwinnable … a lost cause. To deny this is to blindly ignore an overwhelming display of evidence.
Oddly, the bit of news that finally killed the dream for us — what finally broke the camel’s back — was a post in the New York Times about Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine five-volume encyclopedia set and Mark Prince’s review of its coffee chapter on CoffeeGeek.com. We’ll explain in a moment.
Bad restaurant coffee has been the norm long, long before many of us were even born. There are even front-page references to this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle going back to 1963. Among long-anticipated social revolutions that ain’t never gonna happen, this places reliably good restaurant coffee somewhere between professional soccer making it big in the U.S. and the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
So what about those two articles triggered such absolute futility about restaurant coffee? Both pieces were written with a kind of presumptuous expectation that quality coffee somehow deserves a place in the discussion of “modernist cuisine.” As much as we love coffee, the idea is both audacious and completely misplaced. Located in Volume 4 of the series (“Ingredients and Preparation”), the coffee chapter follows a roughly equivalent chapter on wine. And that’s where the comparisons begin to fall apart.
It is not even a question that coffee is far less relevant to cuisine than wine. Coffee may have far more aromatic and flavor components than wine, but it can never be paired to complement food the way wine can. The world is steeped with centuries-old culinary traditions of pairing local wines with the food of the region. And yet in the many centuries that coffee cultures have had to pair coffee with cuisine, to this date the combination simply does not exist the world over — despite the many failed, recent attempts to shoehorn them together. This is not by accident.
Beer pairings, for example, are far more relevant to cuisine; we received no fewer than two beer pairings as part of a recent tasting menu at Atelier Crenn. And yet there’s no beer chapter in Modernist Cuisine. The same is even true for the modern phenomenon of pairing food with different varieties of salt. Thus this leaves coffee no more relevant and integral to the science of actual cuisine than, say, tea, after-dinner cordials, or even cigars or tobacco. None of which either have chapters in Modernist Cuisine, by the way.
We can make all sorts of excuses about the coffee in restaurants — such as how the “last mile” in the serving chain for coffee is far more technical and sensitive than that for serving tea or wine. But even if you solve that last mile problem, that doesn’t change coffee’s very limited relevance to cuisine overall. And the less relevant coffee is to cuisine, the less relevant good coffee becomes to the overall restaurant experience.
This might come as a slap in the face to a number of coffee professionals who are riding a revolutionary wave in coffee consumerism. (Note that we deliberately didn’t call it a revolution in coffee.) In the past decade, some have even envisioned the role of the barista on the same pedestal that food television bestows upon celebrity chefs — or at least the expectation of rivaling the wine sommelier.
This belief is fed by a steady stream of people selling coffee technology and pitching media stories inspired by the major changes in coffee consumerism. All of which has given modern coffee a little bit of an egotistical head case — an occasional sense of entitlement to a rightful place in the pantheon of restaurant gods alongside pedestals for wine pairings, cheese courses, and dessert menus.
But baristas aren’t at all like chefs, and that’s a good thing. (If anything, they’re a bit more like line cooks.) Baristas aren’t like sommeliers either, and that’s also probably a good thing. Specialization exists in a modern society for good reason: we don’t want our mixologists making our pork belly, and we really don’t want waiters and host/esses pulling our espresso shots. And just as head chefs rely on sommeliers and pastry chefs, we honestly don’t want our chefs obsessing over our coffee service.
The SCAA conference’s “Culinary Track” is one of the better examples of how distorted the coffee industry views itself within the culinary world’s hierarchy of needs. The SCAA might partner with the Texas Restaurant Association for its annual conference in Houston at the end of this month, but it is still as if the SCAA expects Mohammad to come to the mountain — not the other way around (i.e., establishing a coffee track at a restaurateur conference, such as done at Fancy Food shows).
For each annual industry conference for tea, aperitifs, cordials, cheese, and salumi, does the SCAA expect that restaurateurs will take time out from their relentless schedules to attend a restaurateur-dedicated culinary track at each of these events? Is coffee so egotistical as to believe that it is entitled to a role more prominent than any of its sister components to an overall restaurant meal?
CoffeeGeek’s legendary Mark Prince may have gotten excited by reading Modernist Cuisine‘s slagging of restaurant coffee standards, but there is absolutely nothing modern about this phenomenon. General consumer standards for coffee may have improved over the past decade, but restaurants on this continent are forever doomed to be laggards for the reasons outlined above. It’s a pattern that has persisted for decades.
Why it has taken us this long to write off restaurant coffee as a second-class culinary citizen is a bit of a mystery. But like everyone else, it’s time to get over it. Reliably good restaurant coffee will never happen. Not in our lifetimes. And probably not ever. And the sooner we can stop pretending that coffee is some elite offshoot of the culinary arts, the better.
Let’s hear it for counter-programming. Starbucks made good on last year’s Plenta threat this week, announcing a new beverage size that targets the gluttony market, called the Trenta. As in Godzilla vs. the Trenta. Taking advantage of a news lull, Starbucks’ press onslaught has the media lapping it up. So naturally, we’re going to talk about the return of Citizen Cake.
This is the long-awaited revival of Elizabeth Falkner’s since-defunct Hayes Valley original namesake shop. Opening in November 2010 on the spot of the former Vivande Porta Via, it’s decorated with a lot of black-painted wood with red highlights. Inside there’s a bar with stool seating and a number of black wooden tables and booths for more formal dining. However, the pastries are, not surprisingly, showcased in front.
The staff here are, well, rather quirky — even by SF standards. They operate a rather restaurant-pedestrian UNIC Phoenix Twin behind the bar to pull shots of Equator Estate Coffee. We’ve long been ambivalent about Equator Estate coffees served in a retail environment; the lack of quality controls at the customer delivery end have produced an inordinate amount of underwhelming cups, given their industry regard. But in this restaurant-like environment, it’s surprisingly decent — though not great.
The resulting shots have a thinner but healthy-looking darker brown crema. It has a limited body and not much sweetness, despite its rather short two-sip serving size. With a darker, heartier herbal flavor of cloves, there is limited brightness in the shot. Served in classic brown ACF cups.
The milk frothing here is dodgy at best, and they also offer coffee in metal French presses. But at least unlike their former Citizen Cupcake location, they’re not hinging their business on the health of a record store.
Read the review of Citizen Cake.