Posted Tue Nov 13, 2012, 10:48am Subject: TJS: Washington DC, Northern Virginia, Fairfax County, Arlington, Vienna
The Java Sojourner (TJS) had a chance to visit northern Virgina recently (fall 2012) and read the CG forum before going. This is his take on the mentioned cafes, from favorites on down.
Northside Social in Arlington was hands down my favorite espresso. I even made the ½ hour drive from Reston a second time in order to enjoy Counter Culture Apollo on their La Marzocco at the hands of their friendly and capable baristas. The first cup had a cinnamon nose. The first taste was that of green apple, then a pleasant, slightly bitter burnt caramel taste. My next cup on the second day had a nose that was both nutty and winey. The taste started out toasty, then nutty, then cinnamon with a slightly sharp taste, then buttery, then, finally, this time the apple taste came at the end. The third cup tasted nutty, then salty, then apple. Its second tasting became sweeter and cooked, like caramel changing to butterscotch. The final slurp tasted winey and berry. They serve their espressos with a small piece of biscotti, which is good. My only criticism about Northside is that I like a continental pastry with espresso and they offer mostly American heavy, sugary pastries: muffins, scones, pop tarts, cookies, brownies, with the exception of the biscotti. They also sell pies and breads and serve meals such as sandwiches, soups, salads from a complete kitchen. They sell cheese plates that sound good. I did not visit their wine bar upstairs but one can peruse their cooler while standing on line and see an exquisite collection of beer, ale, lambics and ciders such as you will not find anywhere else. Even Rodman’s in DC cannot compare with their small but high-end artisanal selection. Oh, about their line. I visited in the afternoon on the first day and in the morning on the second (couldn’t wait). The shortest line was four persons and the longest was twenty-six. Like many places they give a complimentary cup of coffee with the purchase of a bag of coffee.
If I worked in downtown DC, I would frequent Chinatown Coffee Company on H street. The barista was very friendly and knowledgeable. His was pulling Black Cat on his La Marzocco at 201ºF and served up a cup that started out nutty, then slightly sweet/fruity and finished toasty. Very good. While I was enjoying, he was concerned that he did not pull my cup correctly, so handed me a ristretto, which I handed back because his first cup was perfect. The espresso is served with a shot-glass-sized chaser of sparkling water, which makes an excellent palate-cleanser. Little touches like this are signs of dedication and genius. The croissant was crispy but dense and bready inside. It had a good grain taste but was not buttery at all. The pastry did not do justice to the coffee artistry. If anyone from Hawthorn Fine Breakfast Pastry in Saverna Park, Maryland is reading this, take note. A further note to the credit of Chinatown: they have an in house coffee menu and a to go coffee menu on the wall and you will not find espresso on their to go menu; nor will they pull you a shot to go. One has to be sure of one’s ability in order to back up a (appropriate) policy like that in a city full of Yuppies.
If I worked in Georgetown then Baked and Wired would be my daily grind. This was the only café to be grinding two regular roasts for espresso and of course I had to sample both. The first was from Stumptown and, no, it was not Hairbender; it was Holly Mountain. The taste started out with apple, then raisin, then nutty, then a dry cocoa, changing to a chocolate, finally with a minerally (pleasant salty) finish. The second shot was from a small roaster in Boston called Barismo, their roast is called Lucid. The cup had an allspice nose. The taste was nutty then both lemony and with vanilla overtones, finally ending as toasty. Very pleasant and unusual. I expected the rich high notes (not at all sharp or acidic) were due to Ethiopean beans in the espresso blend but in talking to the baristas, Lucid is a blend of two Columbian coffees. Well done! A hint of the dedication pervading this shop is the notice on the wall that they will not serve iced espresso. Another hint of the corporate culture here: ignore the menu item for a latte made with breast milk. My only criticism of drinking at Baked and Wired is that there are no croissants, nor any flaky or risen pastry, just plenty of cakey, sugar, gloppy selections. On the plus side, the reputations of their products is delicious, everything is ‘made from scratch’ and you can get biscotti. I ate the crust from one of their pies with my espressi and then I finished the pie off before I left. It was a blueberry/peach pie and the filling and crust were both excellent. The filling had a slight touch of pastry crème among the peach slices and blueberries and was a nice touch. I visited on a Sunday morning one hour after opening and it was crowded but I found a wall-counter stool.
