May 2010

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Tootsies (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 30 May 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

If you only had the name to go on, you would never come here. Few of us would willingly consume a meal where the name suggests either high-fructose corn syrup wrapped in wax paper or Dustin Hoffman in drag. Mmmm… appetizing.

On top of that, virtually no one seems able to spell its name correctly: calling it Tootsie’s, with the possessive apostrophe. Of course, there are people who insist on using the imaginary possessive-form names of “Lucky’s” [sic] and “Nordstrom’s” [sic]. But the name of this place — as etched on its Web site and on its metal signage in front — is Tootsies (no apostrophe).

Entrance to Tootsies - and not Tootsie's - in Palo Alto Tight quarters for food and espresso inside Tootsies

We might cut the owners a break, as their rather authentic Italian approach to food and drink — they even call themselves “autentica cafeteria italiana” — suggests something may have been lost in translation. This is a pretty serious café that highlights the food of Emila-Romagna and Puglia regions of Italy. But to add to the confusion, Emila-Romagna and Puglia are two regions nowhere near each other. Hence we suspect the influence of more than one owner. (We even tried to connect Tootsies to the English colloquialism for toes or feet, but Puglia is actually at the heel of Italy’s boot.)

It’s a courtyard café in the Stanford Barn, technically located in what’s called the Barn’s “Powerhouse”. There is outdoor patio seating among café tables and parasols that surround the brick building. Inside there are a few small café tables packed together in a tight space. They live up to their “autentica cafeteria italiana” aspirations through an Italian staff making salads, panini, and espresso.

Rear seating area behind Tootsies, leading to the rest of the Stanford Barn Old detailing inside Tootsies' tight seating area

For espresso, they use a two-group Elektra machine at the service window. With it and their Roman Danesi beans, they produce a shot with a deep, rich-looking, darker brown crema with some texture. It’s a modest-sized shot that’s potent, but not necessarily prominent. It has a well-blended and satisfying flavor of pepper, some tobacco, spices, herbs, and some sweetness — with nothing much more prominent than the other flavors. Served in Danesi logo cups — after your meal as they might (and should) suggest.

At Tootsies the name may be nonsensical, but the espresso — despite their dependence on imported coffee roasts — is pretty serious.

Read the review of Tootsies in Palo Alto.

The Tootsies Elektra machine visible from a front window The Tootsies espresso


Trip Report: Hollow

Posted by on 29 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Another installment in SF’s series of “espresso bars in strange places,” this one — open since 2009 — is located in a sort of gift shop. It’s a very small space identified by its bright green exterior, and there are a couple of small chairs for sidewalk seating. Inside there are mirrors, planters, birdcages, bath oils, glassware, candle holders, and other odd home gifts — with two small tables in front and an espresso bar in back.

Here they use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Ritual Roasters coffee. They were pulling shots of Ritual’s anniversary Five Candles blend when we visited — recently replacing months of their Evil Twin seasonal blend. The barista identified their Evil Twin blend as being much more forgiving than the two-second extraction range that the Five Candles could tolerate. And they do time their shots here: she sank (as in sink shot) a 17-second shot before letting a 24-second shot pass.

Hollow's modest exterior Tight quarters inside Hollow

The espresso had a mottled medium and darker brown crema, poured rather short in white Nuova Point cups. It was bright, fruity (sour green apple fruity), and a touch thin – likely reflecting the new espresso blend more than anything else. Regarding the fruity descriptor, Ritual even uses the phrase “golden apple” – though it was more green apple. And that kind of sourness just doesn’t have a place in the flavor profile of espresso shots we like very much. Perhaps others will find it interesting.

Hollow is generally known for making some of the best espresso in the Inner Sunset, but the Five Candles blend didn’t let them shine. This is a case where a coffee bean roaster/supplier changes up their blends with the growing seasons and sometimes gets too clever — producing underwhelming results for the retail café.

Read the review of Hollow.

