Date: April 2004

Column/Title: Coffee from Celebrity Chefs (or their Restaurants)

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Coffee, regrettably for those of us who love it, remains a bit of an afterthought at even the finest restaurants, a minor step in the denouement leading to the parking lot. I had dinner recently with some young coffee enthusiasts at a very famous restaurant. When it came time for wrapping things up one of the party (not me; I'm too jaded) asked the waiter to tell us about the coffee. The waiter reported, with justifiable pride, that it was organic and Fair-Traded. Well, but how dark was it roasted? one of the group persisted. Who roasted it? Our waiter looked confused. What country is it from, what farm? Further confusion. "I'll find out," he said. It was a busy night and out waiter can be forgiven for not having gotten back to us, but it strikes me as condemnation both of food and coffee worlds that a waiter at one of the country's more historically significant restaurants knew so little about either the sensory properties or geographical provenance of an important beverage served at his restaurant, a beverage that coffee professionals never tire of pointing out often provides the final sensation customers carry with them as they head for the door.

My colleague Ron Walters experienced something much different recently at Alan Wong's restaurant in Honolulu. At the end of the meal Ron was presented with a menu of several coffees, all grown and roasted in Hawaii, with degree or darkness of roast specified and the name of the farm and farmer respectfully acknowledged. Ron tells me the waiter was at least as knowledgeable about these coffees as the average waiter in a good restaurant is about wine, and that one of the two coffees his party ordered was splendid.

Which of these two experiences best represents the state of coffee served in America's leading restaurants today? Have the refined and innovating palates of the celebrated chefs who have transformed American cuisine uncovered or helped create some coffee gems, or is it pretty much business as usual, albeit with thin, bitter dark roasts replacing the thin, sour medium roasts of earlier days? Has the coffee served in fine restaurants improved, or is it just roasted darker?

Based on our sampling of coffees offered at twenty regionally or nationally celebrated restaurants, the answer is: Coffee remains an afterthought, though a much better afterthought than it used to be.

Afterthought because only at Alan Wong's was there even a modest choice of coffees offered diners by origin or roast style, or an effort to present coffee as a complex beverage that rewards connoisseurship.

The one-coffee-fits-all approach has an obvious drawback. It limits excellence because the singular coffee choice needs to be attractive, or at least not offensive, to a wide range of palates and expectations. If a restaurant offered only one red wine it certainly would not be the most distinguished, striking or challenging red wine in the cellar.

One can only speculate what shock might emanate from a table of innocent diners if they were served the luminous and amazing medium-roasted Kenya AA from Green Mountain reviewed here. Two of six might set off to ransack the world to find this extraordinary coffee while the other four might suppress a grimace and hide the cup behind a napkin. (The Green Mountain Kenya is a bit of a ringer here, by the way. It appears occasionally, along with other coffee choices, in the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, but not in the Institute's upscale American Bounty restaurant, where apparently the coffee choice is a Green Mountain Costa Rica La Minita Dark Roast - an excellent coffee, but much closer in roast style and cup profile to current restaurant-goer expectations than the Kenya.)

The one-size-fits-all coffees offered by these celebrated restaurants roughly arranged themselves into two categories: 1) moderately dark-roasted blends that tended to be complex and balanced, with a good deal of understated but quietly impressive character; 2) extremely dark "French" roasts. No restaurant we surveyed except Alan Wong's offered patrons the choice of a medium-roasted coffee, not to mention a medium-roasted coffee from a distinguished single origin.

First the moderately dark-roasted blends. Readers may notice a rather long run of 88 ratings among this month's reviews. Looking back on my cupping notes for these coffees I found admiration and pleasure expressed along with a sort of reluctant reservation. It would appear that I wanted to be surprised and amazed as well as pleasured. I suppose that these almost-90 blends seemed just a bit too cautious in their sensual gestures, too committed to comfort, stopping just short of the surprise and revelation that, to me at least, marks a truly exceptional coffee.

On the other hand, these moderately dark blends as a group expressed considerable coffee intelligence. In roast style (dark enough to develop a mild roasty taste but not so dark as to burn off the sugars and obliterate nuance) and in general cup profile (rich, with some exotic notes, often Pacific or African in origin) they pretty much nail what I perceive to be the sweet spot for current upscale American taste in coffee. They also reveal the sort of subtle complexity that would seem to confirm the involvement of attentive and skilled palates in their design.

The other group of coffees that emerged from this survey is perhaps more predictable given recent trends: ultra-dark-roasted blends with extremely roasty, often charred, character. Coffees of this type are often labeled "French Roasts," and are roasted considerably darker than most Starbucks coffees. Until recently were the coffee style of choice among upscale American restaurants, but currently they appear to be on their way to being replaced by more moderate (and more genuinely European) dark roasts of the type described earlier.

However, even within the rather limited expressive confines of the ultra-dark roast style, several restaurants proved to exercise some savvy coffee decisions.

In my view a good "French" or ultra-dark roast displays decent body, some sweetness to balance the bitterness, and at least a little fruit or floral nuance. The next best outcome for a coffee of this extreme style is a cup that may taste charred and thin-bodied and lack nuance, but is bracingly and cleanly charred and thin-bodied, free of rubbery and soapy notes. The worst French roasts, the brutally bad ones, display all the sensual attraction of a decoction of burned automobile tires.

I was very pleased to encounter almost no ultra-dark roasts in the super-bad category (we did get two, but from the same restaurant and roaster), while receiving several in the good-and-up categories.

Given the daunting challenge of producing these ultra-dark roasts (a few seconds too long in the roaster or a little too much heat at the end of the roast and it's over the edge into rubber factory land) the preponderance of round, satisfying French roasts is quite impressive.

At any rate, it appears that the celebrity chefs and their staffs are putting some pleasing and interesting coffees onto their tables. If we had sourced the same number of coffees using some other matrix of selection I do not think that we would have ended with nearly the same number of agreeable, solidly rated cups.

On the other hand, the absence of coffees rated over 90 from among those regularly served in twenty of America's finest restaurants is equally a disappointment, although the disappointment doubtless derives not from the palates and decision-making of the restaurant staff so much as the limitation imposed by the custom of limiting diners' coffee choices to regular or decaf, a little like offering two red wines, one with alcohol and one without.

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