Tag Archives: Shops

Cafe Hounding: Azi’s Cafe – Washington, D.C.

1336 Ninth St. NW
Washington, D.C.
20001-4208
http://aziscafe.com/index.html

http://maps.google.com/maps/place?client=safari&rls=en&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=washington+dc+nw+1336+9+st&fb=1&gl=us&hnear=Washington+D.C.,+DC&cid=12196182154941226661

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.

Cafe Hounding: Blue Bottle Coffee – Mint Plaza, San Francisco

Blue Bottle Coffee Co. – Mint Plaza, San Francisco
66 Mint St. (corner of Jessie), San Francisco, CA, 94103
bluebottlecoffee.net

Picture 1

Blue Bottle Coffee is a household name for coffee geeks living or visiting San Francisco.  San Francisco Chronicle featured an interview with James Freeman about a month ago. I have been frequented this cafe, both getting a latte at the cafe or buying their beans to bring back to my home in San Diego. The flagship Blue Bottle is at the Mint Plaza, not too far from Civic Center and Union Square. However, it is not located on the main streets so this place is ideal if you want a quick escape from the hectic people traffic on Market and Powell.

Picture 2

The cafe is easy to spot if you know exactly where it is. Otherwise, try to locate a cute “blue bottle” logo on the wall of the building behind the Mint Building. Once you enter the cafe, you will find yourself in a craftsman-decorated 17ft-ceiling room with modern, industrial redecoration. Looking around, you will see glassware of Blue Bottle’s Kyoto-style coffee maker and other coffee-related appliances on cafe’s long countertop. It really makes you feel like being in a chemistry lab rather than a cafe, which is very cool.

I usually visit Blue Bottle in the afternoon of weekdays, and always find the cafe packed with customers. Sometimes, the line even goes beyond the entrance. The staff are friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to answer your questions (including those related to the chemical reactions that might be happening in one of those glass beakers!). Since the cafe was very busy during the last time of my visit, I did not have a chance to talk to the barista although my latte was very good as expected. (Last month, my cappuccino was prepared by Sally, who had worked with Blue Bottle for 8 months. The drink was great, too.) Blue Bottle uses their 17ft Ceiling Blend for their espresso drinks. It mimics the Italian espresso blend but substituted robusta with high-quality organic arabica, resulting in a very smooth coffee with nice aroma. Blue Bottle also uses organic milk for their latte and cappuccino. If you are an ice-coffee guy, try Blue Bottle’s Kyoto or New Orleans ice coffee. (The Kyoto-style coffee takes over a day to prepare, slowly brewing drop by drop at room temperature.)

Picture 3

In terms of its ambience, the cafe is good for those who want a short break with a cup of coffee. The high ceiling makes the cafe airy, open, and relax. People also meet here for some quick informal business discussions. Although the cafe seems to be crowded and people have to wait for their drinks at times, I never have problem finding a seat in this cafe. There might be just around 20-30 seats in total, all with communal high bars rather than individual tables. Customers tend not to sit for a long time. One of the reason is that this cafe is not laptop-friendly (no electrical plugs and no wireless internet). However, I concur that this is a good policy after all, given the size of the cafe and the number of customers it serves. This is the place that you can come to enjoy your drink, relax, and leave your work behind– at least for a short moment.

–Kris Hound

Cafe Hounding: Lion Coffee – San Diego

Lion Coffee – San Diego

101 Market Street (Corner of 1st and Market)
San Diego, CA 92101
619.299.5466
www.lionmainland.com

P1000286

Following up the news about Lion Coffee in downtown San Diego that I posted here two weeks ago, I finally visited this cafe today. It has been opened just for about a week. The business seems to be going well so far. As I mentioned in the earlier post, this is the only Lion Coffee cafe in the mainland USA.

The location of this cafe is great. It is near Horton Plaza, Convention Center, and Seaport Village. The floor-to-ceiling windows with garden and trees outside make this store unique and differentiate itself from other coffee places in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. Larry Wilkens, the owner, keeps the layout of the cafe the same as Starbucks cafe that previously occupied this premise, but he redecorated the store with bamboo shelfs, rattan sofa, Hawaiian paintings, and vintage tropical ceiling fans– basically bringing bits of Hawaiian feeling to the mainland USA. (There are a lot of lion dolls and statues here and there all over the cafe, too.)

Picture 7

Seating was ample when I visited, which was in an afternoon of a weekday. Many of the customers seem to purchase coffee to-go. There is also an outdoor seating area if you prefer. I do not expect the cafe to be too crowded. This should be a nice place if you want to spend time relaxing over a cup of coffee, and don’t want to feel that you have to rush because other people are waiting for the table. There is more than enough natural light during the day if you want to read books or newspapers while sipping your coffee. Free wireless internet was detected when I was there, although I was not sure whether it was provided by Lion or some residents in the nearby apartments were generous enough to provide this public goods.

I ordered a latte. It was prepared by a super friendly barista “Lenny” who has worked with Larry and Lion for over a year, since when Lion was still at the previous location in Mission Valley. My latte was made from Lion’s Diamond Head Blend, which has 10% Hawaiian beans plus Arabica from other parts of the world. It was medium Italian roasted. My latte was quite good and served in colorful Lion cup. (I still have yet to try espresso drinks made from Lion’s 100% Kona beans.)

Picture 8

For non-espresso coffee, Lion provides a wide variety of non-flavored and flavored coffee drinks, including 100% Kona coffee. The cafe is also a retail store for Lion Coffee and Royal Kona Coffee beans, which were roasted in Hawaii and shipped here regularly. According to the reviews on yelp and my conversation with Lenny, Toasted Coconut flavor seems to be the best selling blend at this store. There are other Hawaiian goodies such as teas, chips, and macadamia chocolate available for purchase. They also serve light breakfast and fresh pastries, in case you look for something to enjoy with your coffee.

Overall, I had a good experience with the visit. Unlike the ultra-fancy restaurants that occupy the dining scene of Gaslamp Quarter, Lion Coffee is a friendly neighborhood cafe in the middle of downtown that you can just relax and get good coffee prepared by a surfer-dude barista and friendly staff– a cherry on the top of your enjoyment in the beautiful San Diego.

–Kris Hound

Cafe Hounding: Caffe del Doge – Palo Alto

Caffe del Doge

419 University Ave
Palo Alto, CA 94301
(650) 323-3600

www.caffedeldoge.com

P1000258

Caffe del Doge in Palo Alto is a franchise of an Italy-based company but owned by a group of local shareholders. It is a fine cafe located on University Ave near Stanford University and within a walking distance from the Palo Alto CalTrain station. I have frequented this cafe for several times and finally had a chance to write about it.

I visited Caffe del Doge earlier this week. It was in the late morning during the summer time so the cafe was not as crowded as it usually was during the school year. The place seems to be a meeting place for local business people as well as a study place for Stanford students. The cafe has a high ceiling with an upstair loft providing extra seating. The interior decoration is in bold yellow and presents various pictures of beautiful Italy in general and Venice in particular. There are a couple of outdoor tables and indoor high bar stools overlooking outside if you would like to enjoy people watching. But free wireless internet and electrical plugs are also available if you prefer working on your laptop instead.

Picture 4

Ironically, my most favorite drink at Doge is not coffee. Most of the time I ordered their thick and dense “drinking hot chocolate” (which got quite a lot of hostile reviews in yelp!). It turns out that there are not so many places that you can have this kind of hot chocolate so I tried to take the advantage of this offer when I visited Doge. The pastry is also delicious.  But your total bill can add up quickly as the price of food and drink sold in this cafe is on a relatively high range. But remember that the cafe is located in Palo Alto and the ingredients they use are of high quality so we should not complain here. The cafe also sells selections of roasted coffee beans (both blends and single origins from the America and East Africa) and chocolate bars.