The rest of Hollow's interior - with La Marzocco Linea in back The Hollow espresso

Coincidentally, this afternoon we were looking for a decent espresso in Yountville following the fantastic release party of a winemaker friend of ours. Walking up to the nearby Yountville Coffee Caboose, we asked what Ritual blend they used for their espresso pulls. When they answered “Five Candles,” we instead walked over to Bardessono.

The woman working the Caboose’s register may have been surprised at our reaction, but the Five Candles blend really is that disappointing. It carries many of the signature problems we’ve created when we’ve overweighted more lightly roasted Central American beans in our own home-roasted espresso blends.


Espresso in Seattle

Posted by on 27 May 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

We wrap up our brief series on Seattle’s espresso and coffee culture with a few observations.

First, it had been way, way too long since our last visit. Twelve years in fact. Which is all the more ridiculous given the kind of coffee tourists we’ve become. It was 15 years ago that I attended graduate summer classes on the UW campus (in the U District), and for the occasion I grew a goatee to mock many a stereotyped Starbucks barista in its birthplace. (Ultimately the joke was on me, as 15 years later I still sport that goatee.)

Seattle Center, looking down E Harrison St. from Capitol Hill Local characters that aren't homeless in Seattle's Pioneer Square

Is Seattle still relevant to great coffee?

Back in 1995, despite its availability elsewhere at the time, espresso and espresso drinks (lattes, etc.) were a quintessential Seattle thing. Espresso Vivace already had 7 years of experimentation and innovation under its belt, and Starbucks had opened its first East Coast outlet just two years prior in Washington, D.C.

But just a decade later, people started looking to cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles for the next shiny new thing in coffee — with Seattle suddenly treated like some quaint, outdated reminder of coffee’s past. Interest in good coffee mutated into something that today looks more like interest in the next gimmick or fad for making good coffee: single origin espressos, the Clover, naked portafilters, cuppings, toys and gadgets, etc.

Today it isn’t enough to make good coffee. You have to invent something, or be new to the market, to get noticed — which isn’t something always equated with Seattle’s coffee culture. Restaurants suffer the same fate, as a quality stalwart like Masa’s is almost always passed up for the hot new place that opened last month or for a kitchen that starts cooking with liquid nitrogen and lasers. (Though given Masa’s espresso quality, perhaps lasers and liquid nitrogen might improve their coffee service.)

Seattle icon: the pink Elephant Super Car Wash Another Seattle icon: buskers in front of the original Starbucks

Ironically, it was Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) roasting over at Seattle’s Zoka who first coined the term “Third Wave“. But within just a few years, the coffee industry largely hijacked its meaning for marketing purposes, shoving Seattle out of any potential spotlight once again. Meanwhile, Seattle found its coffee relevancy publicly questioned as “second waver” Starbucks convinced more and more reluctant believers that it became just another mass-production fast food chain.

Sure, Seattle as a city earned a reputation for coffee quality that was not commensurate with the typical place down the street. Because, let’s face it, most of the coffee served in Seattle is godawful. But this is essentially true for any city outside of, say, Italy and Portugal. What matters for our reviewing purposes is what’s available at the top end.

And from what little we recently tested, Seattle isn’t missing a beat. With the exception of maybe Zoka and, understandably, Caffè Umbria, most of the espresso shots we had exhibited a rather “modern” New World flavor profile. Oddly, it was the local invasion of Portland’s Stumptown that was a no show — with a larger, weaker shot that didn’t quite make the grade, given expectations.

No visit to the Fremont District is complete without saying 'hi' to the troll Vladimir Lenin, famous resident of the Fremont District

The Seattle espresso bar habitat

Synesso machines were all the rage in town — not surprising, given that Synesso is a Seattle-based manufacturer. And Melitta/pour-over bars were quite common. However, single origin espresso shots — and even the option for different roasts for your shot — seemed underrepresented in Seattle compared to what you find at the top end in San Francisco.

The quality at the top end is on par with SF. Yet Seattle still has the coffee culture down in spades by comparison: baristas regularly know their customers by name (and more importantly: know their preferences), and so many of the top places in town roast their own. And Seattle has Vivace, which is truly a cultural treasure for the American espresso lover.

We wish we could have reviewed many more places in our short time in Seattle, but long ago we made it a policy to never sample more than four espresso shots in one given morning or afternoon. Anything more than that, and the flavor profiles start blending together and we stop trusting our senses. Not to mention the caffeine jitters. But Seattle was so tempting that we had to bend our rules a bit, reviewing shots in two separate “shifts” on the same day.

Readers may be surprised that I typically consume an average of only about two espresso shots per day. So after the first shift, I literally developed an eye twitch. But it was nothing like my first visit to the (long gone) Café Organica in 2005, where I downed four successive shots to sample all their blends and paid dearly the rest of the day. This time, after a few hours and some hydration therapy, I was rather proud of my caffeine tolerance after being so out of practice.

Coffee sacks on the floor of Caffé Vita We tried to get in the Fremont Kuma, but it closes early and we were in caffeine detox

Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Cafe Juanita 9702 NE 120th Pl. Kirkland, WA 7.30 7.20 7.250
Caffè Umbria 320 Occidental Ave. S Pioneer Square 7.10 8.20 7.650
Caffé Vita 1005 E Pike St. Capitol Hill 8.30 8.00 8.150
Espresso Vivace Brix 532 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.60 8.80 8.700
Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar 321 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.80 7.00 7.900
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 616 E Pine St. Capitol Hill 7.40 8.00 7.700
Trabant Coffee & Chai 602 2nd Ave. Pioneer Square 8.10 7.50 7.800
Victrola Coffee and Art 411 15th Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.20 8.20 8.200
Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea 129 Central Way Kirkland, WA 8.10 8.20 8.150


Trip Report: Espresso Vivace Brix (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 26 May 2010 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

After David Schomer lost the original Espresso Vivace Roasteria location on Denny Way to an eminent domain seizure in 2006, when the city of Seattle decided to place a new rail line station at its location, Espresso Vivace needed a new home where they could showcase their coffee and techniques.

This Espresso Vivace location opened up in 2008 as the “Brix” location to help fill that void. It is located just a couple blocks up Broadway Ave. from their Sidewalk Bar, past many cheap phở shops. Inside it is decorated quite fully: high ceilings, nice wood counters, window-facing faux marble countertops, and even a special meeting room in back (supposedly open to all, but locked when we visited).

There is some limited outdoor sidewalk seating among metal chairs along Broadway Ave. as well. The café is quite busy, but not so busy that the barista staff doesn’t engage with many of their customers and knows their life stories, let alone their names.

Entrance to Espresso Vivace Brix Inside Espresso Vivace Brix

Espresso Vivace Brix drink menu - adorned with innovations and their years At Espresso Vivace Brix's bottom counter: an homage to the former Denny Way location

Instructions for drinking at Espresso Vivace BrixUsing a three-group Synesso (they have two of them), they pull short shots with their trademark highly bubbled, dark-to-medium-brown crema that dissipates quickly. It’s unmistakable Vivace — just on sight alone.

While it is an excellent shot, we found it slightly weaker (surprisingly) than their nearby Sidewalk Bar: the flavor profile was a bit more narrow (but still focused on the herbal notes with some sweetness), and it wasn’t as potently bright either. It is a bit more of a straight-ahead potent, syrupy shot of with a moderately thin crema. But still one of the finest shots in all Seattle. That would also be true for San Francisco.

Read the review of Espresso Vivace Brix in Seattle.

Counters at Espresso Vivace Brix and their two Synesso machines The Espresso Vivace Brix espresso


Trip Report: Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 25 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

No coffee tour of Seattle is complete without a visit to our last of the three V’s in town: David Schomer‘s famed Espresso Vivace. The subtitle for this location is “a sidewalk espresso bar,” which it most certainly is.

