The Seattle Weekly

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Aster Coffee Lounge (Ballard)

Somehow, this juxtaposition of Verdi's "Requiem" (current ear-bud selection) and Modest Mouse's "Float On" (current in-house music) seems wrong. If nothing else, it is at least extremely odd.

Saturday finds me sitting at the Aster Coffee Lounge again, discovering how spacious their tables aren't. My 8 oz. cup of Clover fresh brew Brazilian Agua Preta is just barely within reach, and perched precariously on the edge of a little round table I've cluttered with a computer and so many books that I've had to spread out to an extra chair as well. I object. But less to the lack of space than to the descriptors given for this coffee, which bills itself as milk chocolate, but is most definitely a jewel-toned blackberry flavor. The barista thinks I'm crazy, but I won't be swayed. Unless it's to say "huckleberry" instead of "blackberry." I'd settle for that. I like the coffee a lot. Taste no chocolate, though, milk or otherwise.

In spite of the book/coffee-balancing act, I really do love this place. The tables are small, but the room makes up for that. The pastries look good, the coffee is good, and as long as you can find a chair-table combo to put all your research material on, this is a perfect place to write. Of the numerous times I've been here, the music has never once been annoying... except when it's clashing with what I'm trying to study. But the fact that I chose to major in music is not Aster's fault, and I will happily put up with conflicting music if it means I get homemade syrups in my flavored coffee, and almost-foam art in my rice-milk latte.

I also discovered today (for the rest of the population) that the food menu here includes giant waffles until 4:00 pm every day. I discovered this because a little girl about the age of 5 or 6 went by me a while ago, carrying one across the room on her way to curl up in an armchair with the day's paper, and it was nearly as big as she was.

Wine. Waffles. Homemade Syrups. Eco-Friendly business...

As we say in the facebook world: "Like."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Neptune Coffee (Greenwood)

I wish two things.

First and foremost, I wish I'd worn socks today. Seattle has been sneak-attacking its citizens with weather for the past few weeks, and my wardrobe is confused. I refuse to conform to the Northwest stereotype of wearing sandals and socks, and I don't even own a pair of Birkenstocks so it really wouldn't work out for me anyhow. My Seattle Spring (which I hereby rename, "Sumwinter") Compromise is usually a semi-trendy pair of ballet flats that are technically shoes, but don't allow for proper socks. As long as it is summer, it's great. But today, it was only summer for a few minutes (the ones while I was choosing my outfit), and it's been edging back toward winter ever since, and my feet have no appreciation for how cute my shoes are. They are cold.

Secondly, and considerably more apropos, I wish I could drink more coffee. For those who do not know me: most ingestible substances and I keep a complicated relationship status. I am technically allergic or "sensitive" to the bulk of normal ingredients, from whathaveyou to thattoo. Coffee falls into this mix, creating a passionate sentiment between it and myself somewhere on the order of Dominick Argento's song cycle, "I Hate and I Love." I adore coffee, but am unquestionably confined to single shot beverages. One per day. And some days, fewer.

This makes coffee blogging fun. Tricky, but fun. I look forward to a coffee adventure most of the day when I know I'm going to go out, get a cup of joe, and enjoy coffee shop culture while I slog my way through whatever I happen to be reading or writing about that day. Unfortunately, it also makes me easy to disappoint, and a single americano that lacks crema results in a crestfallen Rose. It can be a challenge to recover, contemplate, and consider the rest of the situation, unless the environment is really doing well for itself. Or unless a conversation with a roaster leads to free samples of other coffee. Then I will drink more than my allotted single shot, forgive almost anything... and the next day, regret my very existence.

Today, I am at Neptune Coffee in Greenwood. Neptune is fun. Entertaining art, smart use of space, great sense of humor and community... and creatively serving "vintage" pastries where most would serve "day old." It's an ideal location for studying, with lots of light, good music selection, and the appropriate spacing between tables to allow you to sit down next to a stranger without sitting with or on them. It's open, with breezy, calming colors. And the coffee's alright.

I've been here for four hours, and think the baristas (so far, three) are a little hit and miss in terms of their friendliness and willingness to talk about coffee. Their website doesn't list a lot of information, and the barista who floated a shot in water for my americano didn't want to be chatty, so it took a lot of fruitless wondering as to why the espresso was such an intriguingly dark and one-dimensional color before I found the needed informational source in owner Dan Baumfeld. Frustrating, because it means I can only sound as knowledgeable as I am, and say "Um, it tastes lighter than it looks?" But one short conversation later, I can hold forth about how the espresso blend is Guatemalan, Brazilian, Honduran, and Sumatran, and start putting my own opinion to work.

