Friday, February 29, 2008

Everything Here Is FRESH. I Will Do Well, Here

If you ever wanted an illustration of the difference between fresh, home-grown food and what you get at the store, this is it. I understand that the color of the yolk is primarily due to what the chicken eats, but eggs with orange yolks do not show up at the local market. This is the result of free-roaming chickens eating whatever they damn well please... including lots and lots of corn and sunflower seeds from my squirrel feed bag. It's such visible differences between stores and home-grown that makes me want my own farm so terribly, horribly badly.

I Talk About Coffee Too Much

I made a very small cappuccino, today. I took some photos of it. I thought you'd like to see them. I have this strange obsession with taking things that are usually of medium-to-large size and pulling a Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Drink on them. Or, if it's alcoholic and I'm a few in, Honey-I-Drunk-the-Shrink. It's not easy making a drink that small. I also thought I'd take this time to talk about the machine on which the drink was made: the Jura Capresso Z5.

I've been using the Z5 for well over a year, now. Our family welcomed the bouncing, baby espresso machine last Christmas and it's just learning its first words. Well, I should say it learned its first words when I figured out I could program its display to say things. Like "Addict" and "I hate you."

I've played around with a number of super-automatics, including Jura Capresso's other full-autos, and this is definitely the best. Many of the other options, including the Jura S9, are really good (Avoid the E-Series. Yuck), but if espresso is truly your thing, you'll probably be underwhelmed with the temperature control and consistency of these models. Until the Z5, I figured that if you wanted really good espresso, you would need to get a stand-alone model, a stand-alone grinder, grind, tamp, pull, repeat.

The Z5/Z6 (The Z6 is identical save for the chrome front) is the best super-auto machine on the market and I am consistently impressed by the espresso it produces. I would be hard-pressed to make better shots every time. And after my previous experiences, I was wary of laying down such serious scratch for a machine with few reviews.

I'm generally glad I did. It is true push-button espresso. You push a button, it burps up espresso and steamed milk. It has spoiled me. The best espresso I can now get is in my very own kitchen. The milk comes out steamed very, very well. It's fast, it's quiet, and it's oh-so-sexy.

I said generally glad because it does have come quirks. Just because it's full-auto doesn't mean there isn't art in its operation. Steaming milk requires constant fiddling with the steam gauge, and the lack of a steam wand means that you don't get the visceral satisfaction of steaming your own milk. More importantly, the lack of control in the process means you cannot easily control how your milk comes out.

The espresso machine is very good, but since you aren't tamping your own grinds, it strips yet another element of control. This is obviously a desired thing if you own this machine, it certainly was for me, but the size of the machine means a second, lever-activated machine isn't practical on limited counter space. I'm OK with giving up that control for such streamlined operation, but I would very much have enjoyed a steam wand attachment that would allow me to steam my own milk.

Finally, as I guess one would expect but I sadly didn't, cleaning the machine is a bitch. I have to go spelunking through its innards with a pipe cleaner to get at all the cracks and crevices that the clean cycle leaves behind. The inside gets amazingly dirty and I sometimes just face the machine at the sink and blast away with the faucet sprayer.

So, was it worth it? It cost over $3,000, but a good espresso machine will cost anywhere between $500 to $1,000. A conical burr grinder will cost another $300. And all the other addenda of good espresso making will likely add another $200. So, really, the question is whether the automation the machine affords you is worth around $1,500. For me, it was, and I'm glad I bought it.

On a note about good milk steaming, the photo of my mini-ccino shows what good milk foam should look like. And that's not even what I would call excellent foam. That's just very good. Now scroll down and look at what Starbucks gave me. You can see what I mean.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Welcome Back KotterI MEAN Local Barista!

I went down to the closest Starbucks to see if the much-ballyhooed training session did anything. Well, from my experience, it made things worse. As I've said before, I've never gotten anything but good to very good espresso drinks from Starbucks. Maybe I've just been lucky since the Starbucks 'round these here parts aren't as busy as some other, more metro locations.

I had been to the location I tested two days previously, so I guess that's as close to experimental conditions as we're going to get. I got the same thing today as I got then, a triple-shot venti latte. It is, without a doubt in my mind, the worst latte I've ever had at a Starbucks location. Did they re-set the espresso machine? Did they recalibrate the whole store? I have no idea. The espresso was weak, and, as you can see from the picture, the milk was not steamed well at all.

It's not the worst latte I've ever had. It was acceptable, and I'm wondering if this is the quality that other people have been getting from their Starbucks. If that's the case, then the panic about re-booting the whole chain is very well-founded. I guess what makes this all so funny is that the latte before the training was much better than the latte after the training.

I went to another Starbucks, this one inside a Stop & Shop, a few hours later. Locations such as this were apparently spared from the training sessions, and the young woman working the counter had little knowledge of the event. She made me a latte using Starbucks' old methods and, lo and behold, it was a good latte. It's all very strange.

Welcome Back Your Local Barista!

Well, if you haven't already done so, you should go down to your local Starbucks and see how your favorite barista is doing. Yesterday, every Starbucks in the country closed from 5:30pm to 9:00pm for "remedial training." This was done to combat a decline in the quality of drinks at Starbucks. This is the second major announcement after the decision to eliminate the egg sandwiches.

Many people have questioned whether this was really needed, and no, I don't think it was. But man, was it great publicity. This was millions in free advertising to drive home to the public that Starbucks is dedicated to quality drinks.

Frankly, I've been on the better end of Starbucks drinks. I've never had a drink from a Starbucks that I would call any less than "good." I had a crap cup of coffee once, but that seems like a pretty minor sin.

So, yes. Go visit your barista and see how the new training went! I heard that one talent they would be taught was free-pouring steamed milk. Bravo!