We normally have more than a few gripes about sidewalk coffee kiosks, but this one is different. Not only is it not just a cynical way to collect cash from customers who love “quaint” while you offer them no amenities in a low-rent space, but the product here is top-notch. And when it comes to actual seating, they do offer four metal tables with chairs along the front sidewalk (three with parasols).

The barista knows his customers. This is something quite common among the best shops in Seattle, but is much less frequent in cities like San Francisco. They turn up the Johnny Cash music and pull shots of fantastic espresso.

The Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar Seating in front of the Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar

They use a three-group Synesso machine to pull shots with a rich, speckled dark crema. It’s the infamous — dare we say unique — Vivace crema: an even darker brown crema of modest thickness that’s highly textured, even agitated, to where its surface looks like it is made of hundreds of miniature dimples. And if you don’t drink it fast enough, that crema will dissipate down to nothing. We can’t say we’ve ever encountered anything like it. While we can’t attribute the excellence of the shot to their crema, it does differentiate it.

They serve it as an extremely short ristretto. The shot has a full, rounded, potent flavor with an emphasis on herbal notes in a concentrated shot. There are also cloves and a real layer of sweetness. It also comes with a very robust aroma. Served in a saucerless logo Tognana cup — as explicitly advertised on their drink menu.

Brilliant, even if along some of the sketchier sections of Broadway Ave. And arguably the best retail espresso shot we’ve formally reviewed in the U.S., let alone Seattle.

Read the review of the Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar in Seattle.

Drink menu at the Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar The Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar espresso


Trip Report: Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 24 May 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

This Stumptown outlet opened in 2007. It arguably first represented the Portland chain’s global ambitions. At the time, there was much consternation among Seattlites about an interloper in their heart of their Capitol Hill coffee culture (not to mention the Northwest rivalry that ensued). Stumptown even opened up roasting operations in town. But things haven’t quite worked out so badly for the Emerald City, despite the chatter.

This small storefront can be identified by the glowing neon Stumptown sign that wraps around — so you never can see more than half of it at a time. Outside there are a couple of sidewalk chairs. Inside there are a few tables and a tall ceiling, walls decorated with coffee-growing scenes, and a 1980s component stereo tuner playing music from the back.

Entrance to Stumptown in Capitol Hill, Seattle The tight quarters inside Stumptown in Capitol Hill

While they offer cold brew coffee, the store focus is on their three-group Mistral (with a Stumptown label). With it, they pull rather large shots — one of the fullest demitasses we’ve had in our trip to Seattle. It’s more like a true doppio served in a classic brown logo ACF cup.

To its credit, it has a thicker, medium-and-darker-brown-striped crema. But given the pour size, the body runs a bit thin. It also has a tame and tepid flavor of mellow spices, pepper, and wood — and it lacks the stereotypical Hairbender brightness, except at the very finish/bottom of the cup.

In short, the shot here was disappointingly weak: this wouldn’t cut it as one of the best shots in most coffee cities. Of course, we have every reason to believe that Stumptown is capable of something better than this, so a revisit is required. But as it stands from our one visit, it wasn’t much better than the shots we had at Caffè Umbria — and wasn’t much different in the timidity of its flavor profile. Based on this limited experience, local Seattle coffee shops have little to worry about from “invasive species.”

Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district.

Stumptown's Mistral in Capitol Hill, Seattle The Stumptown espresso, Capitol Hill, Seattle


Trip Report: Caffé Vita (Capitol Hill, Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 23 May 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

We continue our series on Seattle cafés with a visit to another another of the three V’s in town: this time it’s Caffé Vita in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. This combination café and roaster is one of the bigger entities in this coffee-rich neighborhood. It has the bold Caffé Vita neon signage out front — with a row of metal chairs along the E Pike St. sidewalk.