So what about Peregrine? It was Ok. I visited the location near the Eastern Market metro stop. It was noisy and crowded on a Saturday morning. They were serving Counter Culture Espresso Rustico from their La Marzocco. The cup had thin crema but good body. The first taste was lemony/berry, then bitter, then woody, then lemony/roasty, but with a sour aftertaste. Their croissant was flaky and buttery, sweet but cold, too cold to be crisp – possibly due to overnight in the cooler. Pity, as they are right next door to a very good artisanal bake shop, Le Pain Quotidien, that sells croissants with a perfect, thin, crispy crust, very light and flaky – very skillfully done. Their flavor was slightly sweet, slightly buttery but the flavors were also light, like the pastry. Masterfully done. It is a shame that Peregrine ignores the accomplished resource next door. Also that they couldn’t coax a better cup out of their excellent machine and roast combination.
Who is next? How about Dolcezza. I passed by two locations but chose the one near Dupont Circle to sample. They were serving Four Barrel from Friendo Blendo out of their paddle Strada, but they weren’t using the paddles and, from the looks of things, I suspect that the operator might not have been trained in their use. The first taste of the cup was minerally, then lime, then bitter with a dusty-dry/cocoa aftertaste. The first taste overall was pleasant but the second taste was sharply acidic, then bitter, then just muddy. I do not know why. Their croissant was crunchy on the ends of the horns but only slightly crispy otherwise and really tough on the inside. I suspect another day-old pastry on the weekend that spent the night in the cooler. C’mon, people! Are you a café or a day old bakery outlet? My advice to coffee shops is to throw out the leftovers on Friday night so as not to detract from their artistry on the weekend. To their credit, I will return to this place the next time I am in town not for their espresso, but for their gelato. Their Thai Basil Jalapeno and their Cucumber Tarragon Gin are not gelatos – they are sorbets. And excellent sorbets they are! The paring of the hot TBJ with the aromatic CTG and both icy cool is heaven in a cup. The TBJ was slightly too salty and benefitted from being paired with another sorbet. To see if they served gelato at all, I next ordered a mixed cup of Valrhona Chocolate Amargo with a scoop of Salted Caramel. Yum! At this point let me say that, no matter what the store or counter that I have been to, I have NEVER had anything in the United States that even came close to the gelato that one can buy anywhere in Rome, Italy. But this is a first. These two selections had the creamy, unctuous mouth feel, the density and the flavor intensity of true gelato. The chocolate was perfectly chocolaty and perfectly sweet for me because I am genetically part fruit fly but perhaps a little too sweet for some (like my wife) but the pairing with the not-too-salty, not at all sweet, slightly bitter caramel gelato was a Match Made in Heaven.
Amouri Coffee. If you are in Vienna, the best espresso in the area is likely to be in this place. If you cannot find their address at 107, you are looking on northwest Church Street, not northeast, just two blocks away. They have complimentary espresso tasting on Fridays and were serving an air-dried Ethiopean. The owner, Michael Amouri, roasts his own and is knowledgeable about coffee, but allows his baristas to put the complimentary espresso in paper cups. The shot I had from their Victoria Arduino (never saw another) had good crema and a fruity nose with a taste that was fruity, then chocolaty but then tasted of the paper cup. Michael pulled a second shot in ceramic for me which was a little sharper. Their croissants were good: crispy, darker than you find them most places in America, the way they should be, flaky, sweet and buttery. They serve soup; the squash soup was good, and they serve sandwiches. The walls are covered with vintage and not-so-vintage rock and roll album covers and I hear that occasionally they play them. The ambiance of the café was relaxing both times that I went there; I do not remember if any music was playing. If there was, it was not R&R.
At Modern Times Coffeehouse (early Sunday morning enter through the back door of the Politics and Prose Bookstore that houses it) they were pulling Destroyer by Ceremony on their La Marzocco Linea. It had a sharp nose and tasted toasty, then blackberry, then cinnamon and then finished with an unusual flavor: it had a beefy, cheesy, proteinaceous quality about it in common with an aspect of the taste of soy sauce; I want to call it an umami note. I never experienced anything like that before. All-in-all, a good cup. Their croissants were the smallest that I have ever seen. They were crispy but only slightly flaky, almost bready. The flavor was nondescript.
