The “Profiles” features in The New Yorker are some of the most inspirational, thought-provoking pieces of writing one could read on otherwise unproductive, stifling commutes on the subway. In a recent feature, Jony Ive, senior vice-president of design at Apple, alludes to the German designer Dieter Rams as a source of inspiration. To quote the article:

“In Rams’s formulation, a new object should be innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough, and environmentally friendly, and feature ‘as little design as possible.'”

While this is certainly applicable to Apple and its immensely profitable products, that last bit is profoundly gospel-like – as little design as possible. Now, more than ever, when coffee roasters and cafes are investing more time, energy, and money into designing and operating coffee shops of varying appearances, “cafe design” has become a cornerstone topic. (As a footnote, you can read my interview with Brian Jones of Dear Coffee I Love you, here.)

Less is more. Design is most effective when it whispers. Shouting, while eye-grabbing for fleeting moments, is distracting to the ultimate experience of enjoying a tasty cup of coffee.

Peregrine Espresso, in the Eastern Market neighborhood in DC, embodies this ideal. I have heard of Peregrine’s impressive selection of impeccably (in-house) roasted beans, and the masterful orchestration of its baristas. All true. The natural sun-dried Yirgacheffe I tried that day, from the Idido farm, was immaculate. With hints of Concord grape and strawberry jam, the cup was balanced with just enough acidity.

Compared to the flashy flavors of its coffees, the cafe itself is very understated. No Scandinavian furniture, no fancy lighting, no multi-colored chalk drawings sprawled about. Space is a premium. Yet the cafe is profound. Peregrine’s logo, re-created on one wall, is symbolized with a shade of the color green; that green theme is subconsciously reminded throughout the cafe, to the point where it goes unnoticed until the second or third glance. The place does not shout “hipster.” It is clean-cut, minimal, where you have just the essentials – bar, brewing gear, pastry/coffee display, tables, chairs. Not much else.

On a rather unassuming Wednesday afternoon, the cafe was bustling. Patrons order, chat, drink, chat some more. Some stay, some leave. A cafe carrying out its essential functions is a beautiful thing. Serve great coffee, provide an inviting space, highlight your brand quietly in design, but powerfully in taste.

Specialty coffee, in recent years, has attracted (unwillingly, and unintentionally, maybe) a pretentious side. While in line at Peregrine, I overheard an interesting exchange between a patron and a barista.

“Could you grind this bag for an AeroPress, and this bag for a Bialetti?”

Perfectly legitimate request, until you think it through. The AeroPress and Bialetti are both excellence brewing contraptions. But getting freshly roasted specialty coffee pre-grinded – by the bag – defeats the purpose of buying specialty coffee or brewing with varying devices. Brewing devices exist to highlight different angles and flavor profiles in a batch of coffee. The lone fact that you are brewing using an AeroPress or Bialetti has little value in itself. It almost seems as if saying “I brew with an AeroPress” automatically places one in the class of coffee connoisseur. It does not.

It does not take a major stretch in imagination to think that coffee – although perfectly sourced, processed, and roasted – that was ground three, five, seven days prior, is not the same coffee. It loses aroma and essential oils that are so vital to highlighting the coffee’s flavors. The AeroPress and Bialetti are not flavor injectors; they are mere tools to enhance what the beans already possess.

There is no room for pretentiousness in coffee. While the science behind cultivating, picking, processing, roasting, and brewing coffee is undeniable, enjoying coffee is simple, as simple as things get. In this regard, coffee’s magnetic attraction to design is irreversible. Contraptions, cafes, brands – they are there but not there. Getting out of the way for the coffee in the cup to shine is hard to execute but essential to sustainable success.

Peregrine would have Rams’ approval. Aesthetic beauty is best exemplified through unobtrusive, honest design. And design is best exemplified when there is as little design as possible.

Design is not foreign or alien. It is most effective when it is the opposite: intimate. But one could argue good design is roving or migratory, in that it is never the overwhelming statue in the middle of the room. Rather, it is a steady, constant current, drifting through the core. According to Peregrine, its name is defined, fittingly, as follows:

Peregrine (per’e-grin,-gren)
1. Foreign; alien.
2. Roving/wandering; migratory

[Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin peregrïnus, wandering, pilgrim, from Latin, foreigner, from pereger, being abroad]

A feeling of loss? Theft, maybe. Relinquishment?

It’s the feeling when a best kept secret is no longer a best kept secret, when the world knows what you thought was secretly yours. I guess it was never a best kept secret in the first place – it was never ours, never mine. It was the world’s to begin with.