The interior is generally dark downstairs, with old wood floors and more examples of their Harlequin theme. The downstairs also sports several quiet tables, burlap sacks of coffee, and a worldwide collection of logo espresso cups in a lighted glass and wood case. This alone was a highlight of our visit, having established our own personal collection of espresso cups from cafés around the world ourselves. (Bonus points for playing T. Rex’s Electric Warrior album on our visit.) Upstairs is brighter but more library-like, and in back are the roasting operations.

Caffé Vita in Capitol Hill let's you know they are there Counter with Synesso machine at Caffé Vita in Capitol Hill

Caffé Vita's case of collected espresso cups from around the world Our own personal stash of collected espresso cups from around the world

The staff seem pretty good here, though we encountered one employee who actually lived up to the (fortunately rather rare) pain-in-the-ass negative stereotypes often unfairly bestowed upon employees at elite coffee shops. For equipment, they use an elaborate glass Japanese slow-drip coffee maker (as seen at SF’s Blue Bottle Cafe) and a (surprise!) three-group Synesso.

With their Synesso, they pull a short shot with a darker brown, even crema and a robust aroma. It has a flavor of muted pungency compared to the other V’s in town (Victrola and the soon-to-be-reviewed Espresso Vivace), but it still caries some potency. Just with more balanced flavors of wood, cinnamon, and cloves. Definitely a solid shot and an excellent place to experience it. Served in brown logo ACF cups.

Read the review of Caffé Vita in Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

Studious area on Caffé Vita's second floor, Capitol Hill Caffé Vita's roasting operations in the back of their Capitol Hill location

Caffé Vita's Japanese slow-dripper and French presses in action The Caffé Vita espresso at Capitol Hill


Trip Report: Trabant Coffee & Chai (Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 22 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Say it ain't spro, Mr. T.Don’t spro me, bro.

That ridiculous sentence kept going through our heads when we visited Trabant Coffee & Chai near Pioneer Square. (Their other, mothership location is in the University District.) From afar, Trabant seems like they are trying to do some interesting things. They were voted Best Coffee in Seattle on in 2005, 2007, and 2008. But they also seem to suffer from a bit of over-earnest “we gots da phattest spro in da hood” posturing that blurs the lines between cute and stupid.

This space — opened in 2007 — is for coffee nerds, no question. It’s part vacant art space, part café, and part retail coffee lab. They have a few cheap sidewalk chairs out front along 2nd Ave. But inside it is a sparse, stark space with a tall ceiling and a lot of echoes. The tables and benches are excessively wobbly.

'Can you hear me now?' in front of the Pioneer Square Trabant Coffee & Chai Entering Trabant Coffee & Chai in Pioneer Square

Contrast this bare-bones ambiance with the coffee investments on display, and it comes off a little like dope house for coffee addicts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the staff here are regularly sampling and experimenting with the goods — always a positive sign. They were testing out a new Brazilian roast in their Clover machine when we visited. They also use Anfim grinders, 49th Parallel Coffee, and a three-group Synesso for espresso. They are pretty much pedigreed.

They pull shots with a mottled medium and darker brown crema in white Nuova Point cups. It has good brightness without being a sour brightness bomb, and it carries a potent herbal to tobacco flavor. Maybe not the best espresso in Seattle, and it’s definitely not the best environment to drink it in. But we didn’t find much of the annoying spro-titude here that we originally feared. And it’s definitely a good place to test and sample coffee from a great Canadian roaster on this side of the Maple Curtain.

Read the review of Trabant Coffee & Chai in Pioneer Square, Seattle.

The Clover and Synesso behind Trabant Coffee & Chai in Pioneer Square The Trabant Coffee & Chai espresso in Pioneer Square


Trip Report: Caffè Umbria (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 21 May 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Surely we jest about Seattle’s coffee culture being as dated as reruns of Frasier. Coffee journalists and jargonists alike often suffer from a tragic affliction that confuses experience for irrelevance. Infatuation with the over-hyped and under-substantiated pursuit of the next big thing has created a bit of hyperopia: a far-sightedness that makes one blind to many good things right in front of their faces. It also makes people dismissive of the history and cultural roots that got them there in the first place.

