Thursday, September 6, 2012

Coffee Shop Roundup

I'm an espresso lover (some may say an espresso snob) and try to get to some of the better known establishments for good coffee wherever I go. The following is a brief review of 3 different cafes in 3 different cities - Paris, London, and Chicago.


La Caféothèque
For years traveling to Paris, I've been disappointed at the low quality espresso which seems to pass as acceptable at nearly all Paris cafes - over-extracted and tasting of low quality robusta beans. I don't know why this is for sure. It could be the Parisians just don't care for the art or science of making good espresso. Or, it could be that the French colonized places in the world that produce bad, low quality robusta coffee, like Vietnam. Regardless, French (Parisean, really) espresso is a vastly inferior to most anything in neighboring Italy, Germany and Switzerland.

So, I was looking forward to a visit to a micro roaster/cafe in Paris I'd read encouraging things about. La Caféothèque, located on the right bank accross from Île Saint-Louis, was a pleasant surprise. The atmosphere is more in keeping with a U.S. cafe - lounge sofas and small, intimate feel inside. They take their coffee seriously and roast a variety of micro-lot arabicas from mostly Central America and Africa. Upon my first taste of a single origin Rwanda espresso, I thought 'wow' this is definitely not like the stuff I'm used to in Paris. After chatting with the French owner and hearing that he's married to a woman originally from Guatemala, the mystery was solved. Guatemalans know good coffee.

Verdict: Loved it!

La Marzocco GB/5
Espresso du jour: Rwandan


Monmouth Coffee
Anyone who knows the London coffee scene knows about Monmouth Coffee. Love-it or think it's over-rated, Monmouth has been around for a while (since 1978) and has ridden the English trend from tea sipping to coffee loving nation (well, almost). They've resisted the opportunity to grow or franchise out their product and have kept overall quality very high.

La Marzocco Linea 3
Monmouth is usually my first stop in London to get caffeinated and shake off jet lag. On my last trip, I stepped into their Covent Gardens cafe (crowded and small) and ordered a cappuccino to "take-away." The girl taking my order looked apologetic and said she couldn't serve me a cappuccino today. Well, a macchiatto then. No. Cafe latte? No. But everyone is drinking coffee in here! 

"It's the cows..."
She explained, "it's the cows." "We get our milk from a small dairy and the milk wasn't producing satisfactory foam" for the drinks I ordered. The cows' diet had recently changed, apparently. This was definitely a first in all my years drinking espresso+milk drinks. I convinced her to make a cappuccino anyway. It seemed fine and I even went back for a 2nd cap later in the day.

Verdict: Reliable and Good


Less concerned about "the cows" and more concerned with latte-art is Intelligentsia Coffee. I went to both their downtown Chicago locations at W. Jackson and E. Randolph. I'd once been a dedicated mail-order customer of Intelly's Black Cat espresso beans for my home machine, but had given up ordering from them about 5 years ago when their quality slipped. I'd hoped their cafes would have a better product than what I was able to produce at home after the blend obviously changed.
Tulip latte art

Their cappuccinos were 'above average', not great, and each had an exquisite latte-art tulip which the barristas poured with great care. Apparently, their barristas have won some awards in this department. While I was hoping for a coffee experience on par with, say, Espresso Vivace in Seattle, Intelligentsia just wasn't quite there.

Verdict: meh