Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
This installment of our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series comes from the very small town of Pollenzo, practically in the middle of nowhere. At least geographically speaking. But on the food map of Italy, this place is one of the country’s brightest stars.
One of the reasons is that it is home to the the Slow Food-affiliated Università di Scienze Gastronomiche — the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the first of its kind in the world. Another reason is that it hosts a restaurant, Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, that served the best meal we had in this most over-the-top of food adventure travels we’ve ever been on.
It’s here on these vast castle grounds that we met Piero Alciati, who, along with his brother Ugo, established this destination restaurant in homage to the cooking of their mother, Mama Lidia Vanzino Alciati — a living legend in Piemonte cuisine (who, along with her husband Guido, opened the original Guido da Costigliole restaurant in the small Piemontese town of Costiglole d’Asti in 1961). The restaurant is rightfully known for its quite outrageously good food — much of it modern interpretations of Lidia’s classic Piemontese recipes.
Piero is an outstanding host at the front of the house while Ugo spends most of his time in the kitchen. Talking with Piero, you really sense his all-consuming passion for good food and wine.
In Piemonte we met master chefs who will take your reservation, unlock the door to let you in (it’s quite common to arrive at restaurants in Piemonte with locked doors, needing to ring the doorbell to be allowed in), take your order, recommend wines from their personal favorite vineyards, and cook your meal. But in Piero, we received a formal invitation to visit his massive fine food project at Torino’s Eataly — complete with a business card with his mobile phone number, an arranged tour, and a comped lunch there. And he didn’t know us from anyone. But we’ll save more on Eataly for a future Trip Report.
(Another observation about Piemonte restaurants: the dinner crowd fills in around 8:30pm-9pm, and that’s it. Whoever dines there rents the table for the night — there is no such thing as “turning tables” as there is in the U.S.)
So what’s with all the food talk? This is a coffee site, right?! Of course. But it’s important to understand the context in which an appreciation for great espresso comes. A good espresso is expected as an accompaniment to a great Italian meal. So consider this a representative tribute to the espresso standards of a fine Italian restaurant — unlike America’s finest restaurants, which require public shaming in lieu of doing the right thing. By showing us what is clearly possible, places like Guido further expose the excuseless farce that is espresso at American restaurants.
Did we mention that the setting is exquisite? The food here is equally so, and the espresso is no major let down either. (We hope you’re reading this, Thomas Keller.) Using a three-group Faema in the back kitchen, they pull espresso shots with a coagulated but thinner medium brown crema. It has a splotchy consistency with some of the espresso surface exposed — a definite flaw for most Italian establishments. But the shot is the perfect size, and they use roasts from the quite excellent (and quite obscure, outside of the gourmands in the area) Caffè Mokabar in Torino. The resulting cup is potent and has a flavor that’s mostly herbal (thyme, etc.).
While there are deficiencies, it’s still a solid restaurant espresso. It would rank among SF’s top 7%, sharing that honor with only three other restaurants currently. Piero and company may not be gunning for the best restaurant espresso in Italy, but they have standards to uphold. And at only €2, it doesn’t even come with an obscene mark-up.
In our Portugal travels last year, restaurant espresso was generally as good as anything in a café, and few of the residents held a consensus opinion on where to find the best examples. Here in Piemonte, while restaurant espresso was consistently good, it was the select few cafés in town that had the best espresso — and the locals generally knew it.
Read the review of Guido Ristorante Pollenzo.
The post title is the question of the day. If I may paraphrase an old quote from a previous post — where we asked, “How does the fool who knows nothing about wine impress his guests?” — the answer is: by buying the most expensive coffee they can find — along with a good story to tell about it.
Case and point with American wünderchef, Thomas Keller. In a press release this month: Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Per Se establish one-of-a-kind coffee program [56kb, MS Word doc]. Yes, the man behind America’s most esteemed of restaurants — including Yountville’s The French Laundry and New York’s Per Se — has proudly announced to his customers that his restaurants will now offer Panama Esmeralda Geisha coffee roasted by the consistently underwhelming Equator Estate Coffees.