Since I was on cafe hounding mission, I decided to order a cappuccino instead of the usual favorite hot chocolate. As always, the staff was very attentive and carefully prepared for my drink. They used their own classic blend “Doge Nero” for my cappuccino. According to their description of the blend, Nero was introduced in 1996 and became the best selling blend in Doge’s Venice cafe. For me, the blend was not too strong (both in terms of body and aroma) but seemed to work quite well with the foam in my cappuccino due to its dark chocolate aftertaste. Given the tradition and trend in specialty coffee that promote 100% Arabica blends, I was surprised to learn that Nero was in fact a blend of Central and South American Arabica and also ROBUSTA from Karnataka region of India!

(Left) Careful preparation of my cappuccino; (Top Right) My cappuccino with various choices of sweeteners; (Bottom Right) My drinking hot chocolate

(Left) Careful preparation of my cappuccino; (Top Right) My cappuccino with various choices of sweeteners; (Bottom Right) My drinking hot chocolate

Overall, what is lacked at Palo Alto Caffe del Doge is the good smell of roasted coffee beans that you usually expect to get when you visit a cafe that roasts their own beans on premise. This is because Palo Alto Doge does not roast their beans at the cafe. In fact, the beans were roasted and shipped to the cafe directly from the roasting facility in Italy. If you are a cafe geek looking for coffee aroma upon stepping inside the store or someone who is very obsessed with very freshly roasted beans, then you will have to knock some points out of Palo Alto Caffe del Doge. But overall, the cafe is a very fine place to have coffee in Palo Alto. Will I revisit there again? YES, of course.

–Kris Hound

Cafe Hounding: Peregrine Espresso – DC

Peregrine Espresso – Eastern Market

660 Pennsylvania Ave SE (between S. 6th St & S. 7th St)
Washington, DC 20003
Phone: (202) 629-4381

peregrineentrance

The illustrious Peregrine Espresso was my first real impressive specialty coffee experience in the Washington, D.C. area. It was quite a weekend for Cafe Hounding.  Upon my first visit to this Eastern Market located shop I was admittedly distracted by catching up with an old friend currently working at Commerce but I was quickly brought back into focus when I entered this fine establishment and saw the fresh roasted bags of coffee sitting at the entrance.

The ambiance is a pretty straight forward hipster look with chopped up doors hung on the wall for decor.  The lighting is good and it was packed with people taking up all of the available seating with their laptops (and there is a pretty decent amount of seating too!).  Granted, this was a Saturday at Eastern Market in the summer so this is probably about as crowded as it gets.

Peregrine Menu

The menu selection was very limited — a positive for me meaning that they do COFFEE here.

Latte Art at Peregrine Espresso

Latte Art at Peregrine Espresso

Let me emphasize the quality of the coffee here.  I entered and was able to choose between my very own personally drip brewed coffee from either Papa New Guinea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kenya or Honduras.  All of these were roasted within the previous few days by Counter Culture down in NC and shipped same day up to DC.  I can attest that the quality control in that process seemed superb to me. One, because the Kenya AA that I drank in the store went down pretty good although not as delicious as the Kenya AA that Caribou carries (sorry guys :-/).  I’ll make a separate post on my experience with Kenya AA’s since it is probably one of my favorite single origins so I’ve tasted a lot over the years.

I also sampled an espresso to get my palate around their custom blend of espresso.  I must say, both the preparation of the espresso and the blend were sort of underwhelming on this visit.  I have heard so much good about Peregrine Espresso AND I was very happy that the baristas were both very knowledgeable of the entire industry and of competitive barismo  AND unpretentious.

They have free wifi and a decent amount of indoor and outdoor seating.  This is a great area of DC and thus, I’m sure they’ll do well for quite some time.  It’s a must check out if you’re passing through The District.  Thanks to David Flynn for his time and conversation while I picked his brain about specialty coffee.  Flynn came in 3rd this past Feb 2009 in the Mid-Atlantic Barista Competition along with other local area talent.  Peregine just opened in late 2008 and looks to have a lot of room to grow and prosper in the region.

Overall Rating: 3.4

Coffee Quality: 4.3, Cafe Ambiance: 3.6, Food: 1.8

–Maher Hound