In all candor, all cafes visited must be mentioned. This is the place to mention Caribou Coffee in a Fairfax, Virginia mall near Monument Drive. The espresso started out roasty, then caramel, then hazelnut, then the flavor lightened but became difficult to characterize. The espresso was good but the croissants were scary; they looked as if they were stamped out of little loaves of bread and I was not inspired to pay money for one.
On Sunday morning Dean and Deluca in Georgetown inspire a steady stream of coffee drinkers; most take their cups to go. The loyalty is either because they are the first café to open at 7am, or their drinks are good; I will not speak for the many mouths on line. They were pulling Counter Culture’s Espresso Toscano with their La Marzocco. It had a thin crema and thin body. It tasted nutty, then vanilla, then creamy, then flat. Perhaps the paper cup they served it in had something to do with it, perhaps not. They were apologetic about the paper cups but diverted the blame onto the Washington, DC board of health, which forbade ceramic cups because D&D would have to install a dish sterilizer out onto the covered patio which housed the café. Their croissants had a minimal crust and were bready inside. There was a nice baked flavor, moderately sweet and very slightly buttery. They were cold and perhaps victims of the overnight cooler. I would have expected more from the vaunted D&D.
Last, and for that reason, least comes Bocato Gelato (no boldface for them). Bottom line, with Northside Social on the same street, Wilson Boulevard, and not so far away, why would anyone go here? The barista, who was zoned out in front of a large flatscreen, reluctantly ambled over to the Synesso machine to pull me an espresso and just as lackadaisically answered my question that they were grinding Stumptown Hairbender. The cup started out with a grape taste, then an uncharacterized sharp taste, then a chocolate taste, finishing with a note of black pepper. A strange succession of flavors for Hairbender but not entirely unpleasant, except for the sharp taste. The café had a large open floor space filled with several tables, bric-a-brac and a large, overstuffed comfy sofa, except the large flatscreen TV with the CNN or FOX style newsfeed that gave the place the flavor of an airport gate lounge. There was one other person there. I tried two flavors of gelato and, mercifully, I forgot what they were. I was not inspired to write down anything about them, except that they were acceptable for carnival ice cream, but nowhere near flavorful enough for gelato. I give this place a year or two, at the most. This might be the place to say to visit Arlington, you must feed the kitty. Whether you go to Northside Social or (gasp) Boccato Gelato, there is no free parking and all unmetered curbs require local parking permits. Arlington maintains an active cadre of meter maids – I got a ticket six minutes after my parking pass expired.
ME Swings on G street. This old, venerable roaster in the heart of DC near the White House was a must visit on my list of places. Unfortunately, I missed opportunity to visit on a Friday, and did not notice that they were closed on the weekend. Maybe next time.
Finally, let me end this limited foray into VA-DC coffee by saying that there are a plethora of bistros (not coffee houses) along Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown; but this seems a fertile ground for a vanguard reviewer to explore. I may do it next time if some else does not chime in the meantime.
Brief disclaimer on chance: the weather, the machine, the skill of the barista, distractions among skilled baristas all combine to make each café visit unique. Brief disclaimer on taste: the sensation of flavor has the greatest variability among reporters when compared to our more common experiences regarding sights and sounds. Brief disclaimer on scope: it is not possible for The Java Sojourner to visit even a significant fraction of baristas in a given locale; your contributions regarding missed opportunities are a valuable addition.
Posted Wed Nov 14, 2012, 9:03am Subject: Re: TJS: Washington DC, Northern Virginia, Fairfax County, Arlington, Vienna
Thank you for taking the time to reply, Bushrod. Hope you have a chance to second or correct these opinions.
It is interesting what accessories become the sine qua non of a good cup of espresso. For some, the correctly-shaped ceramic cup is absolutely essential. For me, the perfect croissant becomes the perfect mouth-foil for tasting. Having lived two blocks away from a shop owned by a pastry chef trained at Cordon Bleu in Paris and at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, among other notable training experiences, perfect croissants have entered my life. Since I move around a lot, I am always on the lookout for the best croissants in the area in which I live, or travel. It is analogous to coffee: 90% of what is available merely conforms to the appearance, 5% are sincere efforts that fall short of mastery and 5% are the quality for which we search. May you be well and happy and perfectly caffeinated.
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