Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
This upstairs café (though more of a Western restaurant) resides in the rather infamous birthplace of California Cuisine. At least when Alice Waters decided to take her local, farm-fresh cooking operation out of a house and into this formal spot decades ago.
Yes, dear Alice may be the mother of most of what’s good about restaurants in the Bay Area today. Many restaurateurs here have profited from her coattails while often she’s barely broke even. But she also has her detractors. TV food snarkmaster Anthony Bourdain, for example, places her in his Pantheon of Contempt alongside Rachael Ray (of all people).
It’s then that you realize opinions about chefs can sometimes have little to do with their food. And what is there not to like about the food here? The espresso here, however, leaves room for improvement.
The more formal restaurant is downstairs, and the café is a (slightly) more casual affair. There are rich wood floors and paneling, reflective panels of zinc on the walls, and lots of Art Deco designs to the space — which is also decorated with old 1930s movie posters from the French screenplay scribe, Marcel Pagnol.
Of course, any homage to the French is usually a bad sign for their coffee quality. They ease some of those fears by adopting a coffee service from Blue Bottle Coffee. (Whom Alice gives enough of a ringing endorsement to erect a public sculpture.)
They use a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the top of the stairs to enter the café; it’s in a dedicated spot for their wine storage and book sales. Using the Chez Panisse House Blend, they produce espresso shots with a weak, bare layer of medium brown crema.
The shot size is right (which is better than we can say for some of the doubles we saw passed around) — so it’s not surprising that the cup has a decent heft to its body. There’s some potency in the flavor, which runs more into pepper and spices. But by any measure, this is weak for Blue Bottle standards; it scores among the lowest-ranked cafés using Blue Bottle beans in the Bay Area. Perhaps a little of an authentic French influence unfortunately comes out in the quality of the cup here.
Read the review of Chez Panisse Café in Berkeley, CA.
It’s tough to be a newspaper man these days. Having run out of tiresome video game and comic book themes, they’re now making Hollywood movies out of bloggers. It seems that anyone with a Twitter account can also get a book deal — ironically celebrating the very media format it supposedly deems irrelevant. So we avoid the knee-jerk reactions when a newspaper staple like SF Chronicle restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, publishes a brief write-up on the local coffee scene: Michael Bauer: Between Meals : Let’s have another cup of coffee.
Trust us: a guy like Mr. Bauer has his haters. The guy even has recent exposés of his identity — Superman-style — despite the fact that his face has been on “WANTED” posters in SF restaurant kitchens for years, offering a bounty for any restaurant employee who identifies his arrival.
What we appreciate about Mr. Bauer is that he makes no pretense about being a coffee expert. That you’ve developed a professional palate for food doesn’t convey credentials as a coffee expert, purely by association, just because both activities involve your mouth. This is a far cry from the megalomania of some Bay Area celebrity chefs who think their coffee reigns supreme — when, in fact, it loses taste tests comparing them with an airport Starbucks. A bellwether of intelligence is a self-awareness of limitations.
In the article, Mr. Bauer notes that, “Blue Bottle has become a name with loads of cachet, and coffee made in a French press is practically becoming as ubiquitous as tap water.” We couldn’t help but notice this very phenomenon this evening, as we watched Noe Valley‘s Contigo produce French presses of the stuff like a factory assembly line for coffee-craving customers. Before even asking who supplied their beans, we (correctly) suspected it was branded Blue Bottle just by the heavy rotation at their coffee grinder. (Oddly enough, we found the resulting press pot to be a bit underwhelming — in flavor, freshness, etc. — for the pedigree.)
And to prove his own ignorance of the topic, the last half of Mr. Bauer’s article on “artisan coffee” (his term, not ours) concerns McDonald’s and Starbucks — which have about as much to do with artisan coffee as a Big Mac has to do with Kobe beef. The difference here being that we can forgive the guy — he clearly knows not of what he speaks. But at least he’s not pretending to be something he’s not.
We are not the only ones who have lamented the sorry state of restaurant coffee — particularly at some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants. The San Francisco Chronicle made poor restaurant coffee a front-page headline as early as 1963.
In some ways, the elevated coffee standards that exist outside of the restaurant world are slowly creeping in. Yet the gap is still exceedingly large: of the current Top 28 on CoffeeRatings.com, only one location, Bar Bambino, is an actual restaurant.
There is a litany of reasons for why this is. Unfortunately, much of the food service/restaurant industry seems clueless about them. Case and point is a recent article published on the culinary Web site, Behind the Burner: Interview With a Coffee Roaster – Article – Behind the Burner TM.
The author, John Grossmann, interviews Alex Roberts, master roaster at Emeryville-based Roast Coffee Co.. Roast opened in early 2008 as part of the Bacchus Management Group (love the Web site, btw), a small management team behind a handful of eclectic Bay Area restaurants. Mr. Grossmann calls Roast an “unusual startup” that’s performing a “new twist in dining” by sourcing and roasting its own beans. And that’s where the naïveté starts spilling out.
For one, roasters offering restaurants custom roasts and blends has been a common practice for decades. One potentially different angle could be in custom bean sourcing, but market economics would prevent Roast from directly sourcing beans from different farms for a single restaurant — which would be the only new ground there. Bacchus Management Group promotes Roast as unique because it is “by the restaurants, for the restaurants”, but exclusively servicing the industry’s least discriminating business customers hardly seems like a virtue.
The interview then succumbs to the ever-popular wine analogy. (It’s quite ironic that they should then do that, given that we cannot think of any restaurant-operated wineries worthy of note.) Mr. Grossmann asks, “Has the day of the coffee sommelier dawned?” To which Mr. Roberts replies:
I think so. I’d love to have the first job as a coffeelier, let’s call it. This would be somebody who understands all the single origins. All the specifications of the farm it came from, all the nuances of the coffee. Is it high grown, low grown? If there’s a blend, what each coffee in the blend contributes. The coffeelier would also suggest coffee and dessert pairings.
And therein lies the rub. Any restaurant mention of a coffee sommelier invariably glosses over the fact that a successful coffee service isn’t as simple as merely pulling a cork on a bottle of roasted beans. Just a couple weeks ago, we posted an article with the common opinion that a great barista can make magic of weak bean sources, and that superior beans and roasts can go to rot in untrained hands and poorly maintained equipment. Machine maintenance and “barista” training standards at restaurants are still woefully inadequate at best.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with dreaming of the day that restaurants offer a variety of coffee options and a guide, or coffeelier, to walk patrons through them. But while Roast can tweak their fresh bean formula until the cows come home, any lofty designs for restaurant coffee appreciation will fail miserably if they’re built upon a rotten foundation of poor training, faulty equipment maintenance, and shoddy brewing practices.
An article from last year does suggest that training is an integral part of Roast’s engagement with restaurants. However, elite Bay Area roasters have long expressed immense frustration at getting training compliance out of cafés, let alone the scattered attention of restaurants. (Some have even expressed using CoffeeRatings.com for business intelligence — to identify retailers doing unmerciful things to their roasts, pointing to our site’s reviews as evidence of the need for training.) Roast Coffee Co.’s three-person operation is hardly poised to succeed where so many larger organizations have failed.
Until these fundamentals are addressed, Mr. Roberts’s dream of being a coffeelier rings about as hollow as a dentist who waxes poetic about the latest laser teeth whitening technology but cannot be bothered with the mundane task of actually cleaning and polishing your teeth. What good are white teeth if plaque and gum disease cause them to fall out? Coffee sourcing, roasting, and a lack of coffeeliers aren’t the problem. Restaurant coffee standards will not improve until the basics of training, maintenance, storage, and a commitment to quality are fixed.
Esquire magazine named this place 2008 Restaurant of the Year (among new restaurants). The same Nov. 2008 issue also crowned Dominique Crenn, executive chef at SF’s excellent-but-underappreciated Luce, as 2008’s Chef of the Year.
While L2O is a pretty fabulous restaurant, calling it the year’s best is debatable. However, there’s no question this is a serious dining establishment. More to the point, unlike many of its high-end restaurant peers, their seriousness extends all the way to their coffee service.
Located in the Belden-Stratford Hotel across the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chef Laurent Gras resurfaced here in May 2008 after previously making waves in SF. In 2001, he served as Executive Chef at SF’s Fifth Floor and was named Chef of the Year in San Francisco magazine for 2002.
The restaurant models itself as a sort of inventive, high-end, Japanese-influenced (and very expensive) seafood restaurant, but that’s limiting the menu a bit. They boast that they don’t use distributors for their seafood — FedEx’ing it in from fishermen directly, so that what they serve has only been out of the sea for two days. They’re also proud of their two tatami rooms, where they sand down wooden tables before you eat off of them.
As a test, we saw their Japanese seafood snobbery and tried to raise them with some of our own West Coast J-snobbery, asking if they offered any unpasteurized sake. No dice. (Hooray for San Francisco snobbery.) They are inventive, however, and borrow heavily from the science lab techniques of the cuisine-formerly-known-as-molecular-gastronomy: liquid nitrogen, freeze-drying equipment, vacuum pumps, etc.
To their discredit, they tend to go crazy pairing some form of a gelée with nearly every course, and they also exhibit an occasional odd use of what we can only call marshmallow nouveau. It’s no COI, but it’s impressively good.
And of course, there are white tablecloths and multiple servers — the latter who are fun rather than stuffy.
We would have been remiss by not talking about their food, so back to the subject of coffee. Restaurant coffee has long been an afterthought at many of even the finest American restaurants, but that’s not true here. This is the only restaurant we’ve seen with a Clover machine. They offer Intelligentsia for both Clover and espresso use, using Black Cat Espresso (also available as decaf) from a two-group La Marzocco in the back service area.
With the Marzocco, they produce a thinner, textured layer of medium-to-dark brown crema. The body is a bit thinner as well — related to the larger pour size. It has a mostly pungent flavor with no smokiness and is served in Hering-Berlin porcelain cups.
They make a serious attempt at a restaurant coffee program here. Yet it still leaves significant room for improvement.
Read the review of L2O Restaurant in Chicago.
We last updated our review of Oliveto a couple years prior, so the focus of our most recent Rockridge tour was to explore some cafés we hadn’t evaluated before. However, Luigi pointed out that, last year, the downstairs Oliveto Cafe was entirely remodeled and that Mr. Espresso installed a beautiful, original Faema E61. We last saw one of these machines in operation at Cafe Noir in Monterey, CA four years ago — which has since been swapped out now that it is now known as Café Lumiere. (Curiously enough, the E61 at Cafe Noir was also installed by Mr. Espresso, so it could be the same machine.)
Luigi also mentioned that they did a new round of trainings for the Oliveto staff — a continual need that plagues any coffee roaster that sells to independent retail locations. And, simultaneously, Christian of Man Seeking Coffee fame contacted us with the idea of another joint review. Thus, Christian and I decided to check them out again this past weekend.
This restaurant has existed on this Rockridge corner since 1987, albeit in different forms. The latest generation is a higher end Italian restaurant upstairs with a popular trattoria/café downstairs. Downstairs there’s some rather limited outdoor seating, a number of wooden tables and chairs (which replaced the shared, long tables in their previous interior design), and meals that rely heavily on the simple organics. Upstairs it is white tablecloths and a more extensive menu — with the same espresso shots running about $0.50 more.
Using their older, two-group, Mr. Espresso-supplied Faema, they produced adequate results. While its replacement with an even older, more classic, three-group E61 Faema constitutes serious espresso machine eye candy, we were hoping some of the recent training would come through in the shots it produced.
They still pull shots with a thinner layer of dark brown crema. It’s more substantial than the shots they pulled with their previous machine (which often had a thin ring of light or medium-to-light brown crema). However, there still seems to be plenty of room for improvement. The body of the shot is thinner — it’s a touch watery even — with a flavor more of pungent herbs than the previous mild spice and wood flavors here. The finish is subtly sharper, but it’s still not nearly as bright as you would expect of a well-made espresso.
Some readers here can make the (logical) conclusion that we’re huge fans of Mr. Espresso, given our ratings of places such as Coffee Bar. More accurately, given the inconsistency of preparation that so plagues roasters, we are much bigger fans of Luigi’s barista skills with Mr. Espresso beans than anything else. While it was a decent cup, we found Oliveto’s improvement over their previous shots to be marginal. (Rumor has it, however, that daytime shifts during weekdays may produce better results.)
Served in traditional brown, thick-walled Nuova Point cups with a modest pour size. Oliveto is also one of those few places that offer to top off your empty espresso cup with filter coffee at brunch, which we don’t particularly mind.
Must be a light news day for the SF Chronicle to pull out an evergreen story like this today: Exploring our love of the bean from the grounds up. But while the Chronical [sic] has published up to 70% of the material in previous articles, the article provides a worthy (albeit brief) examination of SF’s coffee history — a history that we often reference and yet few locals may know about.
For example, there’s the Gold Rush origins of Folgers and Hills Bros. There’s Caffé Trieste and the birth of the SF cappuccino in the 1950s. There’s Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s Berkeley origins from 1966 and their influence on a budding Seattle retail coffee company known as Starbucks. And of course there are obligatory nods to the city’s nouvelle vague roasters — plus a couple of redeemable restaurant coffee options.
Though perhaps our favorite reference is a 1963 SF Chronicle headline sensationally highlighting the sad state of SF restaurant coffee. (But perhaps not sensational enough to make Hearst proud.) Within six years we were able to put men on the moon, and yet 46 years later most restaurant coffee in this city is still rather terrifying.
While San Francisco ponders life without its own newspaper, the Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette announced today that they are dedicating monthly editions of the paper’s dining section to be their new coffee section: The coffee’s on.
From the article:
It’s clear a growing number of Pittsburgh cafes are on the cutting edge of coffee and espresso, and, despite the treacherous economy, our coffee scene continues to thrive and expand.
While I’ve occasionally written about coffee in the food section, the dining section and in my Sunday column, “On The Menu,” the scope and number of developments demand greater and more focused coverage. Starting today, on the fourth Thursday of every month the dining section will become the coffee section. Each month, with the help of coffee professionals and passionate amateurs, I’ll explore a different topic in the wide, wondrous world of Pittsburgh coffee.
The Post-Gazette Web site also promises to publish a new weekly column that will “include listings about different varietal and origin coffees available at Pittsburgh cafes, as well as coffee cuppings and classes.”
Does this mean that coffee is finally going legit among the mainstream dining set? Hardly. Qualitative, let alone quantitative, reviews of coffee remain non-existent in the mainstream media. Furthermore, given that newspaper dining sections are dominated by restaurant coverage, the continued sad state of restaurant espresso doesn’t bode well either.
We can easily envision a short-lived newspaper series that quickly repeats itself with the same stories on single origin beans, barista competitions, latte art, cupping, and Q grading — much like the ubiquitous hand-on-mouse B-roll shot that plagued every me-too TV show about the World Wide Web during the late 1990s.
However, the Post-Gazette threatens that “the focus will be on the coffee.” So with that, we’ll leave you with this journalism platitude: only time will tell.
Regular readers here are familiar with our squawking about Slow Food in this blog for almost three years now. You might even recall our pilgrimage to the Slow Food mothership in Bra, Italy last October. But in case you haven’t seen the orange and black posters everywhere, next weekend Slow Food comes to America for the first time as Slow Food Nation — part expo, part celebration of good food and good food-producing practices, and part public education campaign.
Fort Mason will host the Taste Pavilions for the event, where organizers will dedicate large exposition spaces to twenty different culinary arts: spices, oils, chocolate, beer, wine, and — yes! — even coffee. (If it is anything like what we experienced at Torino, Italy’s Eataly last year, it’s going to be a blast.) The coffee pavilion itself promises to be about 2,000 square feet, curated by Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffè, Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and Tony Konecny of tonx.org fame.
Mr. Barnett was recently interviewed by CHOW, where he described the coffee pavilion as offering four different coffee tastes from four different regions/varietals/farms. You can download a podcast of his interview (5:49, 3.3 Mb), where he also helps describe some of the objectives of the event:
“It’s to turn the restaurateurs on to what a great cup of coffee tastes like. Coffee in many ways has been the bastard child of the culinary world. It was an afterthought.”