Starbucks Closes Between 5:30 and 9:00 P.M. on Tuesday to Perfect the Art of Espresso (Starbucks Corporate)
Coffee Break: All Starbucks Closing (CBS News)
Starbucks To Get Rid of Egg Sandwiches (Starbucks Gossip)

Monday, February 25, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Brewed Awakenings- ++ / $$

Great atmosphere and a wide selection are the highlights of this decent URI haunt. Located in a relatively new economic development that's otherwise in the middle of nowhere, Brew-Awk, as I shall call it, has the distinct advantage of being right off of Route 1. Early hours and quick access to a main road make Brew-Awk a good choice for the morning routine. It's an excellent option for URI students to come and just hang out, soaking up the free Wi-Fi. I was impressed with the size and openness of the dining area. Very airy, very comfortable, with good acoustics for holding conversations. Lots of comfy chairs are littered about, with most of them usually taken up with said URI students. It's very busy, so be prepared to either leave or wait for seating. I was also impressed with the wide selection of food. The snacks were numerous, and the small menu of sandwiches ensures that those looking for a evening spot to relax will be fully accommodated. I got an egg sandwich and it was good. Prices were all competitive.

Espresso was acceptable. Better than Bagelz, but inferior to many of the other nearby options. The barista didn't foam the milk very well and they chose a strange roast for their espresso shots. It was weak, a little bit earthy, with sour tones that didn't go well with the latte. The mocha wasn't. Very little chocolate flavor at all. Sweet, but where's the chocolate? Chai was, as it seems everywhere, Big Train. I've encountered this a few times, but somehow, some places actually screw up Big Train chai. I don't know how. You follow the directions, and bamf!, chai. Jitters did that once. It tasted like chai-flavored water. This place isn't as bad as that day at Jitters, but it wasn't acceptable. Considering how easy it is to make chai, it should be perfect 100% of the time.

All in all, a very good local hangout and a decent cafe. I'm giving it two checks, but that's a bit of an understatement. The atmosphere, menu, and overall good design compensate for otherwise unimpressive coffee. Seeing that I'm only ten to fifteen minutes away, I'll probably go back.

NOTE: There are multiple Brewed Awakenings locations. This review covers the newest, Route 1 location exclusively. I have never been to the Johnston or Providence locations. Considering their size, it's surprising they don't have a web site.

Brewed Awakenings: ++
Price range for two: $6-$10

View Larger Map

60 S County Commons Way
South Kingstown, RI 02879

Monday through Thursday 6:00am to 11:00pm
Friday through Sunday 6:00am to 12:00am

Thursday, February 21, 2008

REVIEW: Coffee Exchange- **** / $$

Coffee Exchange is like a case study in how to do a cafe correctly. Laser-like in its focus, and immensely popular, this is one of Rhode Island's best cafes. It's also one of Rhode Island's busiest. Even on slow nights, Tuesday or Wednesday, Coffee Exchange is bumping, with every table, except my own, hosting two more more people. They accommodate the slavering hordes as best they can with some of the best hours this side of 24/7, open at 6:30am and closed at 11:00pm. Thus, they grab every coffee rush the day has to hold. They don't offer the full morning routine, but if you're nearby and you don't get your coffee here, well, you're pretty dumb.

As Starbucks showed, profits can be made by moving away from your core product to supporting items, like egg sandwiches, but the loss of focus transforms you into something different. This isn't necessarily negative, but a loss of association with a single product, in this case coffee-related drinks, means you are no longer a cafe. You are no longer just about the coffee. Coffee Exchange is just about the coffee.

Obviously, Coffee Exchange has the usual offerings that go well with coffee, such as some éclairs, biscotti, and cookies, but that's it. 95% of the floor space is dedicated to coffee. Beans, machines, and of course the drinks all dominate the atmosphere, the signs, the menu, and the smells. Just being in Coffee Exchange is a sensory experience that outclasses most cafes. The only objects not related to coffee are the walls full of local happenings which remind you of how painfully bohemian this place is. I don't mean to deride its nature as Bohemia, because Bohemia is nice. Coffee exchange is a hangout for refugees from RISD, Brown, Providence College, and nearby high schools. Clad in clothing purchased at Savers, or made at great cost to look like it was purchased at Savers, the students sit, sip their coffee, and suffer through the extreme pain of being so non-conformist and brilliant. Again, I'm making fun. But in places so far removed from CofEx, I laugh so that I do not weep. Here, I laugh because I know, that deep down, they're laughing, too. I would prefer those who live in the clouds over any Earthen salt. CofEx has a great crowd.

Coffee Exchange is a very warm, cozy environment. Very cozy if you consider the crowds. At times, the popularity easily outstretches the building's capacity. This is especially problematic during the winter, when the deck area becomes useless. A few people like to sit out in the cold, warmed only by there drink, but for the majority of folks, this isn't an option. Thus, table space is at a premium. The back of the cafe is dominated by a large counter and coffee display, with the roaster proudly visible through a doorway. A few small cases show off some pastries and whatnot, but the giant menu, wide variety of whole-bean coffee, roaster, and espresso machines make no illusions that this place isn't all about the coffee. You can buy the beans, every machine you need, and ask for advice.

Stepping up to the counter, you can order from a selection of over thirty beans, with a dozen or so single-origin varieties. I have to admit, I know it's cool to have the beans open for scooping, but I'd really prefer air-tight containers. One of the reasons coffee seems to be in a different league in places like Coffee Exchange is because the coffee makes the shortest trip possible between the roaster and your cup. Anything longer allows more and more oxidation to take place which has a noticeable effect on the character and quality of beams. This isn't a French-wine-snob kind of difference in taste, this is a major difference that anyone would notice. You want your beans as fresh as possible and keeping them in open-air containers is not fresh.

They have a wide variety of available drinks, and you can ask to have specific roasts used in any drink. They don't have the large list on display that Starbucks does, but the baristi are all skilled and can make anything you want. The tea selection is good, but I think they could do better. That's not to say it isn't more than acceptable, but it's very easy to offer an enormous variety. Yes, as I said, CofEx is all about the coffee, but if you're going to offer tea, offer tea. They also have chai available. Like, actual chai. Not Big Train, or some chai mix. It was good.