I’m talking about Baked & Wired in Georgetown.

Weekday mornings, weekend evenings, it seems nearly impossible now to find a decently serene time of day to fully enjoy this beautiful coffee shop. The coffee bar is on full throttle – milk steaming, espresso flowing, coffee grinding. Tourists, passers-by, serious folk, casual folk, they’re all lined up in a squiggly formation in front of the pastry and cupcake shrine. And macaroons, too.

Coffee is great here, partly because they usually offer a variety of single-origin beans from a few roasters. Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and so on. I don’t usually drink lattes, but when I do, it is here at B&W. If you do have a sugary urge, do grab a cupcake. Yes, you read that correctly. Cupcake. There is a particularly famous joint in Georgetown, one that has its own TV series, where tourists stand in lines that go for blocks, in rain and snow. You might of heard of it, yeah, Georgetown Cupcake, or whatever. Totally overrated compared to the stuff at B&W. Better frosting, better flavor, better and better. I don’t usually buy cupcakes, but when I do, you get the gist.

Great coffee, great baked goods. But I like this place because of its somewhat odd, unbalanced interior. The coffee bar is understated, the La Marzocco machine is prominently featured, while random trinkets hang from the ceiling in harmony with hand-written menus. Minimal, essential. The baked goods bar is contrasted by giant moon-like lighting fixtures, illuminating the assortment of carbohydrates enveloped under glass lids. More like an art showcase than a pastry display. Glamorous, even.

The back of the coffee shop is starkly different, highlighted by a “Napkin Wall.” Dozens of paper napkins are taped to the wall, all of them with some form of writing or drawing (or both) on them. I don’t know what the wall is supposed to represent. As a collective, it seems to be a “I was here” sort of thing, individual doodles making a broader collage with no particular meaning. Meaning, however, is no prerequisite to general aesthetic beauty. And the wall, in an eery way, is beautiful.

The coffee shop that was never mine, never ours, is no longer mine, no longer ours. But it’s still there, serving good stuff, and the wall is growing. Each stroll through Georgetown will always feel incomplete without a visit to Baked & Wired.

And as the great Maya Angelou would say

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

There is a first for everything. First kiss, first drink, first car. Then there’s the first meal of the new year. Critical. You can laugh, but the first meal of the year can have implications of how a year will (or will not) play out. After the ball drops in NYC, after the cheers, the hugs, it’s chow time. Last year, my choice was cheese steak with fries – very respectable. This year, I went for a classic: Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.

Parking was hell. I considered public parking in a garage, but the shady-hustler-bouncer-like gentleman was asking $20 in cash. No way. I parked a few blocks away and braved through the cold at 3:00 am. In typical New Year’s fashion, U Street was flooded with people. In typical Ben’s Chili Bowl fashion, the place was jam packed. Nothing new, I heard.

The line to the cashier snakes around; it’s Disneyland trauma all over. Only this time, I seem to be the only sober one in the crowd. For good reasons, I always welcome the new year in a sober state. I cannot see the benefit of leaving one year and entering another completely inebriated, unable to remember anything. I would think that is the last thing you would want. Nevertheless, the crowd was drunk, rowdy, jovial, stinky. Who cares, it’s the full Ben’s experience.

In all honesty, I had heard so much about Ben’s prior to my (virgin) visit, that I thought their food was probably overrated, uber-hyped. But three things surprised me for the better. One, the chili is fantastic. Spicy, tangy, smoky, creamy, it was much better than I had expected. Two, the half-smoke. You have to get the half-smoke. The griddle must have been under a spell. Perfectly cooked, crisp snap of the casing, smoky and salty. It was complementary to the spicy chili. Three, the chili cheese fries. You take all the good things I said and pour cheese over it, you get their chili cheese fries. Not going to say much more – it’s just damn good.

What a meal to bring in the new year.

I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.

In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.

This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.

We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.

Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.

Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.

Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.

What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.

Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.

billygoat2 thanksgiving

Versatility is an important characteristic in an ingredient, and few are more versatile than pork belly. You ask folks about Korean cuisine, and the usual suspects come up – BBQ, bibimbap, kimchi. In the grilled meats realm, bulgogi and galbi were the top vote-getters maybe five, seven years ago. But arguably in recent years, charbroiled pork belly has risen in the ranks.

But pork belly over charcoal is just one way to transform the animal to edible form. A recent stroll through H-Mart was enough to remind me of some sublime recipes.

