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Why Restaurant Coffee is Getting Better Right Now

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

The restaurant coffee problem is an evergreen topic among coffee professionals, those who watch the industry, and anyone who ever goes out to eat anywhere at all. Food providers, from punks who do the highest-end artisanal donuts out of a tricked-out van to the white-tablecloth-and-napkin set, may be genius-like in preparing comestibles...and will then smack you in the throat with the worst tasting coffee imaginable. Stale urns of scorchy, low-quality coffee, or perhaps a thin and bitter espresso prepared by the bus-boy. Why, for the love of all things warm and brown, why?

Aiming to change that are several restaurants of the new guard and some of the traditional guard as well. In New York, Danny Meyer's restaurants have been at the forefront of treating coffee as a genuine, seasonal menu selection rather than a food-service-truck afterthought: Maialino and his former interest Eleven Madison Park even have dedicated coffee bars within the restaurants themselves, while Gramercy Tavern offers a French press tasting menu, as does Union Square Cafe. Chicago favorites like Publican and Lula offer French press or Chemex to order, and nouveau-Southern Empire State South in Atlanta features full, trained coffee and espresso services as part of its day and night menus.

Even so, it's still uncommon to see a fine restaurant get wild about a particular coffee and attempt to present it with the service and respect of even an above-average coffeebar. To this end, TriBeCa NY's Atera has tried to smash the mold a bit, ordering an exclusive lot of a rarefied coffee—a Colombian strain of the famous Esmeralda Geisha coffee—and making quite the hullabaloo.

The coffee, sourced and roasted by Barismo of Cambridge, Mass., but purchased in exclusivity by Atera, is the showpiece of their coffee program, which is currently only prepared via a Chemex brewer. (The owners of Atera previously ran RBC NYC next door, a now-shuttered coffee shop famous for innovation and variety.) As is Atera's experimental cuisine heavy on the, shall we say, niggling details, so is Barismo's roasting. Manager Ben Pratt, formerly of RBC, says Barismo "Definitely has a very particular approach to roasting, they're really into slow development and the coffees hold up really well as they age." A brewed-to-order Chemex of the coffee, which serves about two, is $18.

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This particular Geisha is from the Trujillo Valle of Colombia, and Atera has dibs on all 100 lbs brought in by Barismo. They expect to have enough to last about 15 weeks, with a short seasonal break in August to feature another coffee. In the cup, this Geisha brings a huge aroma and a taste that is exceptionally floral up front, fluttering into light/sweet honey with enough acidity to keep it lively. It is gracious and gentle and explains why an entire book was written about the Panamanian version of this special coffee.

It shouldn't be hard to treat coffee like Atera does, as a menu ingredient with as much consideration as any other. Yet "it's kind of a world that most restaurateurs or chefs don't know that much about," admits Pratt.

Some point to financial barriers, like the entry cost of an espresso machine and the time to train. But at $37, a Chemex brewer is hardly a financial barrier to entry. And some of the barriers are simply tradition. In cities like New York, where espresso equipment has for decades been part of the package sold to you by your roaster—they'll bring the grinder and machine and fix it, if you stick to brand of beans—the coffee itself becomes the afterthought of a kitchen-simplifying service package. Kind of like choosing which dish detergent you get with the dishwasher contract.

"I think that serving great coffee means paying attention to your program as a whole," says Sam Lipp, General Manager at Union Square Cafe, where seasonal single origin coffee is offered in brew-to-order press-pots. "Everything from selecting a great partner as a roaster, to acquiring and maintaining top quality equipment, to staff training and education, to product freshness and rotation, to technical execution and delivery." Lipp says shelling out for a multi-thousand dollar espresso machine isn't the only way required to pay attention to coffee as well as please customers. "You can produce delicious coffee in a myriad of different ways," says Lipp. You simply have to take the time to do it right.

So for those of us who seek food and coffee in the same place from time to time, exclusives like Atera's are little watersheds. Though for some, it will always be easier to order coffee with the dish detergent: people who take the time to really care will see their point proved in the cup, and diners will end more and more meals, for a change, with a good taste in their mouths.

About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.

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