But how can you knock that? After all, at least they’re not pushing kopi luwak, right? Problem is that the coffee service at The French Laundry is well, uh, severely lacking compared to the otherwise lofty dining expectations and l’addition. (For example, their espresso scored lower than the Starbucks at SFO.) So rather than get educated, train staff, and elevate the craft (if not also chuck their superautomatic Schaerer espresso machine for something less suited for an assembly line), they take the lazy short cut of espousing the merits of “the most expensive coffee in the world” on their menus.
And to drill the point home that they have the whole coffee-as-wine thing confused, here’s a direct quote from their press release — from their master sommelier, a man who sounds like he clearly knows the difference between his Malabars and his Harars:
Paul Roberts, Master Sommelier and the Wine and Beverage Director for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group notes, “We’re delighted to have the opportunity to bring our guests such a rare and extraordinary coffee as the Panama Esmeralda Geisha. The coffee is a truly a gold standard, and a wonderful compliment to our fall menu offerings.”
Thomas Keller’s restaurants don’t have to brew the best cup in the world. But if they’re going to promote an image of coffee connoisseur savvy to match their prowess with food, they should at least have invested more time and thought into it than they spend on boiling an egg.
I can buy some Geisha at the Peet’s Coffee around the block from where I work; I don’t need a restaurant to do that for me, charge me $210 for the privilege, and then act as if they just made me a 1959 Château Margaux with their bare feet. I’m respecting Coi Restaurant more and more for gracefully not pretending to be something they’re not.
In the article, she recounts Mr. Roberts’ use of descriptive adjectives and his telling of the story behind the coffee’s/estate’s history — which curiously looks like a verbatim recitation of what was once posted on the Peet’s Coffee Web site. (The Web page has since been taken down as their supplies ran out.) What remains to be seen is if Mr. Roberts and/or Mr. Keller are capable of demonstrating any knowledge of good coffee beyond the most overhyped coffee in years, let alone the Peet’s Web site.
An article in yesterday’s Dublin Independent perhaps thought it was exalting the Nespresso espresso. However, it did more to underscore how clueless high-end restaurants are when it comes to espresso quality: The cult of Nespresso – Food & Drink, Lifestyle – Independent.ie. Pre-ground coffee that has aged for weeks in plastic pods since the second crack of roasting, idiot-proof brewing systems run by barista idiots, packaged coffee “flavors” such as “ristretto” or “cosi” (as in “sto così così”, or “I’m feeling so-so, but it’s better than when Mussolini was dictator”) — that’s the hallmark of quality in a £7 ($14) cup at heralded UK restaurants such as Fat Duck and Sketch.Forget the Fair Trade controversies in the article for a moment. Despite the clean and convenient system, the Nespresso espresso tastes very bland and comes with a thin, monochromatic crema and a body just this side of tea. But as long as the designators of good restaurant food taste believe their superpowers naturally extend to coffee service as well as amuses bouche, restaurant patrons are doomed to bland, underwhelming coffee at exorbitant prices. It’s surprising they haven’t hired sommeliers who choose the finest boxed wine selections to go with their $400 prix fixe meals.
Oddly enough, this was one of the things I appreciated about Coi restaurant in SF. I took my wife there for her birthday last week, and they didn’t even bother with espresso service. Instead, they served Blue Bottle Coffee in individual French presses — that’s it. They scored points for acknowledging what they didn’t know and couldn’t do well, instead of merely pretending that they did (and failing miserably) like so many other high-end restaurants.
Today Bloomberg published an article about the latest generation of restaurant and home espresso machines, designed with the idiot in mind: Idiot-Proof Espresso Machines End Excuses, Target U.S. Market – Bloomberg.com: Spend.
Andrea Illy of Illycaffè has to be very careful not to speak out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, today Illy is big on promoting a retail line of restaurant and home espresso machines designed for idiots and incompetents. On the other hand, he has to keep tight-lipped about the shortcomings of super-automated home espresso machines. Because the very safeguards that prevent espresso system owners from doing something terribly wrong or stupid are often the very same things that prevent these devices from producing great espresso.
“In the U.S., they don’t clean the machines correctly, they don’t heat the cups, they serve it with lemon peel,” Illy is quoted in the article. His answer? Illy’s push-button ESE system (for “Easy Serving Espresso”), which uses pre-measured capsules of pre-ground coffee — not unlike their Nespresso competition from Nestlé.
The article’s author was impressed by these ESE devices, saying they produce “not only an impeccably made espresso with a lingering taste of delicious, complex coffee on the palate, but after several minutes the crema had not dissipated”. The crema that wouldn’t die? I’m not sure if I should be excited or mortified.
And while the retail claim is that these machines make it hard for anyone to screw up a good Italian espresso, the fact remains that by “good” we’re still only talking Starbucks quality. A gold standard in 1995 suburban Virginia, perhaps, but irrelevant to anyone who has developed an espresso palate to know better. Or at least a palate for something capable of being a revelation espresso.
And although I don’t expect to be blown away at the high end of the espresso scale, I am off to Piemonte this week — armed with Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Lucky you that my postings should slow down a bit while I’m travelling.
La Colombe Torrefaction, a Philadelphia-based roaster that’s been something of an East Coast analog to Blue Bottle Coffee Company, has regularly received national recognition for the quality of their roasted coffee. But on the West Coast, La Colombe may as well be based out of Belgium; they’re largely unknown around these parts.
In an attempt to help remedy that, last year La Colombe set up a simple West Coast distribution office — just two-blocks from the Piccino Cafe in Dogpatch. From here they receive fresh shipments from their Philadelphia roaster about every two weeks and ship it out (via UPS) to various local restaurants and cafés in town and up and down the West Coast — from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and beyond.
Recently I was invited by Damien Pileggi of La Colombe to pay a visit to their humble SF office — to share stories and to taste some really good espresso. Damien previously worked in one of La Colombe’s Philadelphia cafés, and seven months ago he came out West to run their operations out of Dogpatch. (It’s pretty much a one-person operation.)
The Illinois St. office is a modest space consisting of a couple weeks of inventory of their various coffee lines — e.g., Nizza, for espresso, Corsica, for drip, and pod supplies for the restaurants and other retailers that insist upon it. Freshness, and hence inventory rotation, is of critical importance. And like all the other premier roasters in the area, they struggle with finding a place to showcase their coffee by preparing it to their own standards. This is perhaps the biggest piece missing from their West Coast presence.
With so many elite-yet-coffee-clueless restaurants in the area serving poor, copy-cat renditions of Equator Estate Coffee, I’m surprised that so few have caught on to the unique, distinctive coffee service proposition offered by the likes of La Colombe and Ecco Caffè (for example).
Of course, you can’t count on restaurants making good espresso. But competition for great espresso is a good thing. Hopefully someone will soon pick up La Colombe in the area and prepare it to its full potential.
Today’s The Sydney Morning Herald ponders how Australia’s Italian immigrants could bring a culture of appreciation for some of the best espresso in the world, and yet New York City — no stranger to Italian immigrants — is such a puzzling espresso wasteland: Brew ha ha in city that falls short on espresso – Opinion – smh.com.au. This is a different angle on a theme we’ve touched on before. (We have also touched on the rare exceptions in recent years.) The Herald even takes its inquiry to the heart of New York’s Little Italy and finds, “a cafe latte in Little Italy is a sad anaemic thing, devoid of flavour and aroma.”
The outsiders’ view of the scourge that is American coffee can sometimes be quite revealing. For example, the article raises the all-too-common occurrence of the great Italian restaurant meal finished by the pathetic Italian espresso. It cites a story where the espresso was sent back and replaced with something pretty decent. When asked why the restaurant didn’t do it right the first time, the barista replied with the exasperated, “They wouldn’t know the difference here.” Ouch. (This might also be the Theory of Consistently Bad Coffee in action.)
The critical subject of how America’s “bigger is better” culture ruins our espresso is also echoed in the article. But what mystery it fails to address is perhaps the greatest one of all about New York City: why is it that an international megacity, with a diverse and wealthy enough population to afford the best of everything in this world, cannot make espresso as good as you could find in, say, Kansas City?