I give you “Pork Belly, Five Ways.”

Here is the standard cut. Around half an inch thick, balanced layers of fat and muscle. Perfect for grilling with course sea salt.

Here is a similar rendition – “tenderized.” We also call this “honeycomb” pork belly. The H-Mart offering looks like an angry butcher had himself a tricep session. The idea is for the pork to cook faster with increased internal heat exposure, with added tenderness.

Pork and kimchi (specifically, “old” kimchi that is further along in the fermentation process) goes well together like chicken and waffles. The cut below is in smaller chunks for stir-frying with spicy-sour-pungent kimchi. Add peppers, onions, gochoojang, garlic, and rice wine, and your pork horizon will expand beyond your imagination. (Not pictured here are cuts for inclusion in kimchi stew. Those cuts typically have more fat, which produces a rich, hearty broth.)

I have not yet tried pork belly in shabu shabu. I would imagine it would be best in Szechuan-style shabu shabu (hot chili oil), instead of the milder/clearer Korean or Japanese varieties. The final cut is for boiling. In most cases, these two-inch thick cuts of meat are boiled in a simmering pot with dwenjang (fermented soy bean paste), green onions, onions, garlic, and other spices, until tender. Slice into centimeter-thick slabs and consume with raw oysters, garlic, and dipping sauce that is a combination of dwenjang, gochoojang, and sesame seed oil (folks call it “ssamjang”).

pb4

When Henry Ford first introduced the Model T automobile, he famously said, “You can have it in any color, as long as it’s black.” (Or something like that.) Customization, and more importantly individualization, was not in the picture, due to cost considerations and other factors. But there is more to this Model T phenomenon than the extra marginal buck for painting one out of ten cars red instead of black.

Ford gripped an era in which commonality was celebrated above abnormality. It is somewhat ironic that the innovative breakthrough known as the mass assembly line was really nothing more than a rubber stamp mass-producing identical icons. Iconic yet identical.

It worked for Ford. But if he was in the food business in the year 2014, he would have failed, miserably.

& Pizza is an assembly line of sorts, a line long enough on most weekdays that it tails out the front door and down the sidewalks of the District. If your patience awards you, your eyes will be glued to the array of “pre-determined” pizza creations listed on the menu or the mounds of sausage, meatballs, fresh mozzarella, onions, capers, fresh basil (and on and on and on…) at the heart of the assembly line, just before the salamander oven.

There are many things I can say about the quality of the food at & Pizza, but I will say just three things.

First, the dough and crust are excellent. Whatever they’re doing to the dough is working, and even the “multi-grain” option is decent. The dough, which is kneaded on the spot, travels slowly through the heat treatment expo until it emerges on the other side perfectly crispy and soft-chewy at the same time. Thin-crust, all the way.

Second, the spicy tomato sauce is sweaty-good. The tomato sauce makes or breaks any pizza, and & Pizza’s spicy variety is a must-have. You won’t feel the heat during the first couple pieces, but by the third and fourth, sweet fumes will start coming up from deep within, provoking beads of sweat to form on your forehead. And you’ll know you’re enjoying it.

Third, the runny egg. I get excited when I see fried eggs in a burger (okay, so maybe everyone’s doing it now…but it’s still good). The Farmer’s Daughter pizza (pictured in this post) features two eggs, with two options – cooked through or “runny.” I opted for runny, and this is what happened. Crack one egg, place on one end of pizza. Crack another egg, place on the other end of pizza. Send through oven. What comes out are slightly torched yolks, just runny enough to trickle down the pizza like a second sauce bonding with the spicy tomato sauce.

Sure, & Pizza has almost reached hype-status here in the District. It’s not too difficult to see at least a handful of folks walking around with the rectangular black and white box during the lunch hour.

But there’s good reason for this hype. The current culinary clash is (1) I am the star chef, here is my creation, you will eat it and like it and lick my feet, versus (2) here is what we have, how can we put it together for your taste buds.

It will be interesting to see how far this “individualization of food” movement carries. Fresh ingredients, abundance of choices and options, and reasonable price ($8-9 range for most & Pizza creations) are things that power joints like & Pizza. The Henry Fords of food are waning, and in their place, runny eggs will rise.

As they say, it’s “You & Pizza.” Just that.