Blanketly speaking, Latin American coffees are considered more mild in flavor (by comparison, say, to an African coffee) and Indonesian coffees trend toward descriptors such as "nutty" or "herbal." The Honduras is a younger, less common coffee producing region than many others, and has a distinct flavor that I have yet to develop a good vocabulary for, frequently hearing described unhelpfully as "really different." In my limited experience, I am not a fan of either Sumatran or Honduran coffee, and since both are strong flavor components, I don't especially love the Neptune Espresso blend.

On the other hand, however, is the single origin Sulawesi shot I was given to taste. It was incredibly familiar, but unidentifiable. Until I left, and, in walking up the street, spied the Chocolati Cafe. "Oh hey! I know what it is!" I thought to myself, and, taking that excuse (as I will take any excuse) to buy a truffle, I ducked into the cafe and purchased a dark chocolate Grand Marnier truffle. Cognac. Cognac, and chocolate. Hello, Sulawesi. Rich, bright, and forward to the taste, with an exceptionally long finish. Long enough to walk down the street and buy comparison chocolate.

Back to the topic: I've enjoyed my stay at Neptune; if I weren't allergic to sandwiches I would be ecstatic about their sandwich menu, which looks phenomenal. They do serve Pear Cider alongside their selection of beer, so next time I'm out at a coffee shop looking for alcohol (less sarcastic than it sounds when you're a frustrated grad student), I just might give that a go.

Honestly, I have to say that I wouldn't come back for the coffee alone. I would come back for the atmosphere. And probably for the owner, who is currently playing air-piano behind the bar, and shooting the breeze with anyone and everyone who gets within conversational range.

But you know, in sitting and staring up at their menu board, I have to say that the thing I will most definitely be returning for, as soon as Sumwinter makes up its mind which way to go, will be the ice cream. Three words: Molly Moon, Affogato. Enough said.

Meanwhile, if you, like me, have had too much coffee for your day, I suggest stopping in at Chocolati for some hot cocoa. You'll be hard pressed to find a better selection anywhere around town.

8415 Greenwood Avenue North

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Caffè Appassionato (Wallingford)

If something can be impressively generic, I feel that Caffè Appassionato: Wallingford should win that award. You, being a fan of the place, may take offense at this, but first: read on. When I say "impressively generic," I mean it was so generic I actually was impressed.

Located at the corner of N 45th Street and Stone Way N, Caffè Appassionato is a fairly recent addition to a handful of places bearing the name around the Seattle area (and... one store in Massachusetts?). They all serve their "passionate coffee" from Magnolia, taking the name from the roasting company, but from what I've been told, each location is independently owned and operated. I point this out for one important reason. I visited Caffè Appassionato in Wallingford due to the recommendation of a friend (familiar with their Shoreline location) who informed me it was one of the best places around Seattle to get coffee. And I want to say that I don't disbelieve you, friend. I just haven't been to Shoreline yet.

As far as Wallingford goes, though, here are my thoughts:
This is not a location set up for coffee. The area existing between bar, register, and pastry case, the inconveniently placed pillar (between the bar and register), and an overall arrangement disallowing any consistent direction to flow of traffic on either the customer or employee side of things makes the situation flat-out uncomfortable for anyone who has worked in coffee and has to stand and look at the setup without being able to do a thing to fix it. What acts as a saving grace, in my limited observation, is that this isn't likely to turn into a high-volume store. It lives on the corner of the least pedestrian intersection in a district where businesses all rely on pedestrian traffic. A lot of people drive by, but I doubt that many walk in. At least, not in the couple hours I was sitting there. It stayed neither empty nor full; not dead, but also not busy. Right in the middle, much like the rest of it.

I was unimpressed by the coffee. They were brewing their "morning passion" roast, which I am told is one of their most popular. And while it was fine, it wasn't interesting. I can see it being a good morning coffee, as there isn't anything threatening or thought-provoking about it. (A morning coffee for not-morning-people!) The barista on duty was great, friendly and accommodating and conversational, but thoroughly burned the rice milk for my latte, and the espresso hadn't retained enough flavor to help it out. Additionally, sadly, the mugs were only about as cool as the ones you get at a complimentary average-hotel breakfast.

On the flip side, this is a great location for studying. There is nothing distracting about it, and it's fairly pleasant. It feels like a coffee shop that ought to be attached to a bookstore, with its heavy furniture, occasional arm chairs, wood paneling, and very academic lamps. The music is all Ben Gibbard-esque, and there isn't much to look at outside the windows. It is perfect for reading, if uninspiring for writing, and I got through the bulk of Whitman's "Drump Taps" with no interruption. (I am reading "Drum Taps" in an effort to grasp some greater context for Ralph Vaughan William's "Dona Nobis Pacem," paper #5 on the march toward All Done.)