In coffee, though, they are almost peerless. I got the single best mocha I've ever had. The chocolate and espresso was in perfect balance, and the milk foam was thick, rich, and chocolaty. It wasn't very sweet, but that's what I liked about it. The chocolate and the espresso were allowed to bring out each other's flavor. I proceeded to have a latte which was as well done as could be. The espresso was flavorful, the milk and foam were both excellent and everything was in balance. The espresso was a well-rounded flavor; neither heavy nor light. Distinct notes of chocolate accentuated a very dark, earthy character. Absolutely no bitterness allowed the subtle sweetness of the espresso to really reveal itself. This... fullness of such freshly roasted coffee is what I talk about when extolling freshly roasted beans. Once you've had it on a regular basis, that's it. Old, stale, or poorly prepared coffee is bitter, or sour, or watery. These are things you notice.

As I mentioned, they have an array of sweets to munch on, but they take up a very small part of the floorspace. They're almost an after thought. I find that negative. On busy days, they run out quickly and they never seem to re-stock. What they do have is very good and goes perfectly with the coffee, but a larger selection would be really nice. As far as the menu goes, this is the only weakness, and puts CofEx solidly behind places that offer a wider array of goods, like Pastiche, or even Morning Routine haunts, like Jitters.

I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself by praising then criticizing their coffee-focus, but half-hearted efforts in any way are negative. The business focus is excellent, as is the coffee. The atmosphere is everything a college hangout should be. A dining area filled with eclectic people being eclectic the best way one can be; over a drink you have a hard time pronouncing. Still, the lack of a compelling menu of food to support the coffee makes it hard to recommend Coffee Exchange as a place that you should go out of your way to visit. Especially with Pastiche also in Providence, where they offer a more well-rounded experience of coffee and dessert. Granted, they can't touch CofEx's variety of coffee and ability to make anything you want. Coffee Exchange is excellent, but not excellent enough for me to tell you to definitely make the trip instead of going to Updike's Newtowne, Caffe Bon Ami, or True Brew Cafe. If you fancy yourself a coffee gourmet, then this is a must visit, but if you just want a great cappuccino, there's probably a place nearby that will get the job done.

UPDATE 9/14/2008: I now know CofEx's dirty, little secret. They get their cakes and whatnot from Gregg's. DumDumDUMMMMM. Lowly Gregg's! No strange, esoteric woman who makes cakes in her pot-filled greenhouse. I wonder if the Bohemian elite would still feel as special if they knew they were eating simple Gregg's cakes.

Coffe Exchange: ****
Price range for two: $5-$9

View Larger Map

207 Wickenden St.
Providence, RI 02903

All Week 6:30am to 11:00pm

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Day in New York.

I was in New York the previous day, and aside from being as puzzled as ever about some smells, it was a good time. New York is many things, and one of the few good things is that it's a culinary paradise. Unless you want to travel to So-Cal, Paris, or Tokyo, there is no other city on Earth with the wide array of foods and such high levels of quality. Everything about NY is great. Even the street vendors are producing better food than some restaurants in such backwater places like Rhode Island.

So, unfortunately, the trip only lasted a day, but I got to as many places I've never been as I could. I didn't hit up any of the prestigious locations, like Per Se in the Time Warner center, or Masa... Ohhhh Masa, how I've wanted to try you. Still, I did, finally, thankfully, get a chance to go to the mecca of Italian food in this country, Lombardi's Pizzeria. The patriarch, Gennaro Lombardi, came over to the US in the late 1800's and was the very first pizza joint to register for a license when it was required in 1905. Thus, Lombardi's can claim to be the first pizzeria in the US, and their website declares that loudly and clearly;

So, here are the places I went.

Lombardi's Pizzeria: It was as good as I guess I could have expected. I must admit, I was expecting Zen pizza, or something, but it just turned out to be good pizza. The sauce was very light and sweet. A sauce that very much relies on quality tomatoes than spices. The cheese was fabulously fresh. We had a margherita and a white pizza. The white was the pizza that really let them show off their quality cheese. I guess Rhode Island spoiled me. We've got so many Italians running around that one of them, someone, was going to start selling pizza as good as Lombardi's. And, yeah, the final product was as good as I've had around RI. Still, it did nothing to sully the experience. The pizza was very good, although a bit expensive, the atmosphere was great, and service was fast. I feel much more satisfied with life.

Guy & Gallard: A small chain exclusive, apparently, to Manhattan. Busy as hell. The insides are appointed in a light, modern, and trendy way. The menu is small but focused. Everything I had was good and the whole place is competitively priced. They have the Morning Routine thing down pat, with a good selection of bagels, yummy muffins, and very good coffee and espresso. Breakfast foods are served until 11am-ish. They seem to concentrate on lunch and breakfast. They close at 9pm, and nothing is big or heavy enough to really count as dinner. If I lived in NY, I would probably make this place a frequent visit for coffee and muffins. The multiple locations also make it a reasonable alternative to Starbucks if you're into corporation-hating, or something.

Pinkberry: I got to eat at a Pinkberry! I had heard of them, but I thought them only a California chain. I'm so glad to see their expansion campaign as aggressive as it is. And man! Was it cute. They really need to make Hello Kitty their mascot. The layout is similar to Coldstone Creamery, where you pick your basic flavor of ice cream and then select ingredients to have mashed into it. Except, here, it's yogurt and they don't mash in the ingredients, they just dump them on top. The frozen yogurt was tart, sweet, and oh so yummy. The ingredients were... weird. Chocolate chips, a variety of very fresh fruit, cereal(?), carob chips, and chestnuts. Maybe cereal in yogurt is common, but I've never done it, and I think you're a communist if you have. They need to ditch the Japanese shop-club motif on the inside. Everything was very bright, very white, and very plastic. Judging from the volume and choice of music played, I'm assuming that Pinkberry thinks it's a techno club. Fools. They can't do that unless they offer ecstasy as a topping. I really like Pinkberry and hope that a location arrives in RI soon.