A sudden thirty-degree drop in morning temperatures in the the DC area is a not-so-surprising surprise, if the National Weather Service is correct in predicting record snowfall and temperatures this coming winter. As a survivor of the infamous “Snowmageddon” a few years ago (one slab of memory includes trekking through knee-deep snow to get to the nearest Starbucks for WiFi), I am both looking forward to these predictions and not looking forward to them. While I am curious to see whether this winter will match Snowmageddon, I am not sure how I feel about being trapped indoors for seven days. Make pots and pots of stew, I guess.

In any event, cold mornings have me thinking about two things. Boiling hot bowl of pho and strong coffee.

There are not many establishments where one can get both good savory food and good coffee. Plenty restaurants have good coffee service (I remember the now defunct Adour in the St. Regis hotel in DC serving excellent La Colombe after an exceptional lunch offering), some exceptional, but it is not easy to name a place that I could confidently say that I would dine there for the coffee.

Of course, one hunts down coffee shops for good coffee, where good food is also often discovered, but predictably of the sweet variety.

Pho shops hit you twice. First with that meaty, oily, minty, cilantro-lime-pepper-Sriracha broth. Next with a shot of slow-dripped black magic with near 50% condensed milk content. Meat-savory closely followed by sweet caffeine, a lethal combination for any cold night.

For a good bowl of pho, I usually find myself driving around the outskirts of Vienna, VA, Fairfax, or the more immigrant-dense areas of Falls Church. My experience tells me these places (often run-down joints in hidden streets and alleys) have the best authentic foods, including pho. That partially explains why I have yet to try a decent bowl of pho in the District.

So when I walked into Caphe Banh Mi in Old Town Alexandria, in a more “hip” neighborhood near King Street, I had no expectations. Surprisingly, I was impressed by both pho and coffee.

Here’s what Tom Sietsema (a renowned food critic in his own right) of the Washington Post had to say about their pho. “Pho comes with a minimal amount of the shaved beef we request, and its demure broth requires every accompanying enhancer – lime, jalapeno, Thai basil – to inject more spirit into the bowl.” While he is partially correct, I have to disagree with his overall impression of the place.

First, in a bowl of pho, the “shaved beef,” called “tai,” is the last thing I look forward to. Rather, the more tasty bites come from the tripe, fatty brisket, meatballs, and tendons. Sietsema, of all people, you should know that. (Oh sorry, maybe I’m mistaking you for Robert Sietsema from Eater NY, a respectable offal and ethnic cuisine master) But he’s right in that the bowl could have used more from the animal.

Second, I would not use the word “demure” to describe the broth. I was rather surprised by the depth of the broth; while it was not as deep or flavor-packed as Pho 75 in Falls Church or Viet House in Fairfax, it was rich and clean. And to bash on Sietsema again, part of the pho “spirit” inherently lies in the “accompanying enhancers,” the lime, jalapeno, and Thai basil. You first enjoy the broth as is, and as the meal progresses with each slurp, you drop in the jalapeno and the basil, and of course the bean sprouts, to experience complex layers of texture and flavor. The lime squeeze and Sriracha give you that extra kick on colder days.

On this particular day – drizzling, with random gusts blowing premature leaves into street corners – strong Vietnamese coffee was a welcome closer. And Caphe Banh Mi does it right. While the restaurant owner made a small fortune selling frozen yogurt before opening up the noodle and banh mi shop, strong-sweet coffee is the proper way to wash down the “demure” broth. These things are also potent in iced form during the sweltering summer months, as documented by my friend and co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms, when he wrote, “On that first afternoon in Saigon, I drank three before the old woman with the gentle face put her hand on my shoulder and told me no more. I don’t remember if she spoke English or not, but the message was clear. My hands were trembling and my heart was beating in my throat; Vietnam was suddenly wide open.”

As I transferred the last few spoonfuls from bowl to mouth, I eyed the stainless steel brewing contraption, as the midnight dark coffee (yes, probably way over roasted by my usual standards) slowly dripped down into the waiting pool of condensed milk. A light swirl with the teaspoon across the bottom of the cup transform the black liquid into a murky brown hue, and in three long sips, I am a happier man.

To be fair to Sietsema, the pho at Caphe Banh Mi is not the best I’ve had (not by any means), and I haven’t tried the banh mi. But it’s the closest thing to greatness I’ve come across in Old Town, and there is nothing remotely close in DC. (And I cannot believe the Post would rank Cafe Asia in front of Caphe Banh Mi. Inexcusable.)

So as I dig through my closet in search of running tights on this frigid morning, my thoughts are swimming across seas of beef broth and sweet coffee. Long live the season.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,334 other followers

%d bloggers like this: