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Monthly Archives: February 2012

GUEST POST: Joshua Rosenblatt

HURRAY!  The first installment of my monthly Guest Post is here!  My brother, Joshua, has so graciously sampled and reviewed a fabulous looking mocha latte from Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa, CA.  As an English major turned lawyer, Joshua writes with vivid descriptions, perfect grammar, and a factual representation of his client (Ms. Mocha).  And now, ladies and gents, I present to you: Joshua Giraffe.

 

Hello from Rainy Southern California!   A guest post for my sister has been a long time coming, because a) Orange County has a number of terrific coffee spots, and b) there are more organic grocery and coffee shops than Dunkin’ Donuts.  If there were a third answer, I suppose it might stem from the blessed spring break I now have from law school, so putting together an entry seemed doable…around catching up with Justified and Walking Dead.   Anywho, I resisted the (admittedly easy) urge to start my California guest post with a “Greetings, Loved Ones,” and in that regard, I will jump right in to one of the most well-known stops in South County.

Portola Coffee Lab

http://portolacoffeelab.com/

I was not familiar with how the Portola story had developed over the years, but if one thing was clear from the six-dollar mocha I had, this shop stands up and matches the bold claim listed on its website…”In every way coffeehouses around the world try to be truly excellent, Portola Coffee succeeds.”  I encourage everyone to defer your judgments until after you smell the coffee beans here.  I don’t quite know how to describe this – imagine the most fragrant coffee beans you have smelled in your travels (or, failing that, what you’ve smelled grinding coffee at the store or at home), and multiply it by an incomprehensible number.

Perhaps a better way to describe the smell is to consider how wine connoisseurs insist they smell hints of aged oak or mountain-top elderberries, or something infinitely more presumptuous.  In that regard, it was as if Portola’s methods for preparing their coffee beans acted as a magnifying glass for my nose, allowing me to smell exactly what a coffee expert might discover, or what that wine connoisseur might taste in that red.

I will say this.  Their methods of preparation, from the siphon bar to the “slayer” espresso machine, are worth simply observing, let alone enjoying.  If I hadn’t come there with the singular purpose of documenting the experience of a mocha, I may have easily forgotten my order at the front of the line.  Onward.

taste: 9.5

I was not sure how to give out grades here for this.  I relied a bit on how Kate has graded other mochae of the past (get some, Latin scholars), and by simply gauging a number that felt right in my mind.  In that regard, I felt this one blew some other high-scorers away, and has set a standard that Kate herself will have to try when visiting.  However, I cannot be so conceited as to announce my only post as the best possible mocha in the world, nor can I take away from the very premise of a mocha quest by announcing a ten-point mocha as yet.

Anyway, the mocha took nearly ten minutes to make.  I enjoyed that time to watch a baristientist take five, timed minutes to brew a single cup of coffee.  He explained that the mocha would have Strauss pasture-fed, nearly-raw milk, specially used by baristas and set at the lowest legal limit for public consumption.  This particular individual seemed genuinely upset that the FDA would not allow Portola to use raw milk, but I honestly have no cause to complain…whatever was in that mocha was incredible.  The substance of the chocolate, in combination with the milk and espresso, created an extremely thick drink that just breathed dark, dense chocolate into every sip.  I am not one of those types who discovers something delicious and wants to savor it so much that he or she is barely eating or drinking it, but I was compelled to do so for this drink.  Incredible.

appearance: 7

Akin to my first point, I relied a bit on how Kate has graded other drinks.  In that sense, I could not grade the appearance of the mocha significantly higher than a number of other previous posts, but the whipped-milk hearts design was a nice touch.  I understand that the white mugs have tradition and elegance, but I felt this was the kind of place that could actually reinvent the wheel in a positive way.

 

store ambiance: 8  /  closing: 8.167

Next to where you pick up your drinks, there are is a simple motto in white letters printed on to the light lime wall – geek out, sip, savor.  Portola is a highly-recommended experience in a large but quiet outdoor shopping complex (these actually make sense in Orange County, where you can shop outside a solid twelve months out of the year); it provides excellent lighting and outdoor seating, so you can enjoy your drinks in whatever context – reading, conversing, enjoying the air.  There is an IKEA very close by, so if you have the opportunity to come to Portola with your spouse or significant other, be sure to take two cars and split up after your drinks.  Tina Fey knows her stuff.

