Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Four years ago we posted about our disappointment over high-end restaurants that offered plenty of options for tea but only one for coffee. It’s as if these celebrated houses of distinguished taste decided that coffee had all the nuance and variety of unleaded gasoline — and it showed in the product they served. And when we are buying unleaded gasoline, we at least get the typical options of regular, plus, premium, and/or ultra. So establishments known for their shotgun-wielding maître d’s and their counter displays of beef jerky actually beat out our nation’s finest restaurants in this regard.
Fast forward to today, and our finest restaurants have evolved little. However, this week we did have an experience that suggested at least some improvements are coming from retail coffeeshops. While seeking out some roasted beans at the Blue Bottle Cafe to share for pour-over this weekend, their Ethiopian Amaro Gayo caught my eye enough to purchase a half pound. Their response to my purchase request: “Washed or natural?”
Washed or natural!? What delightful music to this coffee lover’s ears. Now there will be those inevitable coffee consumers who will react to such a question with we-all-drank-Maxwell-House-in-my-day-and-that-was-good-enough-for-us uppity disdain. Not unlike the way some have made a hobby out of ranting over drink sizes named grande or venti — or being asked whether they liked a dry or wet cappuccino. But I was pleasantly surprised with the option to purchase essentially the same coffee with two different forms of processing (prior to roasting).
Which isn’t to suggest that there aren’t reasonable limits to the amount of preciousness we pour into our coffees. Reading the descriptors on Blue Bottle Coffee Web site (washed, natural), we can’t be sure whether we’re buying coffee or hallucinogens that provide us with a gateway to Total Recall. Reading the coffee’s descriptors from NY’s Gimme! Coffee (washed, sun-dried/natural) or Denver’s Novo Coffee (washed, sun-dried/natural), we get the impression that gender politics must taste better than the coffee itself.
Even with all that over-earnest prose, we’ll take the lump sum as an improvement.
We’ve previously lamented the abuse and overuse of the term “perfect,” particularly when it comes to espresso. For this, and for injecting the term into the media vernacular for anything we consume, we have justifiable grounds to send Martha Stewart back to prison. Until we again see Martha in an orange jumper, today our inboxes provided two more exhibits for state’s evidence.
The first concerns a pursuit of un cappuccino perfetto in San Francisco: The Sipping Point – The Bold Italic – San Francisco by Nicole Martinelli. The other comes from a coffee taster and sales manager for Caffè Umbria: Coffee Taster » Blog Archive » The perfect espresso: a caresse, not a punch. The latter covers some familiar themes on what’s lacking in restaurant espresso in America, so here we will instead focus on the former article.
Ms. Martinelli’s article is written from the perspective of a San Franciscan who, for a time, left to live in Milan, Italy. She thus uses Milan as her point of reference for the “perfect” cappuccino. Yet we’ve stated for years how Milan is one of the greatest espresso underachievers in Italy, and the café ratings in Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia back us up. (The additional irony of an interista speaking to the authentic Italian cappuccino is also not lost here, given that the Inter soccer club is about as Italian as Buenos Aires’ Boca Juniors.)
So how can you stake a legitimate claim to perfection when your reference point is anything but? It’s not by accident that of the 666 active San Francisco espresso purveyors currently listed on CoffeeRatings.com, not one of them scores higher than an 8.6 on a 10-point scale. But what is interesting is the cappuccino angle, of course. Even if the comprehensiveness of the author’s quest falls about 659 entries short of ours, we’ve historically made it a point not to rate the cappuccino. We do, however, comment on their quality in the reviews, and this does influence our Taster’s Correction score. But if they can judge a cappuccino at barista competitions, there’s reason to suggest we should.
The article also cites Giorgio Milos, who recently ruffled some American feathers by suggesting the Italian way is the only way to appreciate espresso. Back to our original “perfect” denunciation, we introduced the work of Howard Moskowitz to underscore that instead of a “perfect cappuccino”, what society really wants are the “perfect cappuccinos.” OK, i cappuccini perfetti if you want to be Italian about it.
The mainstream media barely understand that qualitative differences exist between really good coffee, good coffee, and average coffee — let alone that some of the differences might be worth shelling out a few extra bucks on. CNN is one of the more recent outlets to ponder the differences: $13 coffee worth the brew-haha? – CNN.com.
Of course, this is an old story just now washing up on the remote cultural shores of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Back in 2007, we wrote about $15 cups of Hacienda la Esmeralda and even UK restaurants that sold $14 cups of Nespresso (Nespresso! You know, the same people who brought us Taster’s Choice.) By 2008, we experienced first-hand exposure to these media biases when we were interviewed for a variety of magazine articles and TV news programs. We realized then that the common theme was a need to defend better coffee — and why we should consider paying more for it.
At least the CNN piece didn’t take a typical Bay Area approach, which was more along the bizarre logical lines of, “How can you justify a $10 cup of coffee when there are starving children in the world?” Instead, CNN seemed to think the price should translate to ridiculous levels of service — underscoring how they couldn’t differentiate Thunderbird-like rot-gut from a DRC burgundy of the coffee world.
But what triggered our gag reflex when reading this story wasn’t yet another tiresome reference to kopi luwak — the gag novelty of the coffee tourist world. Instead, it was mention of Baltimore’s Jay Caragay — a good coffee guy and one of the brains behind Portafilter.net — and how he actually named a café “Spro”.
So it ain’t so, Jay. Baristas at quality coffee shops already have their hands full trying to buck the hipster doofus stereotype.
The Annual SCAA Exposition is upon us. This month — in addition to the usual gadget marketing, major sponsorship from suspect brands, and the U.S Barista Championship — the event organizers have added a new Culinary Track: SPECIALTY COFFEE ASSOCIATION ADDS CULINARY TRACK | Articles | Beverages. To quote the SCAA press release [pdf, 27kb]:
SCAA’s Culinary Track is specifically designed to cater to the needs of gastronomic professionals, to guide them towards creating an exceptional specialty coffee menu or perfecting their existing beverage programs.
Big annual conferences are like sharks: if they don’t continue to move forward, they risk dying. After regular attendees have fatigued on Ron Popeil wannabes hawking their revolutionary coffee service inventions, and their umpteenth lather-rinse-repeat cycle of a highly routinized and somewhat arbitrary barista competition, conference organizers need to regularly introduce new blood and new ideas to keep it relevant. Enter the culinary track.
We’ve long lamented the sorry state of restaurant coffee and espresso — particularly in some of the nation’s finest dining establishments. So any legitimate attempt to improve the quality of restaurant coffee should be a good thing, right?
But here’s the root of the problem and why this move is a big FAIL: this is a coffee conference, not a culinary conference. If you want to spread the gospel of good coffee, you need to take it to the chefs and restaurateurs. You don’t expect them to come to you. Chefs and restaurateurs, working ridiculous restaurant hours, already have too many conferences that they can reasonably attend before running off to Anaheim to hang with a bunch of coffee nerds.
As a result, this effort will do little to attract the culinary world to coffee. Instead, this track will do far more to attract the coffee world to the culinary arts. And when that happens, we get worried. We get results such as ridiculous coffee pairing dinners — which have always made about as much sense to us as cigar pairing with each course.
This fear is echoed in the retail food service article cited up top:
And this year, show organizers are adding a new Culinary Track designed specifically for foodservice and culinary professionals looking to create synergy in their food and beverage programs.
Oh no, not synergy. Not starry-eyed baristas who envision the monotonous gyrations of barista competitions somehow becoming enjoyable fodder for food television. Not another overreaching extension of coffee’s misguided wine analogy — where coffee professionals hope to ride the faux glamor of the culinary world’s coattails, selling out the very things that make coffee special and unique in the process.