Unfortunately, my creative spirit got bored and wandered off, which means I didn't even remember to get a picture. So you'll have to take my word for it (unless you visit) that the terrace is very like a lot of the newer strip mall architecture of Atlanta, which can't make up its mind what exactly it would like to be, and so tends to make all its patterns out of squares. Those of you who have been to Atlanta might know what I mean. The rest of you... I'm sorry. If you post a complaint, I'll try to get a friend to take a picture for you.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Street Bean Espresso (Belltown)

The word "hospitality" comes to mind. An open, sparsely decorated, reverberating space that sounds about three times as busy as it is (oh, and it is busy), where there is an abiding air of friendliness and an eagerness to please. The server allowing credit card transactions was down when I ordered, and because I had no cash, they handed me my coffee and waved me through: "It's on us. Sorry for the inconvenience!" Wait, sorry for the inconvenience of not being able to pay you? ... Thanks for the free coffee! (I caught up with them later, when the server came back online and I ordered hot cocoa, but they actually refused to charge me for the previous americano.)

Street Bean Espresso opened in November, in partnership with New Horizons Ministry right across the street from it. I am, I freely admit, swayed by the purpose of the work here: "Reclaiming young adult lives through empowering employment and providing them with hope for a new and successful future." Street Bean is the non-profit result of a vision for creating hope: a place of employment for young adults who have formerly lived on the streets of Seattle, and who are now trying on a new life. "Your coffee makes a difference," say all their signs. And it feels that way in here, as if you're a partner in the business, and they are honored that you've dropped in to say hi.

Street Bean Espresso: 2702 Third Avenue

Street Bean serves Caffe Lusso Coffee, a roaster in Redmond, WA, that believes in direct trade of organic coffee. It's the first time I've encountered this one. I find the espresso interesting in that, while I like it, it doesn't taste like any other Seattle area coffee to me. The primary characteristics of my americano were "mellow," and "warm," and "hospitable"... which some people probably like to call "inviting," but I prefer "hospitable," since coffee and hospitality go hand-in-hand to my mind. Put another way, whereas a lot of espresso says, "HELLO!" I would give the contrast that this one says, "You're welcome."

Now, I like my "hello!" coffee, so I am on the fence about this. I think it would make an excellent 8:00 pm accompaniment to post-dinner dessert. Very gentle on the palate, enjoyable to drink, and unobtrusive. And definitely requiring continued contemplation, which means that I will be back and there will be another post. But here's what I like, right off: This is a place full of passion and purpose. And you can't miss that. It is fueled by a community of people who care, not just about the coffee, but about the coffee growers, the coffee makers, and the coffee drinkers.

Beware the hot cocoa, though. It's like ganache. You need a spoon.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stumptown (Capitol Hill)

Dear Mom,

Your insistence during my formative years that "slurping" was absolutely improper and unladylike, and your consistent correction of this habit whenever I was eating soup or trying to get the last of the soda out of a glass has resulted in a serious set-back for my coffee writing career. I hope you're pleased with yourself.

This post is a few days tardy, but last Saturday I attended a "cupping" at Stumptown. Surprisingly enough, in light of how many cuppings are available to attend on a weekly basis, my first. And I'll tell you, it's more difficult than people make it look.

Cupping is quite the process, in which you get the opportunity to evaluate a coffee, smelling the grounds before (dry aroma) and after (wet aroma) they have been saturated with hot water, and eventually - after proceeding through a multiplicity of steps with caution and precision (and people watching you) - tasting the brew. All the rest of the cupping aside, the process for the actual tasting goes like this: you are handed a spoon, which you dip into the coffee until it is about half full. You then slurp the coffee off the spoon into your mouth, consider it while intentionally look thoughtful, then spit it out into a separate cup. And repeat.

Problematically, slurping is a big part of the process. Slurping is supposed to enable you to taste fully, washing a flavor most evenly over your tastebuds while also incorporating the aromatic element of taste. I think this may be partly true, but I also think it is designed to make people who can't slurp look funny when they end up choking. I went to the cupping with my friend Kyle, who I'd forgotten spent some time in Japan where slurping during a meal is considered a compliment to the cook. Consequently, whereas I appear doomed to sip in muted whispers, Kyle has the near-sonic slurp down to an art form. I felt so out of place.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters: 1115 12th Avenue/Seattle
Visit the daily cupping at 3:00 pm.

As ill-suited to the event as I may be, I'll be back because it is an educational event. And because practice makes perfect. And because I never would have tasted coffees from Burundi otherwise... or known where Burundi was, in all likelihood.