 

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2012 in California

 

Bloc 11

Before Del Mocha Vista was born, Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville, MA was giving the Starbucks mocha a run for its money.  Not only do their mocha lattes look and taste better, but this store has so much fun history (it used to be a bank AND you can have a cup of coffee in the old bank vault).  On a recent trip to Boston, my grad school roommate Stephanie and I headed to our old stomping grounds for delicious ‘research’.

Coffee + yoga + free parking? My kinda store!

Taste: 7

Oh yum Bloc 11.  Just as good as I remembered.  Good quality, somewhat bitter cocoa, nice warm temperature.  This was smooth and subtle, which was nice, but I’m looking something to WOW me! I would recommend this to anyone searching for a slightly above average mocha.

Appearance: 6

So answer this:  why do your mochas look so much better on your website than they do in real life?  And we’re not talking about the picture quality here 😉  So what do you think, fabulous readers?  You’ve seen a wide variety of mochas right here, and this is just above average in my opinion.  Yes, there is a glimpse of a design, so points for trying, Bloc 11.  Yes, their website has a ‘do it yourself’ video for how to recreate this design.  But no, drinking out of a cubicle coffee mug does not put me in the coffee shop mood.  I would have loved to drink out of nice bug cup and saucer… with or without the silly logo.

Store Ambiance: 7

This place is pretty amazing for many reasons. For starters, this building used to be a bank and the owners (who own nearby quirky coffee shop Diesel Cafe) have preserved some unique parts of the bank, i.e.: the old vault!  I am much too claustrophobic to comfortably sit in the vault but it’s beautiful to look at.  The Bloc 11 customers were mostly families and friends enjoying a lazy, delicious, overpriced brunch.  And what a cool place for brunch it is! SO SPACIOUS.  Bloc 11 is like a maze – you can sit at a table by the front windows, in the vault, or in the way back by the fire and board games.  Local art on the walls, community board of local events, private coffee tastings for the coffee enthusiast.  The industrial, modern interior and the open kitchen made me feel like I was in someone’s home.  So the only downside is that this place is not the cleanest.  Do people just not like cleaning up after themselves?  Stephanie and I went through a few napkins to clean off the crumbs from our wobbly, uneven table.  I went to yelp.com to see if others also found Bloc 11 to be a bit on the messy side.  Some yelpers had gripes about their lack luster sanitation, and one in particular quoted a few choice words from Bloc 11’s recent health inspection report (“droppings found that are consistent with rat activity… dish rinse below required temperature…”!!!)  Who knows how true this is, but perhaps I’ll stick to sitting at their outdoor tables and bringing my own mug from now on.

Hello little one!

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Massachusetts

 

The Book Trader Cafe

Ahhh Yale.  Home of the Bulldogs, inventors and actors, and more coffee shop + book store combinations than I’ve ever seen.  This makes my mocha research that much easier!   Before a day of meetings for me and a day of classes for Altair (you ‘met’ her at Blue State Coffee), we stopped in at The Book Trader Cafe in New Haven, CT.  “Feed your body & your mind!”

 

Taste: 5

“I think they messed up my order,” I said to Altair after taking the first sip of my mocha.  I couldn’t detect any cocoa so I asked Altair to try.  She too thought it tasted more like a latte so I went back to the barista.  I told her that I ordered a mocha but was not sure what I got.  She explained that it was a mocha but that she did not mix up all the ingredients.  As she asked ‘did you want more chocolate?’ she poured chocolate syrup into my mocha. Ughhh.  I retreated back too my seat and got only half way through my mocha before it became too disgustingly sweet to drink.  Had you initially mixed up the flavors, barista, you would receive a higher Taste rating 🙂

Appearance: 6

Photos are taken pre-chocolate syrup addition. The mocha does look nice next to my mocha chip scone, wouldn’t you agree?  You also might be asking yourself: ‘Why is she drinking that in a paper cup?’  The answer, dear readers, is that The Book Trader Cafe did not have any clean mugs! Ughhh.  On the bright side, the barista who created my latte mocha seemed very into the looks of my mocha!  I like it when people take pride in their work.  Look closely and you can see a tiny little flower/heart ❤  Cute, right?  I also like how the design is located center stage with a frame of rich chocolately espresso.  I would have loved to have seen a more unique design – a book, perhaps?