Cosi: I now know they're all about the country, but the one on 31st and Park was my first exposure to one. Ostensibly, just yet another entrant in the growing casual-dining market segment. They seem to be aiming themselves at the same trendy (or wannabe trendy) urbanite that Panera Bread has targeted. They do enough differently to make their existence worthwhile. Coffee and espresso are certainly better than Panera Bread, which isn't hard. The Paneras I've dined couldn't steam milk if their bloody lives depended on it. And around me, it sometimes does. There's one nearby, in Mansfield MA, which means it's too far away to make the trip, but if this place was next to a TGI Fridays or an Applebees, I know where I'd go. In general, a worthy, well-priced place.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Sedra Cafe- +++ / $$

On a recent trip to URI's emporioum, I was walking back to the car along the sidewalk and decided to stop staring at my shoelaces and become aware of my surroundings. Oh how I'm glad I did.I found a gem of a cafe just getting down to business. Sedra cafe has been open since September '07 and I can only assume it's giving Bagelz a little something to think about. It's a cafe/hookah lounge, so if you don't like the smell of flavored tobacco coming out of small, table-mounted chimneys, I'd recommend avoiding Sedra in the later hours. I have since confirmed that, yes, Sedra is exceptionally busy in the later hours, remaining bumping until 1,2, even 3:00am. For college students, I think this is great because it gives them a place to hang out that isn't some seedy bar where they get drunk, kidnapped, have all of their organs stolen, and get sold into slavery in Cambodia.

I've heard that happens.

But for the daytime crowd, Sedra is, just generally, one of the best places to while away an hour or two in the area. The inside is fantastically adorned, with cushions, pillows, and other Arabic-looking decor. They take the comfy, snuggle-up-with-a-book aesthetic to new heights for the usually more downmarket area. Deep, dark reds, golds, and browns, all wrapped up a believable Arabic motif create a cocoon of opulence that is truly unique for the South County area. This is one of the nicest restaurants to just sit in for quite a distance.

Coffee and espresso is very good, even though my cappuccino was more a latte. Regardless of nit-picking about milk, espresso, and foam ratios, Sedra is easily the best bet for URI students to get a cup of espresso. The cappuccinos I've had are leagues ahead of Bagelz and Brewed Awakenings. The milk was velvety and rich, the mixture was strong, and choice of roast was decent. I would have preferred it darker, truth be told. I would have also liked a wider selection of drink flavors, toppings, and sweetener. Nothing against ordinary sugar, but I like honey and turbinado sugar more. Also, and this is a big one, I would really like to see take-out. Sometimes I'm on the run, but I still want great espresso. All things considered, if you consider yourself an espresso connoisseur, this is your only choice.

The menu is achored by a nice selection of competitively priced sandwiches that would be exotic if not for ninety other places in the emporium also offering hummus. Desserts were affordable and of good quality and smoothies made with fresh fruit are very satisfying. As a place to sit and enjoy a well-made espresso, Sedra is the best option for those on or nearby URI. Unfortunately, as I said, they're not competing with Bagelz in the Morning Routine business, as they don't even offer drinks to go. Hopefully they'll start doing this soon. After that, they will be the best espresso in town.

Sedra Cafe: +++
Price range for two: $5-$10

View Larger Map

99 Fortin Rd
Kingston, RI 02881

Saturday, February 16, 2008

REVIEW: Bagelz- ** / $$

Bagelz has been serving up coffee and bagels to needy URI students for years. Their combination of free Wi-Fi, good selection, nice lounging area, and long hours have made them a favorite. I have to admit, they've certainly hit on something since, against my best judgement, I continue to go. I'm not sure why.

Both Bagelz locations scream "college hangout." Their doors are covered in local happenings, band fliers, and calls for roommates. The inside is stuffed with coolers, counters, tables, and girls in lots of denim and Ugg boots. At the Kingston location there's an upstairs lounge-like place from where you can look down on the first floor. Smelly chairs with unidentified stains are strewn about with a few tables. Sporting a laptop, I can't think of a better place to blow an afternoon. There is an undeniable and ineffable charm that comes from a college hangout. A charm that cannot be bought.

After the small, flier-covered portway, you're immediately presented with your choice of reading for the day and a display case full of muffins, biscuits, and goodies. Their general selection is very good, and they have a wide variety of brewed coffee flavors. Their variety of espresso drinks is... not so good. They have a cappuccino, latte, and mocha. That's it. Nothing inventive, but that's fine as long as the espresso is good. Well, slight problem there, but we'll get back to it later.

They have a wide selection of bagels which are reduced to a decent selection of bagels after a short time on any given day. Twelve varieties can be brought down to six pretty easily. They also have a dynamite variety of spreads for the bagels, from ordinary butter, all the way to red-pepper hummus. Almost expected, Bagelz has very good bagels and are the saving grace of the entire establishment. Nearly the entire menu is anchored with bagels, and bagels are an option with all selections.

Their baked goods are all decent. A few kinds of cookies, biscotti, cakes, and buns all act as suitable back-up to a cup of coffee or a cappuccino as you browse the web on their free internet and listen to employee-chosen CD's skip every minute and a half. But as I hinted at, for a cafe to provide decent backup to a cup of coffee, the coffee really needs to be good. And good it ain't.

I have had weaker coffee, though I really can't remember when. It had zero body, was watery, and had a faint bitterness. It had great aroma, which was weird considering how terribly weak it was. That was only my most recent visit. I've been other times and have never, I repeat, never had a very good cup of coffee. I've had decent. I've even had good, but never very good. I don't get it. It's not hard to make a great cup of coffee. The instructions are simple and available in books, on websites, and from every secretary on Earth.

The espresso is worse. I have had the third worst cappuccino of my life at Bagelz. The first was one from a vending machine, and the second was the very first one I ever made. They apparently foamed the milk by blowing through a straw, pulled the espresso as fast as they could, didn't bother grinding the beans and just put them in whole, and used 1% milk that, as 1% usually does, tasted like water. It was a really, really bad cappuccino. The worst of the worst aside, I've never had a very good espresso drink, either. This single cappuccino was exceptionally bad, but I've had ones that came close. Every time, I tell myself it's impossible. That no business open for as long as Bagelz could actually be hawking such horrendous espresso. Every time, I'm disappointed. Tea-lovers, though, are in luck. Bagelz has recently started stocking Mighty Leaf, and in a wide variety. Mighty Leaf is some excellent tea and it's no different here.

The coffee notwithstanding, I keep going back. Now and then, I feel the urge to go hang out at a nice, collegiate place, watching scruffy professors wander in and out, watching scruffy non-conformist musicians look angst-ridden, and watching the seemingly endless array of girls in Ugg boots. I do like Bagelz, but for a reason that isn't entirely because of Bagelz. They provide the environment that invites the atmosphere. The small, cafe-like tables, the music, the upstairs lounge with stained chairs. Bagelz works in spite of itself. If only the coffee matched the atmosphere. Hell, if only the coffee was acceptable.

Bagelz is a perfect example of a place that succeeds for sheer lack of competition. There are a few cafes in nearby downtown Wakefield, but on URI campus, their competition until recently had pretty much consisted of places that offered "coffee" and a Tim Horton's which recently transmogrified into a Quizno's. They were the only place that offered the "morning routine" package of coffee and a bagel/muffin/sandwich, but if another place opened that offered better, I suspect Bagelz wouldn't be long for this world.

Bagelz: **
Price range for two: $7-$12

View Larger Map

99 Fortin Rd
Kingston, RI. 02881

View Larger Map

90 Pershing Ave
Wakefield, RI. 02879

Monday through Thursday 6:00am to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 6:00am to 7:00pm
Sunday 6:00am to 4:00pm

Monday through Friday 6:00am to 6:00pm
Saturday & Sunday 6:00am to 5:00pm

Monday, February 11, 2008

One No-Foam, Triple-Venti, Half-Caf, Alpacino, Please.

Risking the revelation that I eat crap every now and then, I actually like Starbucks' egg sandwiches. No, they're not gourmet, but they're more than edible, and they're leagues better than comparable offerings from McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and their ilk. But the fact remains that I have mentioned those brands in the same breath as Starbucks, and that's the very reason I'm writing this.

Starbucks is in a bit of trouble. I think it's being a bit overblown because of Starbucks' high-flying stock up until recently, and as such any stumble is seen as catastrophe. Starbucks has, even as it's grown to an utterly ubiquitous brand, maintained a sense of exclusivity and cachet. This is changing. As the opportunities for new Starbucks began dropping, in the search for new locations the powers that be began opening in crappy areas and in amounts too great for given areas. For example, there are over thirty Starbucks on Manhattan. There’s only one chain with more: McDonalds. That will figure in later, but for now, Starbucks problems.

Much ink has been spilt about this over the last few months, most recently in the New York Times. More specifically, the Saturday, January 12th New York Times. It's written in the style of a letter to Howard Schultz. The same style that seemingly everyone on the friggin' web has been writing their comments on the Starbucks situation.

It's all in response to a letter Howard Schultz wrote to his executive team early last year. Basically, Schultz is decrying the loss of character in Starbucks. He misses the aroma, the theater, and the character of the "neighborhood" coffee house. And that's really it. He misses the character that Starbuckses used to have. I, sadly, wouldn't know. Living in Rhode Island, we didn't really get any Starbucks until well after they had lost all of the character he now misses.

I think the New York Times article hits the point best. The other major posting about the subject was done by a pair of ex-Starbucks marketers at The Idea Sandbox and Brand Autopsy, even Schultz, are way off.

I'll start with The Idea Sandbox, because be breaks down Schultz's statements pretty well.

Loss of Theater: This is specifically about the new, fully automatic espresso machines and how there is no longer hand-crafted espresso. Yeah. So. People don't go to a Starbucks for theater. They go for coffee. A loss of theater is not bad. It's much, much more important to get high quality coffee in the hands of customers quickly so they can either leave or sit down. This is not a fancy, high-end cafe.

Idea Sandbox guy, Paul Williams, lists some cons, as he and arguably Schultz see it.
* Beverages seem less hand-crafted. More mechanical, less personal.
* Current automated machines block sight-line between customer and barista.
* Expertise no longer required. Baristas rely on machine and skills become lazy.

All of the negatives are subjective, artistic criticisms that do not apply to everyone and could be seen as bad just as easily as good. Less personal?! This is a business, ditch the namby-pamby words. And I can't believe they're interested in a line of sight between the customer and barista. Fine, lower the counter six inches. Done. This is another non-criticism. In all my times of being in a Starbucks, no one I've ever seen has been interested in watching the barista. They place their order and then just wander off until it's called for pickup. The e-Bar at Nordstrom uses the same La Marzocco, and guess what, people act the same there as at Starbucks. They ignore the barista.

His recommendation is to go semi-automatic. Oh yeah, there's a good idea. Even Williams says how "it may take 3, 4 or 5 trials to get the shot perfect. Quality is the key." No, quality and time are key. If a barista did that they'd either be fired after they finished the shot or the customer would leave. Time is more important. We could always go with his other option, having both a semi-auto and full auto machine in the location. Also bad. Starbucks' kitchens are limited in space for a good reason, to be a well-oiled machine. They can't afford more counter space for a huge espresso machine.

And about no longer requiring expertise, when has that ever, in all of history been bad. The only reason we have affordable cars, and motors, and planes is because all of the work required to build them was taken from skilled machinists and given to less-skilled assembly line workers. The worker became inseparable from the machine, and that's the case in a Starbucks for very good reasons. A barista can be easily taught to analyze a good shot to make sure the machine did it right, and that's all that's needed. Teaching them to use a semi-auto wastes time, both the company's and the employee's.

The second major problem mentioned is the loss of coffee aroma. Both Williams and The NY Times mention this and I'm all for it. Coffee smells amazing! I love the smell of coffee. But merely putting it in stores for the hell of it isn't good enough. It wastes time, energy, and I feel manipulated. No, they need to involve coffee again in making a superior product. Fresh ground coffee, YES! Coffee-scented air fresheners, NO! And the idea of eliminating food in store is also dumb. A company is interested in growth. It should find ways to grow. If the cooking sandwiches are ruining the smell of the coffee, find ways to vent the food smell. Starbucks should try to find new ways to leverage their brand into related products, and egg sandwiches and pastry are related.

I do LOVE Williams' idea of in-store coffee roasting. Unfortunately, this would require stunningly skilled people manning the roast or a machine that does it without user input. Very, very difficult to implement, and damned near impossible on a massive scale. Roasting is an art, I should know, I've tried (and failed catastrophically).

The rest of the articles deals primarily with the marketing aspect and, while being generally accurate, isn't too important for a blog about food.

If you want to have passion, fine, run a small store passionately. Starbucks is NOT about passion anymore, and Schultz's "passion" is negative. He is no longer a cafe owner, he's a business man who is running a mega-conglomerate and he must act that way.

Starbucks has a major problem with McDonalds offering latte and cappuccino. Even if it's a failure, it will commoditize espresso even further, having a ripple effect on how Starbucks is viewed. Starbucks isn’t helping this. In many ways, they’ve been copying McDonalds in marketing direction. Starbucks does everything McD’s does except for television advertising. They need to take drastic steps to ensure that Starbucks is strongly and effectively separated from the burger joints in every conceivable way.

Starbucks has been an unsinkable duck recently, able to open a gazillion stores while still maintain an air of exclusivity. This has been, in my opinion, one of the great marketing feats of the last thirty years. Still, I recently saw a Starbucks open in a Stop & Shop. If you don't know what a Stop & Shop is, the name alone should tell you that it's not a place where Starbucks should be opening stores if they want to maintain brand quality.

Starbucks is a major chain. People WANT to go to the major chain. They enjoy the professionally designed interiors, the lightning fast service engineered by efficiency experts, the variety of expertly packaged foods, and the branded merchandise. It evokes a sense of quality.

Starbucks was totally justified in using automated machines. Starbucks can no longer be the "neighborhood" store. It can straddle the fence a bit, though. By carefully choosing locations, maintaining quality, and never wavering from their brand message and what goes well with coffee, I think they can be the Macy's of the coffee world. Not as cheap as Wal*Mart, not as expensive as Saks 5th Avenue, but still desirable.

I definitely think that coffee should be the primary smell, but never lose focus on the product. That's ALL that matters. If you cannot achieve smell through some process that makes the end product better, forget about it. Grinding coffee on site? That makes the product better and has smell, so good show. Going back to the La Marzocco machine, thus slowing everything down and throwing inconsistency into the coffee, BAD! Forget theater! Forget skilled baristas! This is business and I want a quality latte every, single time I go in. No exceptions. No variations. I want coffee and I want it three minutes ago. I do not expect latte art and master baristas at a Starbucks, and that's fine. I go other places for that experience. I go to Starbucks for the Starbucks experience, which is valuable in and of itself. Quick service, consistent quality, wide selection. That is why I like Starbucks.

And about those egg sandwiches. Coffee goes well with breakfast. Egg sandwiches go well with breakfast. Coffee and eggs go well together. Still, Starbuck’s has chosen to eliminate the egg sandwiches. They did so a week or so ago. At first, I thought this was a bad thing, but I have since changed my mind. I mentioned above that Starbucks needs to differentiate itself from McDonalds. That means they cannot… cannot have anything similar to an Egg Mcmuffin. And please, for the love of God, give me some bloody crackers in the cheese platter.

Friday, February 8, 2008

REVIEW: Jitters Cafe- *** / $$

I realized that cafes do not fit well into my pricing scheme for restaurants... because they are not restaurants. I will implement the same scheme of one to five dollar signs, but instead the prices will represent drinks for two in two-dollar increments.

Jitters Cafe has been a fixture on North Kingstown coffee landscape for over a decade. Jitters location is sort of genius, actually, situated three minutes from the local, large, high school. And if there's a market that wants caffeine, it's teenagers. This becomes painfully... painfully obvious at right about 7am and 2pm, when seemingly the whole of North Kingstown's 16 to 18-year-old population stops in for a hit. I do not think I can stress enough to not go at those times.

Regardless of the teenage infestation (I've heard they've laid down traps) Jitters satisfies. It's nothing terribly special, but the only other local choices are 9,422 Dunkin' Donutses (Donuts, Donodes, Donuts'?), Gatherings Cafe, and Updike's Newtowne. And depending on your direction, the other two cafes may not be an option. And as far as your morning needs, Jitters will not disappoint.

The inside is very small, with a few tables pressed against the walls as a seemingly token effort to be more than pure take-out. The location does nothing to help them. A large, barren parking lot with no real structure, parking lines, or landscaping, all situated next to a large, industrial... something. The building is nice enough and the inside is decorated in a suitably large number of local gewgaws to remind you how quaint they are.

Most of your vision is taken up with a variety of goods, including a large selection of bagels and muffins, all of which are very good. If you hate bagels and muffins, you communist, they also have a selection of tasties like brownies, fudge, and cookies, and a selection of sandwiches. Pretty much all of this is good, and as far as the competition goes, no one matches Jitters in selection and quality. Their multi-berry muffin, with cran, rasp, and blue-type berries, is a personal favorite.

Now, it seems like this place is shaping up to be a four-star cafe, and if the food was all they served, it may very well be, but we run into some trouble with the coffee. To be short, their drip coffee is sometimes downright crappy, not in a Ohh, this Ethiopian roast is so much lighter than that plebeian Columbian, but in a this-coffee-is-burnt kind of way. And their espresso coffee can vary in quality from excellent, to sub-standard. I've had milk foam that looked like it had been steamed with a hair dryer, and if you value your teeth, be leery of asking for your latte or cappuccino to be sweetened.

It seems to depend on who makes your drink and who's brewing the coffee. Really, I don't find this surprising. Jitters is staffed almost exclusively by teenage girls from the community. I can only imagine what Jitters morning rush is like, so many of them probably hate you, and how well can a 17-year-old girl be trained in the fine art of espresso? It is an art. I've met people who have been making it for years and still say that they could do better. Crafting espresso drinks are not something to be handed over to the poorly trained. Foaming milk is difficult!

Starbucks may hire just about anyone, but much of the difficult stuff is handled automatically by $15,000 machines. A place like this can't afford the hiring practices of Starbucks. They need to be more discerning. I suspect that they aren't this way in light of the varying quality of the drinks I've had. That isn't to say that they don't have some skilled baristas, because I had an excellent latte one day, only to get one that was weak, cloying, and nuclear hot, the next.

If I had wanted sweetened milk, I would have asked for it, and the ideal espresso temperature is 150 degrees, give or take a few. I know the machine monitors the temperature of the shot, so the difference was in the milk, which means it was horribly over-steamed. It wasn't scalded, yet, but they were dancing dangerously close.

Now that I'm done ripping them a new one, I'll go back to say that Jitters is NOT bad. In fact, Jitters is a fine cafe with a few caveats that may be explained by either employees or even the clientèle. For example, the super-sweet latte I received may be associated with the teenage customers who bombard Jitters twice a day. The temperature may be for those who grab their coffee and run, having little time to drink it until later, thus providing good cool-down time. The burnt coffee... ok, well, that's bad no matter how you look at it.

Jitters is a winner with its large selection of bagels, muffins, and goodies. And if you take some precautions, you're going to get good coffee and espresso, too. Ask when the coffee was brewed, if they don't know, get an espresso. If you get an espresso, ask to add the sweetener yourself. And after getting it, test it with your finger so you don't require a tongue transplant. Jitters is not the finely tuned gourmet experience in coffee that you can get at Coffee Exchange, or the nearby Updike's Newtowne, but it's an excellent place for a morning routine.

Jitters Cafe: ***
Price range for two: $5-$10

View Larger Map
(The Google map is woefully inaccurate. The location is north of the arrow.

530 Tower Hill Rd
North Kingstown, RI 02852

Monday through Friday 6:00am to 5:00pm
Saturday 8:00am to 3:00pm

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

REVIEW: India- **** / $$

I have withheld a review of India for some time. I was afraid that since India was my first experience with Indian food oh-so-many years ago that I would think them better than they actually were. Well, after all this time, and a number of other Indian experiences, India remains the best Indian food in Rhode Island.

India has two locations, one in Providence down the street from competing Rasoi, and one in Warren. They are both gorgeously appointed. They are some of the most nicely designed restaurants in Rhode Island. Much better than many high-end places, like the decorative abortion at L'Epicureo. Small lights twinkle. Candles glow. Golds, browns, and dark woods hide in shadow as warm light illuminates the room. There are countless details that are modern yet very Indian, including the paintings, pictures, and furniture. Both India's are very relaxing, romantic environs that make perfect battlegrounds for a raid on someone else's innocence. Wink wink, nudge nudge, knowwhatImean knowwhatImean?

India really seemed to be on its way to complete dominance of the local Indian scene with the opening of a third location in East Greenwich some years ago. The East Greenwich location closed recently, only to have its place taken by a second location for the well-known Siena, but I digress. I can't describe how sad I was to see it go. The only other Indian restaurant near me, The Indian Club, also closed its doors around the same time, to be replaced by the new Black & Blue. So the closing of both places seems to indicate no interest in Indian food in the area, instead of bad business decisions on the parts of the owners. There seems to be no limit to the steakhouse market, though, with the local, beef-swilling gourmands willing to eat as much steak as can be shipped in. I'm now left with no Indian food to excite my palate! I don't have time to make my own damned curry. All the good places are in Providence and the surrounding areas, a solid 30-minute-plus drive for me. I could go to the Indian Grille, in Newport, but who the hell wants to do that? Newport's full of meth addicts, yuppies, and brain-eating zombies.

Again, I digress. Service is good. The wait staff is usually friendly and food comes out quickly. You get some special attention if it's a slow night and the owners are around. There can be a wait on Friday and Saturday, but it's usually pretty short. Both locations are large and the staff is skilled at moving people in and out, thus freeing up tables for hungry patrons.

On weekend nights they frequently have events to draw people in. These run the gamut from live music, belly dancers, to Indian movies projected on a large screen in the center of the dining area. It could be worse. It could be chop-socky melodramas from China. It's things like this that make the restaurants really sparkle. Events, food, lighting, and drinks. They do a very good job of making India a weekend destination. It's not quite up to the level of having the band Cornershop do a concert, but it's enough where you may think twice about going elsewhere.

The menu has grown as the years have gone by and is now competitive with the large menus at the other Indian restaurants in the area. Among those additions are new desserts, thankfully, because Gulab Jamun just scares me. Most of the offerings are not terribly original nor terribly traditional. They're somewhat standard American-Indian (not the casino-owning kind) fare. You have your curries, your breads, and your biryani. But no longer is the curry list the center of the menu. The list of house specialties is where most of the growth has taken place. Having not assimilated disparate ingredients, you get what you expect, but it's perfectly executed. Nothing is amazingly inventive, but India doesn't go the traditional route, either. Instead, they massage their recipes to be lighter, more healthy, and a bit more Mediterranean-hybrid than true Indian. It all works very well. They're also a lot spicier than other restaurants, and you can get it spicier still upon request.

They have my favorite curry around. Vindaloo, mango, and masala are all wonderfully spiced. The vindaloo is a real favorite, being not so hot as to overwhelm the flavor, but hot enough to get your tongue burning. Very, very well-balanced. The biryani is also the best I've had. The quality of their ingredients and the skillful balance of the flavors in the meal really set their biryani apart from the competition.

India is apparently very careful in their choices of ingredients. They advertise using locally grown vegetables and cheeses and tout their health-conscious attitudes. Whether it's locally grown or not doesn't matter much to me, much less whether it's good for me or not. It's thought out well, and the quality is apparent. The recipes are also generally light, which is nice. Much of the lightness to the curry and biryani can be credited to the excellent basmati rice. Very fluffy, flavorful, and well-paired with the meats they select.

I said in my Rasoi interview that I had never encountered tough meats or gristle. That had been true until recently. I had had two experiences where I had gristle in my chicken that forced me to stop chewing and extricate it from my maw. It sounds like I'm nit-picking, sure, but there's a big difference between flawless and not flawless. Still, I can find very little about which to complain. The serving sizes are large, but the recipes leave you satisfied without being bloated. This may be their vegetarian ambitions coming out in the food.

I've waited to talk about the naan because of the naan war between India and the nearby Rasoi. As I mentioned in my Rasoi review, they have the best naan around. It's a really amazing recipe with a selection of scrumptious toppings and stuffings. India keeps its naan a bit simpler, presenting it more as bread than as a substantial aspect of the meal. India's naan is chewier, while Rasoi is lighter. India also charges less for their naan, which I guess is appropriate. India doesn't fall completely to the naan juggernaut of Rasoi, though, having my favorite naan. Their vindaloo naan is excellent, and Rasoi doesn't have any spicy breads with which to respond. So, there is space for both India and Rasoi in the local naan market.

Their drink list is as inventive and colorful as you would expect. Combined with a good selection of beers and affordable wines, India has the whistle-wetting aspect pretty well-covered, but they could do more with the bar. Their mixed drinks selection is limited and the variety of liquors and liqueurs is pretty lean. Perhaps hire on a dedicated bar tender. I think this would be a good idea from a business standpoint. Bars draw in the locals in a way that no restaurant can. Expand the bar, expand the offerings, and generate more money all around.

So, again, after all this time India is still where I go for my Indian food. After some really great experiences at places like Rasoi, Kabob & Curry, and Indian Grille, India just sticks in my mind as the place I always desire. It may be more American/hybrid than true Indian, but who cares when it tastes this good. The service, atmosphere, and food really coalesce into something special. India is a personal favorite, a bargain of Rhode Island dining, and a place that you should certainly go out of your way to try.

India: ****
Price range for two: $25-$50 (The website is tragically out-of-date. The menu is much larger now)

View Larger Map

1060 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906

View Larger Map

520 Main Street
Warren, RI. 02885

Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Friday & Saturday 11:30am to 10:00pm

Monday, February 4, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Updike's Newtowne- +++ / $

Open for barely two months, I finally got a chance to stop by the newest coffee shop in town. Ok, frankly, I didn't even know about the newest coffee shop in town until an hour or so ago. Updike's Newtowne takes the place of the now defunct Majik Coffee. Apparently, when the now owner (Updike?) bought the remnants, there wasn't much left. Now instead of focusing on the wholesale end of the coffee business, he's concentrating on building a following as a cafe. Good move. There's less competition on the local level with service than on the regional level with wholesale.

The inside has been completely re-done. It's very cozy and inviting. It's also one of the most open and spacious cafes I've seen and hints to the possibility of what the owner can do with the spot. Lots of wood tones and the large coffee roaster in the corner make it one of the nicest cafes to sojourn. There's not too much filling the room right now, and that adds an austere character in contrast to the busy (although still enjoyable) Caffe Bon Ami.

The cafe owner (again, Updike?) is very well versed in coffee and does all his own roasting on site. Thus, the focus of the cafe is coffee. Coffee, coffee, more coffee. Fantastic. It probably won't last long, since huge profits are to be made in the baked goods and sandwiches business, but for now, the coffee dominance lends both focus and aroma to the entire room. All in all, the interior, the design, the on-site roasting, and the enormous variety of roasts, beans, and drinks makes Updike's Newtowne a must visit for anyone in the area. It's even good enough where out-of-town people may want to make a trip for a pound of freshly roasted beans.

I recommend the Indonesian espresso roast. Excellent roast.

UPDATE 3/4/09: After a long period away, I finally found time to head back to UpTowne. Coffee is still the focus of the cafe, which after well over a year is a pleasant surprise. Only a few baked goods join the wide variety of house blends, single-origin, and estate coffees.

Mark Additon, the owner, has expanded his selection and knowledge of coffee considerably. As far as high-end coffee goes, I can't think of a single competing cafe or roaster that has the same selection. CofEx has good single-origin, but they generally use blends of beans from groups of farmers. The good selection of high-end coffee maintains UpTowne as one of Rhode Island's best cafes and garners an even stronger recommendation from me.

Updike's Newtowne: +++
Price range for two: $5-$10

View Larger Map

Updike's Newtowne
7726 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI. 02852

Monday through Friday 6:30am to 5:00pm
Saturday 7:30am to 3:00pm

Saturday, February 2, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Rue De L'Espoir- ++ / $$

Just got back from a breakfast at "The Rue" in Providence. Pretty good breakfast, but man, the home fries were the best I've had. Crispy and spicy. Really excellent. It's unfortunate they stop serving breakfast so early during the week, 11am, but on Saturday and Sunday they serve 'till 2:30pm, which is great. Since I live so far away, it's hard to make it, and the breakfast is very good, but I have some places near me that also serve excellent breakfast and weekend brunch. The Rue has a very nice and rustic interior. Lots of wood and a nice entrance. The dining area is larger than the outside lends you to think. They have a good and sinfully delicious selection of crepes. But then, what crepes aren't sinfully delicious? Healthy breakfast? Ha! Go eat some soy, you hippy.

I've eaten dinner there once before and was decently whelmed. I was very impressed by the reasonable prices. They have a good selection of pricier fair, under the "Eat Seriously" section, but their large lunch selection is where the real value is at. The prix fixe menu is also good and well worth the $25 cost. I was impressed by the cheese board. It's a very good selection and is reasonably priced at $14. Similar boards at other Providence eateries hover around the $20 mark.

UPDATE: 2/5/08- I just realized I never really articulated directly why I rated them as I did. Everything was good, but since nothing really stood out, I'd only ever go if I was in the direct area again. The food is a very good value, and I liked the place a lot, so we'll see.

View Larger Map

Rue Del L'Espoir
99 Hope Street
Providence, RI. 02906

Breakfast (Extended menu on weekend)
Monday through Friday 7:30am to 11:00am
Saturday & Sunday 7:30am to 2:30pm
Monday through Friday 11:30am to 5:00pm
Sunday through Thursday 5:00pm to 9:00pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 10:30pm