Here are my top three "valuable facts" from Saturday's cupping:

1. I like Stumptown's "Burundi Bwayi" pretty well.
2. Burundi is a tiny country, about the sizer of Maryland, landlocked between The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania.
3. Water in Portland, OR, lacks one specific mineral necessary to create an "ideal" or "perfect" coffee roast. Don't ask me what the mineral is, but coffee roasted in Portland, as a result, usually lacks a subtle element on the flavor scale. This is probably what makes Stumptown:Portland taste different to me from Stumptown:Seattle, and, although I personally prefer Stumptown:Portland, it turns out that Stumptown:Seattle may actually be closer, technically speaking, to "perfect coffee." Interesting.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bauhaus Books + Coffee (Capitol Hill)

In 1919, Walter Gropius founded a school of design in Weimar, Germany, that aimed to bring together art and functionality on the theory (as best I can tell) that art could embrace the industrial movement without losing its artistic integrity. It was called the Staatliches Bauhaus, the "house of building," initially having nothing to do with architecture or building much at all. I am no art historian, but I can google search every bit well as the next person, and my School of Googwiki educational tidbit for Friday is that the Bauhaus school, which did eventually become an architectural movement, greatly impacted... furniture design.

Try this. Go to -> Image Search -> Bauhaus furniture. "Oh look!" you will say to yourself, if you are anything like me, "It's Ikea!" So now I associate these two; my friends who are art historians will probably cringe, as I'm sure there must be more to the matter than that. But I digress.

Today's coffee house is Bauhaus Books + Coffee - 301 E Pike. My computer is on a counter belonging to one of the many floor-to-ceiling windows (all of which are surprisingly see-through), and if I tilt my head to the left, I have a decent view of the Space Needle peeking out behind a parking-lot pine tree. The area around Seattle Central Community College houses an erratic few blocks of Seattle, a convergence point between downtown and Capitol Hill, where all the old buildings have been reclaimed by new businesses, the drivers have given up on trying to get around the cyclists, and the row of people sitting in front of this window represent a wide sampling of lifestyles. There is also what may be the only palm tree in Seattle living at this corner. Poor stunted, climate-challenged little thing.

Bauhaus Coffee (pronounced [baʊˌhaʊs], or "bow-house" for those who never had to take VocalPed with Nancy Olson-Chatalas) is not striking me as a very Bauhaus. So I guess it belongs on this corner, as it may be the convergence of an idea with reality, where theory looks nothing like practice. Observe:
I like it in here. But those are not Bauhaus paintings. I'm kind of sure.

The "pros" on this location are plentiful: Bauhaus Books + Coffee has great ambience. It's two floors of seating, with an open loft, a great mix of people, a view of downtown, floor-to-ceiling windows on one side and floor-to-ceiling books on the other. The seating is brilliantly arranged, and though the furniture looks like it's all seen better days, there's almost something charming to that. I'm a big fan of the decor, with its artful graduation from deep wood colors to light-reflecting greens. The pastry case provided my laugh for the day, as it featured Ding Dongs. But more than anything, I was impressed with the lay of the building, and the fact that as I was walking through it I kept discovering unexpected seating, tucked away in cute little alcoves that gave a really-big-room the option to feel quaint and secluded.

Unfortunately, the "cons" list isn't short here either. First, as with anywhere on Capitol Hill, parking is impossible, and costly. I lucked out and found parking on the same block today, but couldn't get more than 2 hours, meaning my 4 hours worth of studying got cut short by a fear of receiving two Seattle-priced parking tickets in the same month.

Second (and emphatically more so), the music, at least today, was enough to drive a person crazy. And I like techno. But I like it when it eventually moves on, and doesn't spend 8 minutes being one unvaried track with industrial percussion akin to a shifting Transformer. Worse than the music, however, was the door. Bauhaus is in an old building, with heavy wood doors that are impossible to close quietly (I know, because I tested it on my way out). iTunes successfully drowned out the music, but did nothing for the frequent "ka-THUD-rattlerattle" of the door. Not as annoying as if every customer coming in and out triggered a bell, but annoying nonetheless on such a high-traffic door.

Finally, this being the personal one, Bauhaus serves Lighthouse Coffee, which I remain unimpressed by. They serve it because, "we think it's absolutely the best coffee in Seattle," says their barista, but I differ on that point. In their favor, here's what I will say: Finding out that they served an espresso I don't love, I decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves by ordering something with rice milk (very benevolent of me, I know). For those who have never tried steaming rice milk before - it's a pain. It burns easily, and is tricky to get any texture other than "flat" out of before it gets too hot.

One small rice milk light vanilla latte later, however, I can happily recommend the barista on duty today at Bauhaus. Not too hot, not too cold, and delicately frothed. (... the rice milk. See? this is why they warn you in middle school about the perils of punctuation.)

As an aside, returning to the matter of furniture and functionality, an elderly man just walked past the window using a metal folding chair as a walker. Perhaps this place is aptly named after all.