It’s not just us — other Bay Area restaurant connoisseurs have noted the horrendous state of restaurant coffee. Today the SF Chronicle‘s food editor, Michael Bauer, wrote in his blog about readers who suggested he could do more to play up the coffee quality in his restaurant reviews: Michael Bauer: Between Meals : Coffee talk in reviews.
This restaurant sister to the Tartine Bakery & Café opened in 2005. It has been through one relocation and a few head chefs since then. Yet the food is very good at this long space with an open kitchen and scattered lighting.
Bar Tartine inherited the classic two-group Faema E61 machine from the bakery since opening this separate location (the bakery replaced it with a higher-output La Marzocco). But instead of Mr. Espresso here, they use Blue Bottle Coffee. They pull shots fairly high in classic brown Nuova Point cups with a dark brown, thinner crema (that looks much richer than it really is) — often with lighter spots at the pours. It has a mellow pungency suggesting herbs (some thyme, etc.), but it lacks the acidic brightness typical of fresh Blue Bottle Coffee.
Are they letting James Freeman’s coffee sit on the shelf for long periods? Or is this another example of Tartine’s skills at coffee making never measuring up to the reputation of their baked goods? Perhaps the weakest effort I’ve yet experienced for a place using Blue Bottle beans — they could have just as easily used Martha & Bros. beans for a similar result. But for restaurant espresso, this is good stuff.
Read the review of Bar Tartine.
According to an article in today’s USA Today, hotels are still slowly catching up on the rest of society when it comes to serving better quality coffee: Upscale coffee selections brewing at more hotels – USATODAY.com. As the article opens, “Good coffee is the next big thing at hotels.” Business travelers, accustomed to better coffee at home, are demanding more than their stale pots of robusta — which have been as synonymous with “hotel breakfast” as the melon salad. Meanwhile, hotels are catching on that demand for better coffee can add to their bottom line.
Hotels are accomplishing this through better bean supplies and improved in-room coffee makers (even if they are coffee pod machines, it’s still a step up). However, the hotels are still not planning on making espresso just yet. The article mentions Hilton Hotels’ recent switch to Lavazza coffee and Cuisinart brewers. Perhaps even more shocking, Holiday Inn just announced that they have apparently discovered the arabica bean.
Also according to the article, in September the Le Méridien hotel here in San Francisco will kick off what it calls its “Creative Hour” in the evening. The idea behind this non-alcoholic happy hour is to draw guests to the lobby to drink coffee supplied by Illycaffè and to participate in coffee-related activities, including “cooking lessons for recipes that use coffee and for making special coffee drinks.”
We’ve been monitoring Coca-Cola’s murky interests in the coffee business for some time now. The most obvious example being their patent filings in recent years, which have lead to — among other things — their launch of Far Coast coffee pod and machine systems for food service retailers.
In today’s news, Coke announced they will be offering restaurant operators a liquid coffee system — an on-demand, “shelf stable, bag-in-box” coffee made from concentrate — called The Juan Valdez Coffee System: BREAKING NEWS: Coca-Cola FoodService Partners with Juan Valdez – Restaurant News – QSR Magazine. The latest incarnation of Juan Valdez was apparently out in promotional force for it at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show today in Chicago.
According to the Cokesters, the system “will use Juan Valdez caféREALE coffee—a shelf-stable coffee concentrate that can be stored at room temperature for up to nine months.” Move over, Folgers — doesn’t that just call out, “the best part of waking up is a shelf stable, bag-in-box concentrate in your cup”?
It appears Coke’s strategy is to lay claim to a chasm-crossing beachhead — their Omaha Beach or Anzio if you will — securing some footing in the restaurant coffee business. And they are making their assault on multiple fronts — Juan Valdez branding being just their latest tactic. This also presents a branding oddity for the National Federation of Coffee Growers in Colombia, which has opened retail coffee shops under the Juan Valdez name in a few U.S. locations. However, the Juanistas may feel they can avoid brand confusion because their Coke deal markets to restaurateurs and their cafés market directly to consumers.