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Archived Posts from this Category
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.
Here’s a nominee for the 2007 Unclear on the Concept Award. In a reactive move to competitors who have successfully upgraded their coffee service (such as McDonald’s), the Wendy’s fast food chain has proudly announced an agreement to serve Folgers coffee to expand their breakfast offerings: Wendy’s to Begin Brewing Folgers Coffee ((BKC), McDonald’s Corp. (MCD), Wendy’s International Inc. (WEN), (US580135)) | SmartMoney.com. Yes, you read that right: Folgers.
If you’re going upmarket to appeal to customers’ newfound tastes for better coffee, why would you choose a brand that consumers most commonly identify as something your cat-food-eating Great Aunt Agnes makes from a $10, 39-oz can she bought in 1993? This should have been a Folgers’ press release, not one from Wendy’s.
Yesterday Atlanta’s The Sunday Paper published an article on Batdorf & Bronson, an artisinal coffee roaster in Olympia, WA who supplies a number of top-rated restaurants in the Atlanta area, as well as cafés and retailers such as Whole Foods Market: 05/06/07 FOOD: Zen and the art of coffee roasting > SundayPaper.com > Current Articles. Batdorf & Bronson also has roasting facilities in Atlanta, and they are preparing to open up their own retail space in “Hotlanta,” as the locals say (or, “Mylanta,” as I would say). And yes, it will come with the obligatory Clover brewer.
The article pays some garbled homage to that third wave nonsense, but most interesting was its reference to chef Marco Pierre White — cited as the first “rock-star chef” and credited with putting London on the culinary map. Tomorrow Chef White is making a sold-out, $190-a-plate guest chef appearance at SF’s Incanto — coinciding with the recent release of his new book, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef.
White earned a three-star Michelin Guide rating as head chef at London’s L’Escargot at age 33 — the youngest Brit ever to do so. Part of the credit for this, as the article cites from his new book, was advice White received from a Michelin reviewer, who told him, “If you start serving amuse-bouches and improve your coffee, you won’t be a million miles away.”
Ahhh, restaurant coffee. Even the finest restaurants suffer megalomaniac chefs with an acute coffee hubris. But at least I am comforted to know that the Michelin reviewers are paying attention to the beverage. We can only hope that more chefs will follow their sage advice.