Which brings us to a little Seattle coffee roasting history by way of the Old World. This roaster uses this location as its flagship retail store, and with good reason. In 1986, Ornello Bizzarri of Torrefazione Italia fame established this site as a family roastery. Today, his grandson Emanuele roasts for Caffè Umbria.

Grand café entrance to Seattle's Caffè Umbria in Pioneer Square Signage inside Caffé Umbria

It’s an old brick storefront in Seattle’s historical Pioneer Square. They offer a bit of outdoor table seating along the “grand piazza” out front. Inside it’s grand café style — albeit a shade less ornate than SF’s Emporio Rulli. The interior is supported by reinforced brick with tall windows and stool seating at them. There are many tables inside the large space, each under decorative light fixtures. Old Italian black & white photographs from the Bizzarri family adorn the walls and a showcase Officine Vittoria roaster sits in the back near the big screen TV.

The place is generally quiet and light on crowds (it has a heavy tourist base). It has an extensive Italian-style espresso bar, where they also serve wine and gelato from Seattle’s Gelatiamo. Behind the bar are two-group and three-group Nuova Simonelli Aurelia machines, and they use their Gusto Crema blend to pull shots.

Officine Vittoria roaster inside Caffè Umbria Seating inside Caffè Umbria

It’s served as a taller shot in a tall IPA logo cup — which are well-designed to accentuate the crema, a medium brown crema with darker flecks. It has a very subtle flavor — a soft chantilly cream or even marshmallow predominantly, with a hint of some of the spice, pepper, wood, and herbal notes of a typical espresso in the background. This is the direct opposite of a bitter espresso, but its thinner body and muted flavor keep it from standing out. Served with a Fondente (dark) chocolate on the side. The barista also creates some simple latte art.

Not the best espresso in town by any means, but it is a taste of history and is something of a classic. There’s something about an Old World espresso: they just know how to blend in a way that most North Americans haven’t come close to figuring out yet.

Read the review of Caffè Umbria in Seattle.

Service area inside Caffè Umbria with two Nuova Simonelli machines The Caffè Umbria espresso


Trip Report: Victrola Coffee and Art (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 20 May 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

We continue our series on Seattle coffee culture with a visit to a Victrola Coffee — one of the three “V’s” Seattleites refer to when seeking decent espresso. This location is the original Victrola, though the name here emphasizes their artistic roots and continued interests.

It’s an older establishment that exudes some 1950s classicism — from the old Victrola in the corner to the metal porch chairs along the 15th Ave. sidewalk to the stand-up piano in back to many of the clientele who seemingly have been here since before 1950. Not to mention the neon signage out front.

They hold a number of musical and movie events here still, and the arty color photographs on the wall support the theme. The unisex bathrooms identified by the kitchen utensils attached to their keys don’t hurt either.

Victrola Coffee & Art: the original on E 15th Ave. Laptop zombies inside Victrola Coffee & Art

Coffee menu and retail sales at Victrola Coffee & Art Close-up of the Victrola Coffee & Art Melitta bar: metal pouring cups?

They offer a two-cup Melitta bar system that drips into metal pitchers, but the centerpiece is a three-group Synesso (all the rage in Seattle these days). They pull a very short shot of Streamline Espresso with a split crema that’s oddly half dark brown and half medium brown. It has a potent flavor of pepper, some wood, and a seriously acidic bite to the finish: it’s surprisingly heavy on the brightness.

Served in logo Inker cups & saucers (but sometimes they will use a plain white ACF cup). They offer detailed Rosetta latte art, and there’s a wall of grinders, cups, vac pots, and presses for retail sale. A pretty solid espresso shot in a semi-historic, artful hangout in a neighborhood known for its good espresso.

Read the review of Victrola Coffee & Art in Seattle.

Synesso covered in promotions at Victrola Coffee & Art The Victrola Coffee & Art espresso


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