Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poll Closed

And the final numbers are in for Rhode Island's favorite restaurants!

Two of my absolute favorites, CAV and Al Forno, bring home the gold with a tie for first place. They both nabbed 25% of total votes. It looked like 10 Prime Steak & Sushi was going to win for the longest time, but lost out in the end, with just 20%.

Surprisingly, the White Horse Tavern nabbed third, with 15%, pulling in the necessary votes right at the end. Cafe Nuovo, Castle Hill Inn, and Pot au Feu all garnered 5%.

The Modern Diner, which is Rhode Island's true contribution to global cuisine, was left with no love, but it has esteemed company. L'Epicureo got zero votes, well deserved, I feel. But so did the Spiced Pear, which I assume is because no one can afford it.

And speaking of affordability, onto the next poll! The economic down-turn is affecting us all, and I'm wondering, how much have you had to cut back your dining out, if at all? Thinking back three months, and thinking forward equally, how often do you go out to eat?

Coffee and Clover, Over and Over.

The Starbucks in Wayland Square is one of the first *$s in the country to get the coffee machine mentioned in hushed reverence among the coffee elite, the Clover. It is one of 80 that are supposed to be rolled out by the end of 2008 and premiered a short time ago on September 9th. I figured Rhode Island wouldn't get any, so was shocked when I saw a sign at another Schtarbucken announcing the arrival. I hot-footed it over to Wayland Square to commune with Jesus. (Sorry for the abysmal picture quality. Starbucks wouldn't allow me to take photos, so I had to surreptitiously take photos with a cell phone.)

Starbucks is pushing the Clover hard. They have dedicated a large amount of counter space to the machine, grinder, and signage announcing the various beans available for brew. They've also implemented a fair degree of theater. Instead of the hiding the machine behind counter and glass, or placing it on the back counter, far from eyes of the customers, the machine is front and center.

My service was impeccable. The barista was friendly, talked my ear off about the coffee and the machine, and brewed multiple cups just to let me try. It was amazing how difficult it was to get other people to just try the new coffee. It's free coffee, people! I was also fortunate to arrive just as a pot of Starbucks Anniversary Roast was finishing brewing, so I was able to make a direct comparison between the Clover and fresh, standard brew.

My first cup was the El Salvador Pacamara. It was a very bright coffee, especially considering its Latin American root. I wasn't terribly impressed, frankly. It had citrusy notes to it, but I tasted almost no chocolate. As many coffee fanatics have pointed out, this could be because of the beans. Starbucks is a massive corporation that just can't move single-origin beans around its massive supply chain quickly. With that in mind, I'll hold off judgment on the machine for this one.

Since the Anniversary Roast had just been brewed, I was able to compare the ordinary brew to the Clover. Most of Starbucks' blends aren't the best. They're blended, packed, stored, and kept for weeks. Many, if not most, of the terroir of the beans that the Clover is supposedly an A-student at bringing out are lost. Still, I'm comparing like to like, so I think this is still a valid test.

The verdict? The Clover was better. Still, certain things must be taken into account. Starbucks coffee has been the butt of jokes for a very long time. This to the point of losing to McDonalds in a taste test. So Starbucks drip isn't the best comparo.

Also, it wasn't that much better. The notes of the coffee weren't brought out because of finer definition or clarity of flavor, but instead because the brightness was toned down. It was a mellower coffee. This allowed the flavors to come out much more clearly.

My third cup was the one I purchased. the Costa Rica Agrivid. This one seemed to respond to the steeping process of the Clover better than the previous two beans. The Clover flier lists cocoa and lemon as the primary notes and, lo, they were right. Citrus and a very strong and rich cocoa flavor were right on target.

So, in the end, I came away whelmed. Starbucks is charging about double for the Clover coffee, which still isn't terribly expensive, and it's certainly worth it to pay extra for a single-cup brewing method. From a commercial standpoint, it does have value. It's fast. It's clean. It's theatrical. If Starbucks can make a case for it, it could be the ticket to them again being seen as high-quality. Unfortunately, it may require a far greater degree of training and quality control than Starbucks is prepared to achieve. For example, the barista broke the stream of water as it poured into the chamber. A BIG no-no, according to the creator of the Clover. This can drop the temperature of the water a couple of degrees and have a "massive effect on the extraction of chemicals that affect flavor." (Wired Magazine)

If this was a consumer-level product, I would declare it a total rip-off. Remember, this puppy cost $11,000 before Starbucks bought up the company. And what it does could be replicated at home with a little ingenuity and $20 worth of kitchen stuff from Bed Bath & Beyond. Or just a French press. The best cup of coffee I've ever had was brewed by an old, Portuguese woman, and the mighty clover falls to that as well. In the Wired Magazine article about the Clover, the general idea of the clover is explained; if you want to buy coffee beans, be it Blue Mountain, or Kopi Luwak, that cost a fucking fortune, you want a machine that won't mess them up. Great logic. But that caters to a minuscule part of the population. I adore coffee, and even I don't care.

And the machine doesn't even come close to making a case for itself. They say that what you're really paying for is the ability to design custom brew cycles for whatever kind of bean you're using. Specific temperature, time, and bang. But my already stupid-expensive Jura Capresso Z5 is one-forth the cost and DOES MORE. And being able to choose a temperature? Try an electric kettle with a built in thermistor and gauge. I will admit that for a cafe, the sheer speed with which it prepares a cup is to die for. French press requires steeping the coffee for a few minutes. And the theater is quite cool, as the barista delicately stirs the coffee.

But as far as theater goes, a cafe can do better. Try a siphon bar. I've seen one in action at some cafe in Connecticut. You may have seen one, it looks like a distilling setup for making small amounts of moonshine. Or some magic potion. When it comes to theater, there is nothing that even comes close to this jawdroppingly wacky contraption. And if you think eleven grand is bad, try twenty. That's how much a Japanese model of these runs ya'. The machine mentioned in the New York Times article is only from one company, and you can get them from others, but they're still absurdly expensive. Furthermore, I have yet to see a machine that makes anything appreciably better than some good french press.

I'm a gourmet, certainly, but I'm not a ridiculous gourmet. I don't think $1,000 wine is worth it. Wagyu beef tastes inferior to a good prime steak. And chocolate is chocolate, as long as it's good. You pay extra for espresso because it's impossible to make good espresso without an expensive machine. Coffee is another story. If you want good coffee, you can brew it at home, and for all of Clover's ingenuity and convenience, it never gets past that.

The Coffee Fix: Can the $11,000 Clover Machine Save Starbucks?

At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee (May require registration. If so, just go to and get some sign-in info.)



I used to eat a lot of cookies. I used to weigh a lot more. Perhaps there's a connection. Regardless, I don't eat a lot of cookies anymore because it's nigh-on impossible to find cookies made with butter. They're ALL made with shortening of some sort. Or I should say, partially hydrogenated oils. And, as we all know, those are very bad. Or more exactly, the trans fat is bad.

And woe be the one who wanders the cookie aisle with trans fats on the mind. It is an unwelcoming place. Everything looks so good, and yet it's all so bad. I mean, no, cookies aren't good. If you eat too many you'll end up dead in a piano box, but butter is better than shortening.

And ohhhhhhhh is it hard to look at Pepperidge Farm cookies. Every single one uses shortening. They sit on the shelf. TEMPTING ME! "Come on. Eat us. Eaaaaaut us. We won't hurt you. We promise. Those doctors are all wrong. We're GOOOOOOD for you!" Oh and don't think for a second that the 0g of trans fat means diddly. If the product has shortening, it has trans fats. It's a guarantee. The reason they can say 0g is because the shortening must simply have less than 1g per tablespoon, and the final product must have .5g or less per serving.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I suspect that after that regulation came into effect, we had quite a few products suddenly list a smaller serving on the box. Conspiracy theory, much? Damn right. Those pinko cookie commies are out to get us. And companies were so desperate to avoid listing any trans fat on their product, the ones that actually list trans fats per serving must have BUCKETS of the crud in their product.

I'm thinking about Keebler cookies. They actually list trans fats. That means you might as well eat poison as eat their cookies.

I have found solace in cookies from Europe. Dave's Market has constantly changing selection, and they usually have products from a company called Bahlsen. Their Butter Leaves and Choco Leibniz have NO SHORTENING. Nothing but butter. Beautiful, American, freedom-loving butter. Sadly, many of their cookies do have shortening, so always check the ingredients.

And while we're on the subject, take heart, you old fashioned-types. Oreo's, America's favorite cookie, are shortening-free. Well, the peanut butter Oreo's have some, but what weirdo would ever want anything but the confection perfection of a good, old Oreo?

RECOMMENDATION: Kinder Happy Hippo

I was recently introduced to a new cookie. Well, not really recently. It was, like, two years ago. Still! Only recently did I decide to write about it.

It's called the Kinder Happy Hippo. It's made by Ferrero, the same company that makes Ferrero Roche. They're the candy with those hilariously pretentious advertisements that act like only rich people eat them and yet are sold primarily at Wal*Mart. They also make Nutella, if you like a spread that completely eliminates any healthful attributes to a sandwich.

It has a wafer body, which is painted up to look somewhat like a hippo. I think it looks like a butt with two bullet holes in the cheeks and a set of eyeballs on the back. Still, I appreciate their effort. It's made from remarkably good ingredients. Very few unpronounceable chemicals. The chocolate creme inside is smooth and very flavorful. As far as cookies/candy go, these are quite good. Be careful giving them to kids. Kids will want multiple cookies, but they're 116 calories each. And if it's just you, these are a great way to break a diet for a few minutes. You can buy them where I did, on Amazon.

These get my pre-packaged junk food thumbs-up.


Life and All It Brings.

I've been rather short on postings, lately. Sorry about that.

Finishing up a double-major and work have a way of invading your non-paying ventures.

Keep reading, y'all... or is it all y'all, I've got posts coming.

Thanks for your readership. It's thanks you kind people that I'm allowed to feel self important.