12 March 2009

Java Jones, part un

Sunday was a day for hanging out in the apartment in the morning, getting a falafel in the Marais for lunch, hitting the Centre Pompidou for the cool Ron Arad exhibition (and the mesmerizing video showing how the space he designed to house it was built).

But it was not a day for coffee. In fact, no day here is a day for coffee. I know it's early, with just shy of 3 weeks of experience in Paris under our belts, hardly a wealth of experience to draw on. But I'm going to call it now, anyway, because although the polls haven't closed, the results are clear.

The coffee in Paris sucks.

And by sucks, I mean not that it's just not good, but that it's actively-- maliciously, even-- bad. One can only wonder what heinous insult the Parisian baristas suffered that they daily, as a class, punish The People so.

I had seen in the several excellent Paris food blogs that coffee here might be wanting. And I understand that until the recent smoking ban in restaurants and such, the coffee served in the quintessential Parisian cafes basically served as something to do between cigarettes. But surely in a city where every single haricot vert points in the same direction and there's a Reinheitsgebot-like edict concerning construction of a baguette tradition (both of which appeal greatly to my OCD tendencies, BTW), somebody here would want to make coffee that's better than that. Since coffee for me is a gustatory experience rather than a caffeine delivery system, there's no real reason to endure the acrid punishment. But I really miss my coffee.

I'm told that the upper-range restaurants serve good coffee, and I look forward to that treat at some point. But an expensive meal is a steep price of admission to a decent brew on a daily, or even weekly, basis.

The challenges of finding good coffee in Paris highlight the fact that the coffee culture in North America is pretty amazing. Not unlike the US craft beer community, the north american coffee community is innovative from the experimental technical side, meticulous from the coffee sourcing and roasting side, and full of dedicated and passionate people pushing the limits and taking chances in pursuit of great sensory experiences. My personal preferences run to espresso, and the thick, syrupy, slow-extracted complex ristrettos available in the increasing number of good coffee shops and some homes in the US are simply outstanding. So good, in fact, that we were actually disappointed, just a little, by some of the coffee we had in Italy last fall.

By contrast, much of the coffee here is a thin watery espresso made from poor quality robusta beans. Not an americano (a regular, thick, espresso thinned with hot water), but a watery, blond-in-3-seconds-because-the-grind-is-3-times-more-course-than-it-should-be, nasty concoction that hardly merits the term extraction. However, one of our colleagues here told me I could remedy that by asking for a café serrée (literally, “tight”, or restricted, like a ristretto). Armed with that knowledge and an address on Place des Ternes rumored to serve real Italian-style espresso, I set out to adjust my negative image of Parisian coffee.

Caffe Kimbo di Napoli is a little jewelbox of a place, with nice dark wood and sleek rectilinear design. One of the baristas was frothing fresh milk (much of the milk here is sterilized for long-term storage at room temp; whatever one's thoughts on the taste as a cereal topper, it is never an appropriate ingredient for microfoam for cappuccinos and such), and with the right chug-chug-chug sound. Good signs, both, so I ordered a café serrée/ristretto from the bar, using both terms for emphasis, and then watched in horror as, instead of adjusting the grinder to produce a slower, more flavorful, extraction, the barista filled a double basket, put an espresso cup and a cappuccino cup under the spouts, and pulled the familiar long watery extraction. She made mine a serrée simply by pulling my espresso cup out from under the stream after 10 seconds.

It's times like these that my rudimentary command of French is most frustrating. I would have liked to politely ask why she hated me so much, but as it was, I had 2 choices: drink it, or just leave. And being both a wuss and a scientist (I had no hard evidence the coffee was bad), I drank it.

I now have all the hard evidence I care to acquire.

Though it's possible there's a decent espresso someplace in this city, it's never going to be the norm, and so it's time to try a different way to skin this cat.

(great image at top was borrowed from here)

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, coffee is a problem. There are solutions but none of them are perfect.

    You can have friends bring you coffee beans from the US.

    You can find a artisanal brulerie and cultivate the proprietor to roast beans for you. Even so, it's hard to get them to roast 'em dark enough.

    You can buy a Senseo and the Senseo coffee pods, and sell it when you leave.

    You can go to Starbucks (I've never done this but I suppose if one is desperate...)

    You can drink tea.