And then there’s “cooking with coffee” — another topic that makes us cringe. One of our biggest complaints about coffee books of yore were the pages and pages of coffee recipes. If you need a recipe, it’s not coffee. We could tear out the last half of many of these old coffee book classics and never miss them. Look no further than the coffee stout: what was supposed to be the perfect marriage between beer and coffee has amounted to the embarrassing shotgun wedding of the beverage world.
If we really are serious about educating the culinary world about good coffee, support your local restaurateurs who get it. Demand better standards from the many who don’t get it. Just be true to yourself: don’t pretend to be something else than you already are.
It’s the kind of statement sure to earn protests from many a New Yorker: some consider Yountville, CA to be the culinary capital of America.
An outrageous assertion? Not necessarily. At the heart of the Napa Valley wine country, Yountville is home to what many call the nation’s greatest restaurant in The French Laundry. It also boasts a number of great chefs in the area — from Thomas Keller to Richard Reddington to Michael Chiarello (aka Top Chef: Masters‘ second-place winner).
But unlike New York City, Yountville is an odd town that spends most of its time pretending to be somewhere else — making it more like Las Vegas in this regard. Rather than celebrating the unique qualities of the Napa Valley that surrounds it, Yountville practically tells its visitors that they would rather be in France or Italy.
For example: the Bordeaux House hotel, odes to Provence in the Maison Fleurie and Vintage Inn hotels, streets such as Burgundy Way, and restaurants such as Bistro Jeanty and the aforementioned French Laundry. Is it France? The Vintage Inn Web site even leads with the promotion: “The most romantic week we ever spent in Provence…was the one that we spent…in Yountville.”
My mother-in-law lived in “downtown” Yountville in the early 1960s, right on Mulberry St.. Back then, Yountville was covered with fields. You could go an entire day without hearing a car go by. In the Napa Valley, wine was still more than a decade away from being any sort of notable business — let alone a cultural phenomenon. So when life in the sticks gave way to romanticized images of vineyards and exquisite restaurants, Yountville responded with aspirations of class and culture through faux Eurotrash associations.
Perhaps train yards, mills, and Wappo Native Americans don’t carry the same elitist class as Europe’s famous wine-growing regions. But playing a schizophrenic, second-rate imitation of Europe isn’t very convincing either. This copycat behavior mirrors what many in the coffee industry have been doing by shoehorning coffee as a second-rate substitute for wine.
Which brings us to the point of this post: the coffee. In Carmel-by-the-Sea we asked the question, “What happens to coffee in a town that bans Starbucks?” Here in Yountville, we asked the same question — but with the additional angle of being surrounded by this town’s notable food & wine credentials. In a town celebrated for its high cuisine, will the local standards for espresso improve at the local restaurants and cafés?
When it comes to espresso, American restaurants have always had a horrible track record. But like Carmel, we found that some of the best espresso in Yountville came from its restaurants. Unlike Carmel, we found the baseline standards for espresso to be generally decent overall.
That’s not to say that Yountville is without its surprising duds. Thomas Keller may be a fabulous chef, but his standards for serving coffee are rather poor given everything else he serves. We’ve written previously about some of the more cop-out choices they made for The French Laundry, but our recent test results of the espresso at his Ad Hoc were outright unacceptable.
Bardessono and the Yountville Coffee Caboose both represent places that looked to some of the Bay Area’s most famous roasters to raise the the bar. And although their preparation standards aren’t entirely up to par, they are good enough.
More noteworthy is Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant. While the place exudes the kind of singles pickup scene you’d normally find in a bar serving Jägermeister shots along SF’s Union St., there’s no questioning how serious they are about their espresso.
Bottega sports a two-group lever Bosco machine at the bar — only the third one we know of in the entire greater Bay Area — and coffee beans from Seattle’s Caffé Vita (perhaps America’s chief supplier of Bosco machines). This kind of espresso pedigree is anything but a casual or accidental decision. It’s particularly surprising given the clientele: all that effort seems lost on so many naïve customers. We literally saw customers send back their menu order of the “whole fish” in disgust because they had never seen a fish served with a head and tail on it before.
Coincidentally, our Yountville hotel room offered a Nespresso Essenza C100 machine. Every time we tried to make espresso with their Roma capsules (the least foul of the lot), we could not get over how much it literally smelled like tuna.
|Name||Address||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]||Last Reviewed|
|Ad Hoc||6476 Washington St.||4.20||5.50||4.850||2/14/2010|
|Bardessono||6526 Yount St.||7.70||7.80||7.750||2/13/2010|
|Bottega||6525 Washington St.||7.60||7.50||7.550||2/13/2010|
|Bouchon||6534 Washington St.||6.60||7.20||6.900||2/13/2005|
|Bouchon Bakery||6528 Washington St.||6.00||7.20||6.600||12/13/2005|
|Cantinetta Piero||6774 Washington St.||6.80||7.00||6.900||2/12/2010|
|Cups & Cones||6525 Washington St.||6.20||7.00||6.600||2/13/2010|
|French Laundry, The||6440 Washington St.||6.10||7.50||6.800||12/12/2006|
|Yountville Coffee Caboose||6523 Washington St.||7.10||7.00||7.050||2/13/2010|
This small-bite Italian eatery and wine bar on Lower Haight arrived on the scene in the Spring of ’08, taking over what was frequently a campaign office for local politicians. They have limited seating in front and plenty more in back, with both dining areas separated by a large, accommodating bar with stool seating.
Despite its gentrified theme (house-made salumi, pizzas, etc. from Mario Batali alumni), the staff here are decidedly Haight St.: black T-shirts, tattoos, and a lot of facial hair (though fortunately not the women). We appreciated that the entire dining experience was complemented exclusively by Dinosaur Jr.‘s music catalog, even if it was only post-Bug. It subtly reminded us of a former era where Rough Trade and Reckless records ruled Haight St., and Ameoba Music was the mere Rock ‘N Bowl bowling alley. (And how we once saw Dinosaur Jr. play with The Fluid at SF’s Kennel Club, née The Justice League, and now known as The Independent.)
Using a single-group La Marzocco Linea at the bar and beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters, you’d think the espresso here might be pretty decent. But you’d be surprised by the lackluster results. While the resulting taste is fine, it is served with a blonde, thinner crema as a large pour. It has a watery body and the flavor of decent filter coffee — not espresso. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
Read the review of Uva Enoteca.
Opening in early 2009, this is an unusual space in that most people cannot make it out: “Is it a café? Is it an event space? Is it a restaurant? Is it a wine bar?” Well, it’s all of the above inside an old, long, barn-like structure across from the diploma factory California Culinary Academy (CCA) across the street.
There’s some sidewalk seating in front of the space with more of a café space just inside — with flat-panel TV screens overhead, Portuguese cookbooks for sale, and a bit of Ritual coffee on display.
In the back, past the wine bar at the side and near the food and pottery items, is a space that is used as a Portuguese restaurant at night with projection movies. Decent Portuguese fare is hard to come by in these parts despite over a century of immigrants around the Bay: it seems you either have to get it at Tia Maria’s (short for: a Portuguese relative’s home) or down in San Jose along Alum Rock Road. However, they do an OK job here. Even if the coffee isn’t more of a Portuguese style.
Ritual not only roasts their coffee, but they even custom farm-source some of their custom blend coffee. When we visited, they were pulling single-origin espresso shots from Matalapa La Sidra, La Libertad, El Salvador from their three-group La Marzocco Linea. The resulting espresso has a good, sharp depth. While not as robust as what you might get directly from a Ritual Coffee Roasters café, it still has a bit of personality in the cup as a sharper, clearly Central American shot with more of a turpeny base. Served in wide ACF cups.
Back in their restaurant, they serve espresso and offer a coffee menu highlighting three different farms as French press coffees ($4 for a small pot, $8 for a large). Credit is due for taking their coffee seriously here: many of the best high-end restaurants in town don’t have a coffee service half as good in either thoughtfulness or execution.
Read the review of Horatius.
San Rafael-based Equator Estate Coffees has long been a major enigma for us. They have heavy distribution among high-end restaurants in town — and quite a few on the low-end. But despite the occasional accolades among tastemaker chefs, we just didn’t “get it.”
Over the years, we sampled the espresso at well over 30 different places serving Equator Estate coffees and purchased some roasts for our home use. We invariably found them to be too tepid in flavor depth, richness or “personality” to make them stand out from the crowd. It was only this year that we finally came across an example of their coffee we truly liked. To this day, it remains the lone exception, and we suspect that some of this has to do with a lack of quality control over their delivery chain (e.g., cafés/restaurants that let their coffee lose flavor and go stale, etc.).
But of course, we’re only one opinion with a taste palate that may radically differ from anyone else’s. For example, we’ve recently come to the conclusion that, pound-for-pound, we somewhat regularly produce better results at home with the coffee from Barefoot Coffee Roasters rather than, say, the celebrated Blue Bottle Coffee — an opinion that may count as blasphemy among so many Blue Bottle loyalists in the city.
However, there’s no question that our congratulations must go out to Equator Estate Coffees for earning Roast Magazine‘s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award: Equator Estate Coffees and Teas Wins Coffee Industry’s Top Honor. Past winners have included the likes of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Zoka Coffee Roasters, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters — which is great company in any context. Now only if we could find a way to appreciate their coffee in the way others obviously have.
For the better part of a year, a running gag from the casual coffee lovers who know me is to ask, “So have you tried McDonald’s espresso yet? How does it rate?” Mostly they ask as a curious, sick joke — knowing that I subject myself to the worst kinds of coffee punishment. But now that I have donated my taste buds to science once again, it may be surprising to many of them that I’ve definitely had a lot worse.
Which isn’t saying a whole lot. But this is McDonald’s we’re talking about — one of the world’s most vilified entities in the fights against worldwide obesity, factory farming, and environmental atrocities. Up until recently, we’ve long remarked how visiting the McDonald’s Web site was like viewing an inner city billboard advertising cigarettes: nowhere was there a mention of anything so much as a hamburger, but there were plenty of glossy lifestyle photos of ethnic-friendly families and friends — enraptured in open-mouthed, white-toothed laughter — frolicking about at hillside picnics and poolside parties. By branding themselves like cigarettes, how was that not like a McDonald’s admission of guilt?
We suppose the good news today is that the company with the audacity to create the “Shamrock Shake” now proudly announces the new “Third Pounder” on their Web site. (Because we apparently don’t feel we’re getting fat fast enough on a diet of Quarter Pounders? The Three Pounder can only be around the corner.) But the McCafé concept is heavily promoted on the site as well.
And McDonald’s has invested heavily in the U.S. rollout of the McCafé concept. Although much of McDonald’s PR campaign in the States tries to brand the McCafé as “new!”, it is anything but. The McCafé was first spawned in 1993 in Australia, infiltrated some countries in Europe, and it was first introduced to the U.S. in 2001. Since its U.S. introduction, McDonald’s has opened and quickly shuttered various McCafés across the country — such as the one that opened in Mountain View in December 2003 and shut down just 14 months later.
The first generation of U.S. McCafés were dedicated, separate chain stores. McDonald’s latest move has been to integrate the McCafé as a workstation within existing McDonald’s — first starting with suburban McDonald’s chains with more real estate and less coffee competition. The McCafé has arrived in San Francisco, however, and we chose a downtown location for our first experiment.
The branding for McCafé was laid on thick and heavy. And not uncommon to McDonald’s in expensive commercial real estate districts, this is a tight spot with mirrored walls trying to make the place seem less like a closet. In front is an ever-present refugee-from-a-methadone-clinic as your doorman. (For tips, of course.) In part, the attraction for voluntary doormen is due to the heavy tourist traffic that flows through here — a lot of it from Asia for some odd reason. And at one corner of their serving station is the McCafé setup.
The McCafé signs even provide an espresso-drink-ordering procedure as follows:
Naturally, for us it was only steps #1 & #2, and they use dueling superautomatic Franke machines to pull shots with a large pour size and a blonde, even crema. The existence of any crema thickness was actually a little surprising, given the machines and staff skills, even if its color is way off. Served in a large, insulated McCafé-branded paper cup, it has a tepid flavor of cedar and some pepper. While it isn’t ashy, like some Starbucks and their blackened coffees, it is one-dimensional but not entirely unpleasant. Their ads may call out “the bold and rich flavors of McCafé,” but we find that statement to be accurate only if you’ve been mostly nursed on Maxwell House.
Their coffee is supplied by three main roasters — Distant Lands, Gaviña, and S&D Coffee. And just as McDonald’s buys food staples from multiple suppliers in huge lots to blend out the flavor profile to a single, consistent stew spread across entire nations, their coffee is little different. Although their supply chain for coffee appears to be a lot more thoughtful than the one for, say, beef, another difference is that McDonald’s makes bigger, nameless vats of “mutt” coffee from multiple suppliers who each produce vast nameless lots of “mutt” coffee.
But as we mentioned up top, the espresso here may not be good, but it isn’t outright awful. And therein lies the marketing foolishness of Starbucks: years of dumbing down their product to fill an ever-expanding armada of cafés has made it rather push-button and brain-dead. So much so, that any fast food chain with an ounce of ambition, such as McDonald’s, can make a relatively legitimate quality play for their customers. Slap on a recession and a cheaper price tag, and Starbucks is suddenly dog-paddling to stay afloat in the deep, rapid waters of fast food competition.
McDonald’s espresso quality also depreciates the value of many superautomatic home espresso machines, such as the Nespresso. Why should consumers spend hundreds of dollars on a home machine, plus a subscription of premium-priced coffee capsules, to essentially achieve McDonald’s quality at a similar price point? That just doesn’t cut it.
In a way, this all makes us commend McDonald’s espresso for helping to draw back the curtain on the “Great Oz” of Starbucks — or superautomated home machines such as the Nespresso system. When you are charging a premium for your product, or if you are promoting it as some premium espresso experience, you had better set your standards above McDonald’s (for crying out loud) to be taken seriously.
While we would never go to a McDonald’s McCafé for the espresso unless we were extremely desperate, we like the McCafé if for nothing other than shining some humbling truth behind the many hot-air claims of “luxury” mass-produced espresso out on the market today.
Read the review of McDonald’s at 609 Market St. in San Francisco.
In the Mint Plaza, right across the Blue Bottle Cafe mothership, this café provides some pretty good outdoor dining options — albeit without much shade on sunny days. There’s also a but of limited indoor seating upstairs and a homier cellar below.
Alberto Avalle, a founder of New York’s Il Buco, partnered with others to open this Italian spot in SF — which emphasizes authenticity over more of the highfalutin fare back in NY. And here they get the authentic bit down to the prosciutti and salami hanging in the rustic cellar below. They hired a Sicilian chef, and it shows in the menu — but less so in the coffee (i.e., no Miscela d’Oro).
Using a two-group Elektra machine at the bar and Caffè Umbria beans, they pull generous espresso shots with a bare, thin layer of medium brown crema. The cup still has a substantive mouthfeel and aroma, although the flavor is skewed heavily towards more of the over-roasted end of the spectrum: toasted wood, resins, and pepper. Served in decorative OperaNova cups by a sparse staff you have to gang-tackle to get their attention.
Some local publications think the espresso here is “excellent”, but we’ll have to stop at “not bad”.
Read the review of 54 Mint.