Previously, we had written about Coffee Bar when it was still under construction. It has since opened on the longest night of the year, December 21 — with limited initial fanfare, as the partners first wanted to iron out some of the kinks that naturally come with opening a new space. And it is a rather huge, quasi-industrial space at that (Oakland shipping/container crane motif notwithstanding). Coffee Bar’s partners consist of two childhood friends, Jason the stage man and charmer of the house and Luigi the coffee obsessive (and of the Di Ruocco family that has owned and operated Oakland’s Mr. Espresso for decades), plus Andrew the consultant/wine obsessive.
Past an entry patio, there are two levels of wooden tables of various sizes (including some very large ones), counter seating, a private room for events, sofas, and metal chairs. The airy space, exposed concrete, and metal chairs make the place a bit cold in SF’s fouler weather, but it warms up with a number of interesting wine options by the glass and bottle (it becomes something of a wine bar after 5pm), small plates, and great coffee.
For coffee, there’s a huge paper roll menu above the first floor bar. Espresso is served as a doppio by default, and they offer four different bean choices: two for espresso from their three-group E91 Faema Ambassador, and two (or more) for their Clover machine. Our first visit featured Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan Espresso and Kenya AA for espresso and Guatemala Asobagri and Bolivia Cenaproc for the Clover. After the 2006 demise of Café Organica, it is a welcome return to see SF espresso bars once again offering multiple bean choices for your shot.
The Neapolitan shot is served (by Luigi’s expert, timed hand) with a rich, mottled medium- to dark-brown crema of decent thickness. It has a sweeter edge of honey on top of a pungent flavor of herbs and cloves, and it is a touch lighter on body and flavor potency when compared with the shots Luigi makes at the Mr. Espresso employee espresso bar — which still ranks as our highest rated shot in the Bay Area.
Luigi (and, by extension, Mr. Espresso) is not a card-carrying member of the regrettable Third Wave clique. (For example, Luigi was in full presence at last year’s Host Milan, but you wouldn’t read about it in Barista Magazine.) But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his shots seriously. After reading Coffee Bar’s review on CoffeeRatings.com, Luigi wrote to me of his espresso shot, “I had timed your shot at 24 seconds and I felt for the volume I produced it should have poured in about 26-27 seconds, but it looked beautiful… amazing what a couple of seconds can leave out in your shot!” It is that attention to detail that separates the truly great espresso from the “merely” good.
As for their single origin espresso shot, Barista Magazine was accurate in suggesting the “Death of the Blend”: the single origin espresso has come to be what single malts are to blended scotch. And their Kenya AA shot is what you’d expect from a single origin espresso; there’s some blonding on the thinner medium brown crema, and Luigi cuts off the shot early as its pour thins much more quickly than that of a blend. One of the big downsides of the single origin espresso is how it typically lacks completeness and well-roundedness, and yet that is also part of the attraction: to taste something so clean, sharp, unique, and unadulterated. Not surprisingly, the resulting cup has a potent, clean, sharp, almost citric sweetness. Served in small white Nuova Point or larger classic brown ACF cups.
(Luigi also noted that at last year’s Host Milan, Italian roaster Sandalj, of Trieste, Italy, was one of the few Italian promoters of a choice among multiple single origin beans for a customer’s espresso. This is another area where Italy seems to be slowly following America’s lead.)
At the time of writing, the Neapolitan shot placed Coffee Bar tied for first in our listings of San Francisco’s best espresso. Because the aggregate score for our espresso ratings comes from a formula, not unlike barista competitions, the final rankings are something we can’t predict until we plug in all the numbers. (Our scoring system equally weights aroma, body, brightness, crema, and flavor plus a taster’s correction.) But anytime a new café arrives in the top 5 in town, it’s cause for celebration.
Read the review of Coffee Bar.