The Seattle Weekly

Visit for coffee on Mondays, at The Seattle Weekly.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Canal Street Coffee (Fremont)

I have my feet up on an end table, and am fully ensconced in a worn, faux-leather couch, staring out a window at the constant drizzle running between a grey sky and the Fremont Canal. I hate couches like this. They are phenomenally comfortable, but carry with them a nagging sense of unrest wondering which one of these sweaty Burke Gilman athletes sat here last. Ew.

Canal Street Coffee has an interesting flavor. But as I say that, I think it comes across entirely wrong... Canal Street Coffee, the place, has an interesting flavor. Canal Street Coffee, the espresso, is actually just Tony's, and doesn't taste anything like one would imagine coffee from a canal to taste. Allow me to try this from a different angle.

One of my favorite "restaurants" in the Portland area is The Galley at Harbor 1, a tiny deli at the end of a dock, literally a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Portland Sailing Center. It's the best place to be on a summer day, watching the ducks beg for bits of whatever you're eating as boats sail by and jets practice drills overhead. There is nothing profound about it, the food isn't particularly good, the service is non-existent, but it's a floating deli, with sailboats moored to it, and that makes it charming.

Canal Street Coffee is not a floating coffee shop, but I think it would feel awfully at home if the canal suddenly flooded and it were. I can't think of a better way to define it. Everything, as at The Galley, is slightly askew. None of the furniture matches itself. There are framed maps on the walls, and various pictures of the canal (and construction along the canal), and a faded "flags from around the world" chart. And though I just noted my love of chalkboard menus, I now know that I only love them if they've been well cleaned, and organized to make sense.
I don't dislike this. It's just... like sitting in someone's living room. In their houseboat. Which needs a good deck-swabbing. But has a great view. And a really comfy couch. And no sense of hurry-up whatsoever. And doesn't accept your company after 5:00 pm. Let's say: less of a place to go, and more of a place to end up if you're already out and about. And perhaps, in the mood for checkers or something.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Victrola Coffee (Roastery)

Here are a few of the arbitrary, non-coffee things that make me smile when visiting a new coffee place (in no particular, nor exhaustive order): Space. Tables big enough to put both my computer and books on at the same time. Exposed brick. Chalkboard menus. Intriguing art. Working wifi. Gluten-free pastries. Comfy chairs. A broad selection of hip, ambient music, none of which sounds like it belongs in a massage clinic. Windows for "people watching." Baristas who bother to care.

As far as coffee goes, I'm a sucker for organic, fair or direct trade coffees, of single origin - because it's like a mini-taste-vacation to the land it comes from, and locally roasted whenever possible - because my entrepreneurial family and Portland identity both promote the belief that "local" is better.

At present, I'm sitting at the Victrola Coffee Roastery: 310 E Pike: Capitol Hill, admiring how many of these elements are brought together here. Granted, not all of them. But many of them. For one thing, I can see where the coffee is roasted in the room next to me. (And you can't get any more local than that.) There are no gluten free pastries, but the uncluttered chalkboard menu is hanging on a brick wall, amidst a captivatingly odd blend of vintage and industrial decor. There are lots of tables, and there is a lot of space (I was forced to cuddle with no one when I arrived). Capitol Hill is notorious for its people watching potential. And! the wifi works. As in, it's worked since I got here. Which is unusual, because Casey-the-Computer, all his other fine attributes aside, can be a touch persnickety about his wifi preferences.

But all this, even working together to make the coffee-and-studying experience a pleasant one, pales in comparison to one little thing: the barista cared whether or not he made me a good cup of coffee. Even though it was a single, decaf americano... a sort of throw-away drink to a lot of baristas who don't quite respect decaf coffee drinkers. I think it must be inevitable, what with roasting only ten feet away, that these folks feel fresh coffee is a must. But it surprised me still, and made me immensely happy to see my barista (Greg) discard the first shot he served because he thought I wanted a solo espresso, rather than putting it in water to be an americano when I explained that a single shot of decaf espresso was not at all what I had in mind. It pleased me even more that, as he made the americano, he took time to explain why he'd started over. Coffee beverages ought to be crafted, not just slung in a mug and handed off. And while I recognize that a lot of companies do want to invest high standards for quality in their espresso, frankly, a number of places I've been recently would have turned around and added water to the shot. Which would have been easier. But wouldn't have made the blog.