 

Store Ambiance: 6

8:30am.  Surrounded by books, good company, good coffee + scones, and… debates over architecture?!  Altair was telling me about her favorite local architects when we hear a voice from across the room exclaim: ‘Deborah Berke ruined New Haven!’ We turned around to discover that we had some conversation snoops.  A resounding debate over Deborah Berke v. Zaha Hadid ensued.  Store ambiance points: +3.  This store is really large, and I almost got the feeling like I was having breakfast in my own kitchen.  There is ample table space, both inside and outside, at a table or tucked away down an aisle of books.  Perhaps it was early morning, or perhaps The Book Trader Cafe is always this way, but there was a bit of a sleepy vibe.  I like how this place offers a variety of food and drinks as well as gently used books (you can sell them your books, DVDs, and CDs for cash or store credit!)  The employees seem to really care about your experience at the store, which is a refreshing dose of niceness for Connecticut. This place seems to care a bit more about their books than the quality of their food or the appearance of their store (hello dirty tables and ugly green decor). I may be back, but I’ll stick to your coffee next time.

Wouldn’t you like to study here?!

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Connecticut

 

Tryst

Who knew Washington, DC had such a variety of amazing coffee spots?  I met up with an old traveling buddy, John, who suggested we go to Tryst in Adams Morgan.  How cool is this place?!  It’s like a dance club meets coffee shop meets restaurant.  Do you want to grab a glass of wine before going out? Go to Tryst.  Do you want to have a mocha and study for an upcoming test?  Go to Tryst.  This place is loud, fun, and very unique!

ME and my mocha!

Taste: 6

Nice, foamy, basic mocha.  Not too sweet, not too bitter, just right.  Wish I could have tasted their espresso a bit more in this mocha.  I did thoroughly enjoy dipping the animal crackers into my mocha!  Great idea, Tryst.

Appearance: 6

This is pretty cute, huh?  I like the swirly chocolate-y design on top and the animal crackers on the bottom.  Does anyone see anything in the chocolate swirly design? I can’t seem to figure out if I should be seeing anything in particular but it does appear easy to re-create.  Minus points for no ‘wow’ factor.  While I do like the crispness of the white cup and saucer, for such a crazy fun place I’m surprised I did not see some locally made artsy cup and saucer.  I used to be all for uniformity when it comes to plates and serving pieces but now I am getting bored with the all white everywhere!

 

Store Ambiance: 9

Oh heck yes!  This is a very ‘me’ place.  Local art for sale on the walls, dance-y upbeat music, packed with people and good vibes!  Tryst has a wide range of seating: choose from a comfy couch, a table for two, or a place at the bar.  You can sit amongst other Trysters or hide away at a table in the back.  They have something special going on almost any night of the week – who doesn’t love live Jazz on a Monday or a movie showing on a Tuesday?  There is free Wifi and happy hour specials.  They are powered by wind energy, promote shopping locally, and seem passionate about buying coffee from Counter Culture Coffee, an organization dedicated to sustainability and coffee education (and barista competitions!)  I HIGHLY recommend Tryst to anyone, any time of day, any day of the week 🙂

 

   

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in DC

 

DC Swing’s

During The New York Football Giants Superbowl weekend I went to Washington, DC to visit my brother and his girlfriend!  We rented bikes and rode around the city, making an important mocha stop at Swing’s in Foggy Bottom.  Swing’s has been roasting and distributing coffee since 1916 and they have the photos to prove it.  This is a great place to people watch while enjoying some GREAT quality coffee!

Me at Swing’s post mocha 🙂

Taste: 6

‘HUH?!’ I thought after taking my first sip.  I almost detected a sweet vanilla-chocolate-y taste; there was definitely another flavor in there besides the basic cocoa and I was not sure what I thought of that. Seconds after taking my first sip I felt JOLTED awake!  Now that’s what I need from my mocha – great taste and an instant wake up.  After more than half way through this mocha it became a bit too sweet for my taste, almost like all of the flavors were sinking to the bottom of the cup. Blahh.  Besides the sweetness, I could taste the great quality of their espresso.  And having had a cup of their french pressed coffee (a la Nathaniel) I knew that they made amazing tasting espresso.  Next time I go to Swing’s I’ll probably ask for just half the amount of cocoa and then it will make my taste buds happy.

Appearance: 6

Great try, Swing’s!  This looks like some Picasso painting – I can sort of tell what design they were going for but it looks all abstract now.  Perhaps that’s because there was a minor spill while the mochas were en route to our table (a la Nathaniel 😀 ).  I appreciate the classic white cups and saucers with a bit of a contemporary twist in the square handle.  The white color just brings out the dark and light colors in this mocha.  Even though I do like the white color I would have loved to have seen something with a bit more ‘umpf’.  But again, this being DC and being right across from the historic Old Executive Office Building, I would imagine that artsy crafty cups are not welcomed.  This city during the day is like a walking, talking J.Crew catalog.

Store Ambiance: 8

This store has history.  This store has a mix of intellectuals.  This store has got a lot going for it!  For starters, Swing’s had a consistent line of customers about 16 people deep.  While waiting in line you will hear people talking in a variety of accents discussing everything from running a campaign to neoliberal institutionalism.  We got our coffee drinks (mocha for me, latte for the brother) quite quickly and found a table.  All around us people are either working on their laptops, buying coffee from Nathaniel’s favorite barista ;), and engaging in conversations that make you say ‘what the heck is that?!’  Surrounding all of the coffee-goers are photos from Swing’s circa 1916ish.  I love these photos!  The pictures, along with the mahogany and mirrored fixtures made me feel like I was stepping into a different kind of DC landmark.  So next time you are in DC, swing by Swing’s for some locally roasted (Virginia), great quality coffee.

  “I ❤ kahve!”

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2012 in DC

 

Potential

A fair trade cafe connected to a Co-op grocery store?  Sounds like a fabulous idea, right?  I thought so, until I tried their food and drinks 😦  While in Ann Arbor we stopped in at Cafe’ Verde, a small little cafe connected to the People’s Food Co-op. This place has so much potential – it’s a great concept so all they need are new cooks and new employees and they’ll be great!

Taste: 3

Full disclosure: I did not order my regular mocha (no whip, in a ‘for here’ mug).  I ordered a spicy mocha, which is a regular mocha but with a hint of Cayenne pepper.  Yuck.  Sounds better than it tasted.  I got a stomach ache and could barely get through half of it!  It tasted really sandy and thick.  I imagine the quality of their ingredients wasn’t the greatest because their food was tasteless and looked sad.  Plus, the barista who created my mocha was comically spaced out and asked for our order at least five times.

Appearance: 3

Pretty color.  Shiny white cup and saucer. Nothing special to it.  Come on Cafe Verde you are all talk about local, fair trade, community oriented blah blah blah – if you cared about the community you would make a pretty Spicy Mocha.

 

Store Ambiance: 3

If you want a sleepy little place to do your grocery shopping and grab a sub par post-shopping snack, Cafe Verde is the place to go.  Everyone here seemed very studious and were dressed from head to toe Gap – you’re better than the Gap!  The baristas seemed like they were on another planet and were upset that customers interrupted their conversations.  Bland food, bland decor, sleepy vibe.  Pick it up Cafe Verde!

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Michigan

 

Zingerman’s

Zingerman’s.  You either know the name or you don’t.  This might just be the only deli worth going to in all of the Midwest.  A foodie can spend all day at Zingerman’s – eating, drinking, shopping, taking a class.  On a particularly indulgent day I ordered a veggie sandwich and a mocha latte at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, MI.

They own all 3 buildings & are doing some remodeling.

Taste: 5

Simple, sweet, good basic mocha.  I’m being tough on Zingerman’s because I know they can make a quality product!  Similar to the mocha I tried at the Waldorf=Astoria, this mocha seemed very much a ‘I can make this at home’ kind of beverage.  I know you are constantly busy and all, Zingerman’s, but can’t you find the time to amuse me with a design out of steamed milk?  Sigh.  Let’s spice it up with a design and more of a POP of flavor!

Appearance: 3

I suppose Zingerman’s can’t be the best at everything… just most things.  Nice color + fun cup (sorry Earth) + no spills = 3 measly, generous points.  I’m just going to focus on all of the amazingness of Zingerman’s instead of critiquing their mocha appearance so read on… 🙂

 

Store Ambiance: 7

This store is foodie heaven.  Always samples of cheese, olive oil, and anything else you ask for!  The staff is knowledgeable and friendly (hey, it’s the Midwest, what do you expect?)  The deli and bakery are in two different buildings right next to each other, with plenty of seating both inside and outside. I loved how ALIVE this store felt – people of all ages enjoying good quality food and good conversation.  There are Zingerman’s posters, old photographs, and information so you can read about who they are and where they came from.  I also noticed some great information about the goings on around town – I really like it when an organization seems supportive and invested in the community.  If I could make any suggestion it would be to have some comfier seating so I  people can relax and enjoy a mocha with a newspaper.  I’ll be back, ZIngerman’s!

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Michigan