It looks like 10 out of 16 spots on this list still need to be visited/hounded. Much work to do!
It looks like 10 out of 16 spots on this list still need to be visited/hounded. Much work to do!
Organic • Shade GrownThe community of Idido, just outside the town of Yirgacheffe, has once again produced the quintessential Ethiopian Natural Sundried coffee. One of the cleanest and most refined naturals we have tasted in years, Idido offers notes of strawberry, blueberry, and orange zest with a balanced, chocolate-like sweetness.
Cafe Hound Review: Generally, Counter Culture got this one right. This coffee cups clean, though it has enough of what I call, “berry funk” to entertain your palate. I cycled through several of the Counter Culture coffees this year, with the Central Americans admittedly disappointing after a VERY strong showing in 2009, and a decent showing in 2010. In 2010 my favorite growing region of the world ended up being Kenya, though the Cafe Hound annual blend at the end of 2009 included a fair amount of sun-dried Ethiopian coffee from the Amaro region. (washed version for sale at Novo now). Right now, this Yirgacheffe is rocking my world. I admit that as the weather cools here in the Nation’s Capital, I’m leaning towards more bold and fruity coffees – though I enjoy a clean cup so much that I rarely venture to the extremes of many Indonesian grown coffees (Sumatra). Though, it is all a matter of taste and I encourage you to post your comments letting us know what your preferences are this year! Happy Hounding!
Caffe: Marriott Renaissance M Street Hotel
1143 New Hampshire Ave NW
Washington, DC 20037
Caffe is the name of the coffee concept boutique coffee shop located within the Marriott Renaissance Hotel in the West End of NW Washington, D.C. This was the first of several shops opened in the last three years that exclusively sell Illy coffee and their designer products (namely their fancy hand painted espresso cups/plates and pods). Although not my first choice for espresso in most cases, every time I’ve had a cup of Illy at this M Street location, I have been thoroughly pleased. The dark, complex and caramel-like finish of the typical Illy espresso is a proven winner. The true to form syrupy crema that commonly accompanies a well made Italian espresso consistently shines through here and, based on third-hand accounts, their cappuccinos are also well-made.
This is definitely not a place to sit down and work, eat a meal or chat for too long with friends. Keeping in the typical Italian espresso bar tradition, there is only a standing counter along the windows of this petite shop where one is able to down their drink and continue on. Not too linger friendly here. Not to worry, just a quick walk through the into the adjoined restaurant (also part of the Marriott Renaissance Hotel) and you can begin an entirely separate dining experience.
In short, although this is not a place for much more than a quick coffee on the go – it is a quality coffee drinking experience and is worth a stop if you’re in the area and desire a quality made coffee drink. The iced latte I had here in Summer 2010 was probably the best I’ve ever had. Try getting a simlilar experience across the street at Starbucks — simply unheard of.
I like the cup (seen above) so much that I asked to purchase it. I was pleased to find out that they happily sell the cup/plate/spoon sets used for a little under $10.
Here are some additional links that discuss the place:
1336 Ninth St. NW
Azi’s Café is a wonderful place to grab a coffee and a meal in one of DC’s most diverse and dynamic neighborhoods – albeit not very commercial. The charming owner, Azeb Desta (nicknamed Azi), hails from coffee’s disputed birthplace in the Horn of Africa. Before opening Azi’s in 2005 she worked for eleven years in food and beverage with Ritz-Carlton hotels.
Her location at the corner of 9th and O streets is smack in the middle of a rapidly changing area of the Shaw area of DC, where an improving standard of living and an aversion to the normal “Starbucks” options appear to partially drive traffic to Azi’s Cafe. Perhaps more important, Azeb and her staff are some of the warmest and most dedicated employees in the business and their service clearly helps with customer loyalty. Furthermore, for the time being, there is very little direct competition in the immediate area.
The menu of light food fare boasts decent pastry, soup, salad and panini (the roasted turkey breast, tomato, cheddar, and garlic spread goes for $6.50) options. Personally, I often find myself succumbing to the flavorful biscotti displayed in large glass containers in front of the cashier – it perfectly compliments a warm frothy cappuccino on a cold day.
Generally, the coffee is above average for Washington and I’ve grown fond of their cappuccinos. They use Illy coffee and have a stand of retail Illy for sale proudly exhibited in their front window.
Having sampled an Illy espresso across town at the Illy shop at the Renaissance M Street Hotel, I was excited to see how Azi’s compared. The coffee itself was definitely up to par, bold and complex from start to finish. The cup they used in my case was a designer Illy cup – of my choosing – that was plenty warm from sitting atop the French-made UNIC machine. The quantity of crema was less than sufficient, though, and I would have to wager the guess that the machine could be the problem. I’ll undoubtedly try another espresso here before making a final judgment on the quality of their coffee and ability to make drinks. It also appears that they keep a pretty steady line of customers asking for both specialty drinks and regular cups of coffee during this time of year.
I’ve never visited this locale without a pleasant and eclectic mix of music weaving through the small locale. The southern wall is littered with a few electric sockets for those who tote laptops and have a use for their free wi-fi. Others may choose between a few tables in the middle of the shop and a couple two-seater tables squeezed in between columns with plenty of natural light on the northside of the shop (sorry, no electric plugs on this side of the shop).
Whether for a hot bowl of soup, a freshly made salad, a steamy latte or a shot of espresso – Azi’s is quickly becoming an institution in the Shaw neighborhood and – with over five years of business in this locale – Azeb Desta seems satisfied that things are going in the right direction. Although, she thinks that the last five years have gone by quickly, and that both the neighborhood and the clientele have changed equally quickly. Azi’s Café is one of very few businesses thriving in this section of NW and it will be interesting to see how much/little she changes in the next five years in order to maintain a successful enterprise.
Café Hound will undoubtedly continue to frequent her shop and wishes her the best in growing her business.
3211 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22201
It is official, I have found the best place for a completely comfortable, unpretentious, superb culinary experience and it is right down the street from my current residence in Arlington, Virginia.
To start, the shop is a spacious old building with high ceilings, plenty of natural light on all four sides, and three separate spaces with three totally different vibes under one roof (and that isn’t even mentioning the all too rare plentiful quantity of open air seating spaces located outside all with access to their free wifi). The inside also serves as an art gallery for local artists and has tons of bar stools and counter space by the windows in addition to about a half dozen couches located throughout. Also, the kitchen is WIDE open- another uber positive sign that food is done right here.
And to think, all this before discussing the menu, the fantastic staff, the Counter Culture coffee, the splendid teas, and their homemade ICE CREAMS! According to one of the owners, who co-owns Liberty Tavern and another locale in the immediate area with his brother, the place has been open for about four months and is doing REALLY well. Well, I think it can do even better AND serve as my new favorite hangout in the area for many months to come. Below are some pictures and additional comments about the place.
My only gripe is that it was a bit difficult to bite into my grilled chicken sandwich; which was spectacularly tasty. Susana didn’t think the bread slices accompanying her salad were crunchy enough. The pastries looked wonderful and were unique – their pastry chef is top notch. The soft ice cream was outstanding – passion fruit was one of the flavors of the day. The latte art on the cappuccino was decent and the drink was made well. The espresso was made well but the single-origin Michicha from Ethiopia was not ideal as it is a sun-dried coffee that is too gnarly for my preferences as a pure espresso drink – much better as a shot in a latte. In earnest, though, I probably would have preferred a shot of a wet washed Kenya AA or a full bodied blend like the Ano Novo 2010.
So, although I can say this place is probably the best complete dining experience that I have ever had at a wine and coffee bar, it is still improving and that should scare the competition (of which there really isn’t any at this time).
Lift a glass to Northside Social in Arlington, Virginia, for they may have just hit the sweet spot for this area’s upper middle class late 20s to early 40s demographic.
In 2006 I returned to the DC/VA area from Colombia with a newfound passion for specialty coffee and a serious cafe-dweller pattern of living only to be extremely disappointed with what the DC/MD/VA area had to offer. I said to myself, it is a no brainer that this region of the country has a tremendous of per capita spending power and that people here would pounce on the opportunity to have something unique in the food and beverage industry. I thought the region was especially well suited for specialty coffee.
Although such an observation was so clear to me at the time, I had no knowledge of the specialty coffee industry beyond what I had discovered in Colombia over the course of a couple of weeks visiting farms and talking with producers. I was in no way suited to open a coffee shop nor interested in doing so.
So – when this post began as a draft in August 2009 – reminiscing as I drove through DC I could see my observation was not lost on others in the coffee retail industry. Caribou Coffee shops are located in new places throughout the city, Peregrine Espresso launched in 2008, Chinatown Coffee Co. opened in July 2009, Mid-City Caffe, Big Bear Cafe and more all claim DC as their home now.
The growth in coffee shop improvement has not been lacking. Names such as Murky, Peregrine, Big Bear, Tryst and others have made sure of that. Caribou’s growth has been impressive too. Even a fellow in Manassas Virginia started his own line of retail coffee called Hondo Coffee. The coffee is sourced only from one community in Honduras and is sold pre-ground in flimsy packaging that is its only protection from the heat and humidity of DC/VA summers – as he pushes the majority of his sales at local farmer’s markets.
August 2010 – So what is lacking from the DC market?
As far as I can tell it appears to have a serious shortage of local high quality roasters. The best coffee in the DC/VA/MD area is roasted elsewhere.
I would understand if one couldn’t find a good roaster in DC proper given the high rents for real estate and the potential difficulties getting a permit for the exhaust that comes from an industrial roaster but, this does not explain why the artisan roasters I have come across thus far in Maryland and Virginia have failed to meet the mark of quality, consistency and marketability that is required to survive and prosper in the specialty coffee industry.
Counter Culture cleans up in the Mid-Atlantic region (in terms of selling to high-end specialty coffee shops) and Intelligentsia has successfully convinced the high-end restaurant industry (i.e. Farmers & Fishers) to offer patrons a quality cup of java at a place where everything else on the menu is exquisite. For now, Counter Culture has a relative stronghold on the region because people seem to believe that North Carolina is local enough AND they have a strong network of local-ish cuppings and trainings to attract local coffee shops/geeks into their network and identify them with their brand.
This business strategy is quite interesting and it will be exciting to watch the DC/VA/MD roaster market adapt to this pent up demand over the course of the next months. Until then, I’m open to any suggestions of DC/MD/VA roasters willing to part with samples for review by Cafe Hound.
Chinatown Coffee Company
475 H Street, NW
(between N 4St & 5th St)
Washington, DC 20001
After roughly two weeks of trying, I finally made it to Chinatown Coffee Company (CCC) at the outskirts of Chinatown in Northwest DC. I went on a Sunday afternoon with a friend of mine who was a bit curious about my passion for specialty coffee. It wasn’t very busy when I arrived but nearly every seat in the place was taken by people using laptops (free wifi) or staying out of the blistering DC heat/humidity. It was nice and cool inside and had a nice gritty feel to the ambiance that gave the impression that the focus was over at the coffee bar.
I took the engineer designed ‘hint’ and wandered up to the bar to order two double shot espressos that were to be made with the Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso blend. The menu appeared simple enough, but with plenty of variety for above average prices for people unacquainted with specialty coffee (i.e. Intelligentsia prices). The espresso was produced on a beautiful Victoria Arduino Adonis WBC edition machine with a sleek white gloss design.
I’m not sure if the humidity was a major factor, but I suspect it was, but the espresso was rather flat and left much to be desired. I wasn’t willing to give up because the baristas were very nice and the quality of all of the inputs was undoubtedly of the highest quality. I encountered similar problems with humidity when training baristas at a warehouse in Nicaragua in 2008. The incredibly muggy rainy season led to a plethora of quality control problems with the resource constraints we were facing. Nevertheless, CCC is surely not getting a bad review for espresso – it just wasn’t the best day.
I followed up the espresso order with a cortado since my friend claims half-Cuban heritage yet she was not familiar with the famous Versailles Restaurant(s) in Miami, Florida…meaning she had never sampled their delicious cortadito drinks. Luckily for me, with a little sugar this little drink saved the visit for my friend who admittedly does not like espresso much regardless of the quality. The establishment is pretty proud of the fact that is chooses to break the DC paradigm of mostly sourcing strictly Counter Culture coffee (roasted down in North Carolina and shipped up the eastern seaboard) in favor of Intelligentsia.
Another major plus was that the baristas were not only proud of the around town competition helping put DC on the specialty coffee map but enlightened me to shops that I have never even heard of. I also was fast to learn that the very helpful and pleasant David Flynn of Peregrine Espresso was in the building diligently working on his laptop. Talk about cross-town support. Furthermore, my barista informed me that he was indeed David’s roommate – I somehow doubt cut-throat competition between Peregrine and CCC. I guess coffee geeks like me like to surround themselves with other coffee geeks.
Shortly after sampling the aromas of all of the whole bean coffee that they were carrying for retail sale I decided to go with the Guatemala. I’m sort of ashamed since the competition included El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. I felt some allegiance to the Estelí region of Nicaragua after having spent considerable time meeting producers and exporters from throughout the country in 2008 but, at the end of the day, went with what my nose told me. I have nothing but positive experiences with Guatemalan coffee in the past and after brewing this up today, it is no different.
Specifically the coffee I purchased was 12 oz and cost me US$12 plus tax. It was the Itzamna, Guatemala: La Soledad.
Intelli’s description is as follows:
“Surrounded by peaches and inherently sweet with an animated acidity. Finca La Soledad finishes with vanilla, yet sails with its zesty nature.”
I would agree with the sweet acidity and moderately agree with the vanilla finish. I would add that it has a modest fruity taste (apparently that’s the peach) but it’s barely there. Overall it’s a mild coffee with less ‘animation’ and ‘zest’ than it claims. It’s very pleasant though, and a great coffee for pour over brew. Blending it with something that has a bit more flowery flare, such as an Ethiopia Sidamo or a Rwanda Burundi, would really balance it off well. This is similar to what Kris and I decided to do with the first edition of Kris/Maher Blend using 80% Guatemala and 20% Ethiopia. Again, that is just a matter of taste preference.
I’ll be returning in the near future to talk with the owners and get some more coffee. Thanks for stopping by and leave any thoughts you may have.
– Maher Hound