If I had to name a first impression complaint, it would be that the combination of slightly tipsy tables and shallow coffee cups results in a lot of unintentional sloshing and spilling. I might have complained that I didn't understand the lamps, but after being formally introduced to them as "Mortimer" and "Maybe Brigham," I actually got quite attached, and will refer my readers over to Christopher Gronbeck's site:
Dear Victrola: You have a different sense of what art is, and your music makes me feel like a character in an RPG... but your coffee is just dandy. Also, I like that you have your own blog, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cafe Cuzco: Thursday Nights!

Somewhere along the past hour, I was obliviously sucked into a community. As if I've drifted into an episode of Cheers, everyone in this establishment now knows my name. I came in to study, read a couple articles, have a cup of coffee, and get home again. But then people showed up with instruments, asked if I'd mind if they started a community music jam session in the corner, and I haven't been able to leave since. I am surrounded by so many of the best things in life: good jazz, reckless creativity, a singing Latino, dancing, coffee, the smell of South American food, and really, really friendly people.

For the moment, I am elsewhere. Not Seattle, where it's cold and rainy and nobody makes eye contact. I am somewhere where people teach cross-cultural strangers their dance steps, where someone won't think twice about walking over to offer a hand in introduction, and the only word that really comes to mind is "comfortable." Shoes are optional, there's a chess board available, and I just had an impromptu heart-to-heart with a friend-I'd-never-met.

Thursday nights at Cafe Cuzco will be worth checking out. Drop by! - 5701 15th Ave NW in Ballard. - I hope they get a lot of positive response on this venture. It's delightful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Caffe Fiore (Sunset Hill)

After going out to breakfast and accidentally drinking my weight in some nameless coffee, hot chocolate was the order of the day. It didn't seem right to review a coffee shop without drinking any coffee, and having some actual-book research to get done, I didn't feel I could justify being online while studying. So I took the opportunity to go drink cocoa at a place I love but never visit due to its internetlessness.

Should you be in need of a quiet little table to read at... or a big table to hold a small meeting around... or an outdoor seating arrangement to accommodate your canine companion and a sunny day... or a cup of coffee to complete your stroll to the beach, Caffe Fiore's Sunset Hill location is the place to go.
Also good if you, like I, miss Portland.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blue Saucer

As if studying weren't difficult enough, there is an adorable little girl, wearing a bright pink dress and rubber boots, holding hot chocolate, and sitting with a french bulldog on a bench outside the window. Can you get any more distracting than that? I think not. This serves me right for studying in a neighborhood, where small children and puppies are likely to be out and about. Ah well. Since I'm not getting research done anyhow, here are notes on the current location (not just on its distractions, I promise).

By an unplanned sequence of events, I have ended up sitting on the outskirts of Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood today. This is the result of answering a craigslist ad, which meant going to Lake City. (Clarification: to purchase a camping tent.) When I set out for Lake City, I thought I'd try out a coffee shop in Lake City. But then I got there, and remembered that it's Lake City. And as I am, in this experiment, avoiding both Starbucks and Chickalatte, I've been forced to try a different district. Maple Leaf happened to be between Lake City and my next destination, so here I sit, drinking Stumptown at the Blue Saucer.

Anyone who knows me well - in fact, anyone who has met me once can probably tell you how I feel about Stumptown Coffee. (I love it.) But I will give you this: Stumptown in Seattle and Stumptown in its native Portland, OR are different beasts. I don't know why this is, but a conversation with another Stumptown fan just the other day confirmed that I'm not out of my mind (or at least, that if I am, I'm not by myself): Stumptown in Portland is fantastic. Stumptown in Seattle is usually pretty good. There is something less well-rounded about the Seattle roast.

12 oz. Mocha, made with Tuccelli's chocolate. Tuccelli's chocolate, I think, might be a great idea, but this first experience with it says it doesn't hold its own against espresso. As far as mocha's go, this one is pretty, with a homemade marshmallow floating on top of it, but lacking any sort of flavor complexity or compatibility.

This could be the coffee's fault. It could be the chocolate's fault. It could, I suppose, be the marshmallow's fault. Or it could be the barista's... who provided me with a great deal of amusement by holding forth to her boyfriend while she was making drinks about how frustrated she gets watching the baristas at [insert name of coffee chain here] make their drinks, and how she wants to yell at them for doing it wrong. Meanwhile, I was watching her and thinking exactly the same thing. It's not like I have a Master's degree in coffee making, but I do feel it's at least polite not to let your customer's espresso get cold while you go find, measure, and steam the milk for it. Just a thought.

Here are the pros: This place is small, and quiet, and cute, and very well kept inside. Lots of non-zoned parking options (it's Maple Leaf, after all). Easy to find. Great art, murals, lots of windows, and the sandwich menu looks tasty. Substituting Soy/Rice is no extra charge to a beverage. Plus, in the hour or so I've been here, I've appreciated the music selection. Oh, and it has homemade marshmallows. Which taste... about like marshmallows, but they're homemade. So that's fun and different, right?

The little girl and her inexplicably winning french bulldog have now wandered off elsewhere, and I have guilt for using Blue Saucer's free wifi to write anything less than a rave review about Blue Saucer. It seems wrong. So. Back to the research I go.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Don't bother asking goo-gl.

Today, I finally accomplished two goals I've been struggling with for a couple of weeks now. First, I finished the initial draft of my paper on the history of the motet. Second, I found Java Bean Espresso. More on the paper later. For now, coffee:

It's not that Java Bean is particularly difficult to find. It's just that I didn't know where it was. I'd seen it in passing, and I knew which side of the street it was on, but not which street it was on the side of. In an attempt to visit the location last week, I shot a text to Google with the name and zip code, and it (as it ought to) sent me back an address. But it wasn't the address I was looking for... or the address of anything, as it turns out, except maybe a private residence on a one-way street I'd never driven down before. It certainly wasn't a coffee shop. So, after multiple trips down both of the streets I thought it might be on, I gave up and went home. Turns out, I was u-turning about a block shy of where I wanted to go. Java Bean Espresso is located at 5819 24th Ave NW in Seattle, and I'd only driven between 59th and 75th on 24th, though I'd been driving 50th to 65th on 15th. Obviously, neither was a productive use of my time.

Having been betrayed by Google Text, as will happen from time to time, I consulted Google-proper today before leaving the house. And, I'm happy to say, it sent me to the correct location. Here's my un-requested review:

This was a particularly inarticulate and indecisive day for me, which is a fantastic test of barista patience, and I can (gratefully) say that this crew passed with flying colors. Going so far as to humor me with a lengthy explanation of why "shade grown" makes a difference to the coffee bean. (Curious? Start here: Shade Grown Coffee) They serve organic, fair trade coffee, which is ideal... but it's also Tony's Coffee, which exists somehow on the order of Turkish coffee (ie, you can't see through a single americano if you hold it up to the light), and doesn't win prizes for originality. I do like the Elephant logo, though.

On the negative side: It's busy. Not in terms of customer volume (although, that too) so much as in reference to the way things are displayed. Whether I was actually feeling inarticulate and indecisive, or merely overwhelmed by an excessive number of cookie jars is difficult to say. Musical selections didn't always help. And they do not offer wifi, but as it can easily be... borrowed from surrounding establishments, that made no difference to my student-driven coffee-shop-haunting.

On the positive side: I sat there for 5 hours, studying, and was not glared at a single time by the staff. They turned the fireplace on for me when I remarked, 3 hours in, that it was cold. And the espresso mole is different from the average mexican mocha. In a good way. So if you're getting bored with mocha-land, I fully recommend checking that out. Also, I admit that the ski-lodge decor is charming. (Which is what they were going for, I'm pretty sure.)

Now, about the paper: I've decided that getting a Master-of-anything degree is a ridiculous idea. The purpose behind the papers is to demonstrate mastery of the subjects. But let's be serious here: when was the last time you actually mastered a subject? Let alone, say, ten? I'll be ecstatic if I walk away with working knowledge of the ten topics I have to write about. I think I'll be shocked if I've mastered any of them. We need to think of a new title. Preferably, one that can go before my name, like Doctor would, if I were getting a doctoral degree. Master Rose gives entirely the wrong impression.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

and I'd had too much caffeine

Four-odd centuries worth of motets later, 9:00 on a Saturday night finds me sitting in a little coffee establishment in the Queen Anne neighborhood, listening to a room full of people, who have materialized out of nowhere and apparently all know each other, loudly sing Marcy Playground. Today was an interesting day in coffee.

I started out at Lighthouse Coffee in Fremont, which I'd heard good things about. While I'm forced to admit that a persistent sinus infection seems to be interfering with my sense of taste, I was unimpressed. Aside from an unforgivable lack of wifi, an awkwardly arranged room, and a distracting selection of bebop jazz... I just didn't find their coffee (or their options for in-house mugs) interesting. It is worth noting, I suppose, that fellow coffee-lover (with more training than I) Kyle showed up to have a cappuccino with me and says my assessment of the situation is overly harsh. But there you have it.

Wandering on from there, I have been, since about five and half hours ago, sitting at a little table in a little place called "El Diablo" on upper Queen Anne Avenue. It's bright. It's full of people studying. It's got decent coffee. And before the band showed up, I actually got quite a bit of work done. The selling feature here, though, is not the (Cuban origin) espresso, not the abundance of exuberant art, not the live music, not the wifi, and not even the mango salsa. No, it is the mug in which my orange-ginger-mint tea resides. A good mug is essential to a good beverage experience, and yet good mugs are few and far between.

This particular one is shaped exactly right to fit in hand, cheerfully blue and yellow, and an ideal thickness for insulating the drink without being cumbersome for drinking. I'm not sure what it says about the coffee shop that this is what I'm taking away from the day, but... it can't be a bad thing.

Hmm. Now off to see if I can remember where I parked my car.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A plant. In the daisy family.

After several hours of Baroque motets, and one excellent single americano with house-made vanilla, I am sitting at the Aster Coffee Lounge with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese, watching the lady across from me knit a hat, listening to the album of some obscure band whose vocalist thinks he is John Mayer, hoping that my brain revives soon.

Since I have to study, I think I've decided to do a coffee-shop tour of the area here. I don't know how long this will last, but here is my number two pick for this week (and no, it's not the second coffee shop I've visited... this habit is going to get expensive).

In other news, I attempted a yoga "Crane Pose" today. If you need a laugh, look it up, and imagine the catastrophic results that ensued. So sad there was no audience.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I also feel very Seattle.

Wearing plaid, playing Owl City on my Mac computer, watching the rain come down on a local/sustainable/organic market, sitting in an independent coffee shop, vaguely listening to the conversations going on around me in Spanish, and studying textbooks as I retrieve them from my REI backpack. Wow.

This makes me feel like Yelp.

I am sitting at a narrow granite counter facing windows that look out over the intersection of NW 57th St and 15th Ave NW in Ballard. I have in front of me my computer (obviously), a notebook and pen, and a 12 ounce mug of vacuum-pot coffee, made from single origin coffee: brought from Peru, roasted locally in Seattle by a small roaster.

Because I've been on this "I want to write something about Peru" kick lately, I've become more attuned to things that look like they might have an encouraging flavor. I noticed Cafe Cuzco yesterday when I went to the Ballard Market for groceries, and knowing I needed a coffee shop to work in today, I made a mental note to try it out. I approve.

Apparently, they only opened two days ago. So it's still very quiet and there's plenty of room to find a seat, and they are very proud of their little shop, their coffee, their food, and their customer service. I am drinking vacuum-pot coffee, because I expressed interest and said I didn't know about it, and Dario (the guy making my coffee, who went to the trouble of asking my name and introducing himself) wanted to show me how it worked.

If you're in the area, you should check it out. The decor is delightful, the coffee is great, and it smells good in here. If you're not a coffee drinker, I say try the passion-fruit juice, which is what I'm moving on to at the end of the coffee, as I have more studying to do than one beverage will sustain.