Some 50,000 attendees are expected at Slow Food Nation. The coffee pavilion alone expects to serve some 3,000-4,000 people a day — compared with the 1,100 transactions per day normally handled by Ritual Coffee Roasters.
We’ll be attending the Taste Pavilion (note: daytime tickets are sold out, but evening tickets are still available) — and we are looking forward to much more than just the coffee pavilion. We’ll also be attending the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity coffee & dinner event, held the following Monday at Coffee Bar. So expect future posts here on these topics.
In the meantime, we leave you with an artist’s rendition of some of the architectural detail planned at the event. Each taste pavilion is being designed out of repurposed materials by some of the Bay Area’s top design firms. For example, the pickle-and-chuntey booth, depicted below, will consist of walls made of pickle jars and a ceiling made of some 3,000 mason jar lids suspended from wires — all assembled just days before the event:
Photo courtesy California Home + Design magazine
Foodie rag gone online, Saveur.com, recently published a series of coffee-themed articles in conjunction with the SCAA. One of the articles lamented American restaurants’ continued one-dimensional treatment of coffee: Nothing ‘Regular’ About It – Saveur.com.
“‘Regular’ coffee?! The appetizer alone rated five adjectives,” writes reporter Jim Munson. We’ve expressed this very same lament here a couple years ago. It’s preposterous to think of “wine” or “cheese” as singular, indiscriminate, sufficiently self-described substances on restaurant menus.
Given that American coffee palates have now had two whole decades to evolve beyond Maxwell House, and given that it has been almost 10 years since we first walked into a restaurant in Santa Barbara (unfortunately now closed) and were offered five different coffee varietals in French presses, what is the hold up?
And it’s not just coffee snobbery either. You can’t even walk into a supermarket today and buy basic “orange juice” without having to navigate 47 different options. Even something as straightforward as V8 juice now comes in a ridiculously confusing array of Low Sodium, Spicy Hot, High Fiber, Essential Antioxidants, and Calcium Enriched … not to mention V8 Splash, V8 Splash Smoothies, V8 V-Fusion and V-Fusion Light. (Please kill me now.)
The article goes on:
With the vast array of origins, blends and roasts now available, settling for a “regular” coffee is a little like asking for a generic bottle of “red” wine. Or, for your main course, maybe you’d like a nice plate of “meat”?
Meanwhile, earlier this week in Australia’s The Sydney Morning Herald, we noticed an opinion piece that lamented Australian restaurants’ paltry tea options in the face of many coffee choices: Coffee has spoiled the tea party – Heckler – Opinion – smh.com.au.
Yet most cafes and restaurants have menus with endless variations of coffee. You know the usual trendy drinks such as lattes, mugacino, cappuccino, espresso macchiato and cafe con leche. But where’s the tea? If you are lucky there will be one or two types listed at the bottom of the blackboard – usually English breakfast or Earl Grey.
The writer even goes on to offer “10 simple rules for eateries,” where #1 is: “Offer the same number of teas as you offer coffees. A minimum of 10 is acceptable.”
At first glance, I wondered if this reflected a level of coffee savviness in Australia that’s lacking in the U.S. However, I would hardly consider the writer’s list of “the usual trendy drinks” as anything more than variations in preparation methods, or simple variations of steamed milk, than coffee varietals per se.
This likely reflects a bit of coffee ignorance by the writer that may not be all that different from what we experience in the U.S. (Especially given that Australia’s coffee culture is almost exclusively focused on espresso.) Meanwhile, we’ve had more than our fill of ten-teas/one-kind-of-coffee restaurants here in S.F.
But whether Australia or the U.S., it’s not rocket science for a restaurant to offer interesting coffee varieties that adequately finish a memorable meal. Four months later, and I still think back to one of my favorite coffee experiences of a simple French press of Harens Old Tree Estate at Merriman’s on Hawaii’s Big Island. No $11,000 Clover required. No special staff training. Just a fresh supply of good coffee.
Merriman’s is a great restaurant, and yet I don’t remember the food nearly as much as the coffee. And at a $10 price tag, that French press was far more memorable than bottles of wine I’ve had at restaurants for five times the price.