Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
Owner Fabrice Moschetti moved here from Nice, France some 20 years ago. These roots show in some of the machine lines his company distributes to Bay Area restaurants, including Monaco-based Conti and Essika.
Today the SF Chronicle posted an impressively long article on the state of quality coffee roasting in the Bay Area: ROAST WITH THE MOST / A new generation of Bay Area coffee roasters pushes the perfect cup to the next level. It’s a remarkable piece, given its breadth. It lightly touches on everything from the roasting process, roasting trends, more meticulous coffee sourcing, and restaurants taking notice in better quality coffee. It also includes interviews with a good number of quality coffee luminaries in the area — and not just the usual, overexposed suspects.
On the topic of overexposure, it’s also good to see focus on advancements in the quality of the coffee — and not just an emphasis on machinery (and their escalating price tags), which has been something of a media trend of late. Equipment advances such as the Clover brewer would be amount to little more than a curiously expensive robotics grad student project if not for the improvements in coffee sourcing, roasting, and freshness.
As much as Coffeeratings.com was born five years ago out of frustration with the lack of quality standards and their awareness in the Bay Area specialty coffee scene, we actually take a bit of exception with some of the suggestions in the article — for example, “While the Bay Area is considered the birthplace of premium coffee, many say the quality of its coffee has lagged behind that of other U.S. cities in the past 10 or 15 years.”
In the past few years the Bay Area has arguably established itself as a national coffee leader, second only to perhaps Portland and Seattle. (And even at that, Seattle and Portland — like SF — are equally rife with median-quality coffeehouses that make poor espresso.) But go back a decade ago, and the coffee quality in the great majority of other U.S. cities was hurting far worse than SF.
The article also unfortunately feeds this terrible misconception going around that better coffee can only come from a “new generation” of coffee professionals — an attitude that if you haven’t been making coffee for less than three years, you are irrelevant to good quality coffee today. Call it specialty coffee’s take on Jerry Rubin‘s “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” (It’s also one of many reasons why we ridicule the term “Third Wave.” Although the phrase’s originators coined it more to describe coffee consumption rather than coffee purveyors, today it is most commonly used to describe the latter.)
But the media will always focus on the new. And what’s old often becomes new again. (See: siphon coffee.) We read stories that suggest single origin coffees will bring about the (greatly exaggerated) death of the blend, or that lighter roasts will universally trump all those “horrible, traditional darker roasts.” But we see each of these as consumer fads that are merely highlighting the less explored dimensions of the overall coffee enjoyment experience. When the novelty of the new wears off, single origin or blend, light or dark roast, there will always be something to be enjoyed in the full variety of experiences coffee has to offer.
Starbucks Coffee has spent the last decade squandering away whatever market leadership they had in the world of quality coffee, and it’s no secret that they are now trying to regain some of these losses. But to do so in recent months, Starbucks has bizarrely looked to McDonald’s for inspiration: introducing $1 “daily coffee”, free refills, and their Pike Place Blend (the latter of which has become a source of disingenuous product marketing).
But even if you can forgive them for that McMisstep towards regaining some coffee leadership, turning to the likes of 7-Eleven and their fortified coffee drinks is even more bewildering: Energy Examiner – Starbucks to increase their caffeine content in coffee shops – Examiner.com (also, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Starbucks hopes new drinks can lift profits).
Yes, Starbucks’ desperation has now led them to co-opting 7-Eleven’s coffee strategy, which is about the lowest common coffee denominator you can get. Starting this week, Starbucks has begun selling “+Energy as a special ingredient in their coffee drinks,” which includes “extra B-vitamins, guarana and ginseng” — all things 7-Eleven promoted in their Fusion Energy Coffee over a year ago. By stooping to “healthy coffee” pandering pioneered by the “sophisticated” Super Big Gulp® purveyor, Starbucks is only further debasing their brand as just another commodity. Can Starbucks-branded Slim Jims be far behind?
Last week, the Contra Costa Times published an article announcing the Bay Area arrival of McDonald’s specialty coffee drinks: McDonald’s new coffee drinks ignite breakfast wars – ContraCostaTimes.com. Of course, none of this info is really new, so we’re a bit perplexed over how someone can “ignite” something with a two-year-long fuse. But the article cites some local coffee lovers who didn’t find McDonald’s specialty coffee drinks up to the task.
Is anyone surprised? We already have the McDonald’s of specialty coffee: it’s called Starbucks.
The article also highlighted one of the more ridiculous aspects of the consumer marketing industry: the art of packaging everything as a “solution”. Quoting Matthew Ramerman, principal of HL2, a Seattle-based advertising agency that focuses on restaurant chains: “Consumers have been saying ‘I’m looking for a breakfast solution.’” Huh?!
Perhaps CoffeeRatings.com has missed this all along: all we’re really looking for is an espresso solution. It reminds me of an old joke I used to tell my marketing friends: “It’s not a chair, it’s a seating solution.”
The reporter also interviewed Michaele Weissman, author of a forthcoming book called God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. Which, curiously enough, sounds a lot like like last month’s release of Instaurator’s The Espresso Quest, proving just how difficult it is to come up with an original idea.
We received our copy of The Espresso Quest in the mail from Australia a couple weeks back and are still well behind posting a book review here any time soon. But stay tuned… Miracles can happen.