“Let me, though, when again I have all around me the chaos of cities, the tangled skein of commotion, the blare of the traffic, alone, let me, above the most dense confusion, remember this sky and the darkening rim of the valley where the flock appeared, echoing, on its way home.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Cusco begins and ends with its streets.

Meticulous stonework of the Incas is meshed with Spanish details. Each street and alley winds up and down smooth cobblestones, that which withstood centuries of mules and rubber.

The seemingly natural co-existance of the old and the new is, at the same time, unnatural. Miniature cars race through streets barely wide enough for them, tumbling here and there over flattened stones adjacent to stone walls hand-built by the Incas of centuries past. Women in traditional garb hurry down the street bashfully, while travelers from everywhere wander up the street to maybe nowhere.

Space is tight. Sidewalks are often layered terraces, resembling those that embrace the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Barely wide enough for two pedestrians, one must dart to and from the sidewalk to the cobblestone street, avoiding people and cars, and stray dogs. In some spots, the cobblestones are as unpredictable as the trails that encircle the great Salkantay Mountain, treacherous grounds lurking for weak ankles.

Space is tight and that is beautiful. It forces encounters. The new and the old, the local and the foreign, the there and here – we all meet in the street.

Above the buzzing streets, the deep blue of the clear Andean sky is a blank canvass for the clouds to dance upon. The mood, and the shadows, changes quickly. Clouds form, come, and go, often without much notice. Droplets of rain drizzle sporadically, only to vanish with the clouds, as if they are afraid of the scorching sun.

The color pallet of Cusco is as diverse as the landscape of the Andes. Upon the base of gray cobblestones and reddish brown roof tiles, splashes of red, yellow, blue, green quietly market their existence. Nothing overpowers. This is not unlike the famed Incan tapestry. Colors are celebrated, but not to the detriment of the balance of the whole, always in harmony with the base colors.

The streets of Cusco are works of art. They seem planned yet unplanned, designed yet organic. Then again, history is a designer. Time adds layers and angles not easily perceived my narrow human perception, trapped in the past and in the present. Time is an overlooked creative force. A stone or two in a day or two, a new structure or two in a year or two, a new neighborhood or two in a decade or two. History’s tragedies – the bloodbath of the Spanish invasion of the Incas – never truly heal. And yet its progeny still stands, and ironically exhumes beauty.

Everything changes, and nothing changes.

Colors and stones will add to Cusco. Cars change, streetlights change, people change. But as long as the cobblestones blanket the winding streets and the clouds hover to and fro, Cusco remains.

During the design process for Macintosh circuit boards, Steve Jobs said:

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Years later in an interview about the Macintosh, he also said:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Jobs’ perfection for design was apparent not only for the computer itself, but also for the box that would contain it. Even though the box was going to be thrown in the trash after the consumer opened it, Jobs and the Mac team went through dozens of iterations to perfect the packaging.

Inside and out, designed mattered.

I never thought I’d think of that at a pizza joint.

Fewer things in life are as uneventful as pizza boxes. Most are square or are versions of rectangles. Color schemes and patterns are not inherent, only used to distinguish one box from that of a competitor. Even more so than a personal computer, a pizza box almost evaporates after it is opened, an afterthought that rarely ever rivals its contents. College dorm rooms do not judge pizzas by the boxes; it’s what’s inside that counts.

But people do judge books by their covers.

& Pizza’s new box design is not particularly breathtaking. In fact, I prefer the company’s previous version – clear, simple, spacious, yet bold. The shape of the box was oddly addictive, an elongated rectangle that looks as if it should house a keyboard, not a freshly baked gourmet pie. Not only that, they company created an advertising campaign of sorts using its name – “You & Pizza,” “Love & Pizza.”

The new design maintains the rectangular shape, but all else has changed. Retaining its black and white theme, black lines run through jaggedly. Angular yet not intrusive. The “&” symbol is centerfold, yet not as profound, being at the epicenter of the stripe orgy. The great disappointment, however, is the “Dupont South Now Open” advertisement. Where the company’s first box impressed with simplicity, shout outs to a new store are the ultimate blemish. No more clarity, simplicity.

But why am I writing about this box. Why am I daringly quoting Steve Jobs at the head of this piece.

Because someone gave a shit to design a pizza box. Someone decided to put thought into a pizza box, to spend time and resources. Someone cared. About the box.

My reality has not been distorted. For a pizza company, the content – a.k.a. the pizza – matters most, and & Pizza makes tasty pies. But what sets the company apart from a number of would-be competitors is its attention to detail. The willingness to consider the subtleties of the pizza-eating experience is under appreciated. The experience starts in the line, with the menu, with the counter tops, with the stools and chairs. From start to finish, you are eating a brand.

You eat the box as much as the pizza itself.

Design matters.

Working with great friends at Roads & Kingdoms is always a true pleasure. Since I first contributed to R&K a couple of years ago, the site has grown organically into a beautiful cosmos of pristine journalism and photography.

R&K is at its best when it uses food to shed light unto greater aspects of light, and its most recent Breakfast Series is an embodiment of that strength. Every day, the sight features a different breakfast dish from around the world. It’s simple – a photo accompanied by a short narrative. But the installments are informative, powerful.

Breakfast has been a religion of sorts for me. Food in general, but breakfast in particular. While many mornings these days consist of cramming down bland oatmeal, cereal, or a bagel out of haste, there have been many more when that first bite in the morning allowed a flooding of the senses and memory.

As for my piece, I chose haejanggook. Hearty, simple, bloody, it’s a pick-me-up of all pick-me-ups, an aesthetically brash yet soulfully tempered soup. You can read the piece here

Also, as an introduction to the art of breakfast, you may also enjoy Matt Goulding’s delicious piece here. Masterful as always.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,339 other followers

%d bloggers like this: