Walking out of the screening of “Chef” the movie, a prominent thought in one’s mind has to be, “I’ve got to get me a Cubano. Now.” After the pork fantasy subsides, the next prominent thought is the “pretentiousness” of the food and coffee world. When does one cross the line between “connoisseur” and “snob”? How does one define “good” food or coffee? Or is there even such a definition? Can good food be just “good,” and can good coffee be just “good,” without the superlatives, adjectives, and the beards and flannel?

While spending some time away from this site, I was asking myself some of these questions. As a read various coffee reviews and food columns – and as I tried to wrap my head around those honey-blood orange-cactus-butterfly-cumquat cupping notes – I realized that coffee and food is not some hipster fad. Rather, they are fundamentals of life that have been part of people’s lives since the dawn of civilization (yes, coffee came a bit later). Gatherers gathered, hunters hunted, farmers farmed, fishermen fished. And at the end of the day, folks built a fire and gathered around a table to break bread. Good food, good people. No nonsense, just communion.

When I first planned to write about Northside Social in Arlington (alas, already several months ago), I remember being somewhat disappointed that the cafe did not offer pour over coffee. I thought to myself, you’re serving great Counterculture Coffee, and all you have is that pre-dripped Bunn trash that I can get at the diner down the street? And yes, I was planning to write a harsh review on Northside’s lack of coffee sophistication, that while serving as a cool local hangout, the cafe did not offer anything worth noting.

Snob. Douche. Unappreciative of what coffee, and food, is all about.

Northside Social is the perfect cafe for a late night shot of whatever (and wine upstairs) with terrific pastries (biscotti and chocolate cake are worth every bite) and sandwiches. When most other cafes are closed by nightfall, Northside runs strong into the night, buzzing until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Besides having more than enough tables outside for a cold one on a summer night, live music in the cafe is not a stranger, as musicians from all roads come and go with their tales.

Good coffee is so much more than cupping notes. The countless minutes I wasted swirling my Chemexed brew around my tongue to get a glimpse of that preserved blackberry note. While quality beans roasted perfectly will undoubtedly have pronounced flavors, there is no need to make coffee more than what it is. Some of the best food I’ve had came from the fish-gut riddled streets of an outdoor market in rural Korea, and I was applying a different standard to coffee. A lack of pour over service is not a death sentence. Maybe I don’t need to know the exact soil content of the micro lot the coffee came from. Maybe I just won’t drop a Benjamin to buy that state-of-the-art coffee scale, maybe I just won’t nervously eye the stopwatch to time my brew to the exact second.

Maybe I’ll just brew coffee and drink coffee.

Excellence should be awarded. Perfection should be pursued, and perfected. Yes, please don’t stop developing those personal relationships with micro lot farmers, and please don’t stop working the soil to harvest the best coffee there is. Please keep the science moving.

But at the end of the day, it’s meat over an open pit, fresh bread from the oven, and coffee. It’s that steaming Cubano from the truck. It’s a good meal with good people, and coffee. A good Cubano is not birthed by chance; marinating the pork, roasting it, slicing it, buttering the bread, pressing it down on the grill, all requires precise science, innovation, technique. But that Einstein Cubano is not meant to be eaten with forks and knives. It’s best when eaten curbside, hot mustard and grease running down your thumb, the Autumn heat pounding on the back of your neck.

Coffee tastes of the atmosphere. It’s a communal beverage, soaking in the notes of the music and people that surround it during consumption. In that realm, Northside has great coffee. Folks chatting over a glass of wine, folks chomping on paninis with their eyes glued to their Macbook monitors, folks splitting a thick slab of triple-chocolate cake over late night coffee. Lively, boisterous, unpretentious. Coffee where coffee belongs, in the midst of conversation, work, tears, joy. Amongst the people.

Give coffee back to the people.

Admittedly, it is not normal for one to enjoy a cup of hot, drip coffee at nine p.m. But a life of sole individual norms does not add to much, and for no particular reason, I have a personal tradition of ordering black coffee before late night movies. It is as addictive, and comforting, as extra-buttered popcorn or warm kettlecorn. As others munch through their bags of corn, I sip incessantly, sometimes consciously, but mostly at a pace of utter ignorance and lack of thought. I just drink.

Coffee at the movies does not usually generate much conversation. Not only is it less popular than the standard popcorn, nachos, and soda, but the quality is (understandably) below what I would consider drinkable. Somewhere between law school coffee and the three p.m. leftover pot at work. For coffee, that is kin to the eighth ring of hell, in Dante’s terms. Soda and popcorn, that is the staple. Soda and nachos, soda and hotdogs. I find incredible, heartfelt joy when I find another being sipping coffee at the movies, as if I’d found a long lost kin.

Angelika Film Center and Cafe is like none other. When it first opened its theater in the Mosaic District in Northern Virginia, people flocked to it for the balanced showings of independent and blockbuster films, the occasional foreign features, and believe it or not, the kimchi hotdog – which I’ve tried, and to my disappointment, is nothing special. Bollywood or no Bollywood, kimchi-dog or no kimchi-dog, what drew my attention was the shiny La Marzocco espresso machine on the first floor. I could not believe my eyes. Where was the Denny’s coffee pot, and Bunn brewing thing?

Along with beer on tap and an impressive assortment of baked goods, the tiny cafe in the corner brews Intelligentsia coffee, even at the utmost late hours, for addicts like me shaking to take that fresh cup into the showing. The baristas knew what they were doing, and let’s just say that sipping quality coffee at the movies was something I did not expect to see in this decade.

After opening its flagship theater in New York’s Soho district in 1989, Angelika has expanded into Dallas and Plano, Texas, and Northern Virginia. This is not the AMC you’re accustomed to. The interior design, the layout, and the lighting is more like an exhibition, patrons lounging and chatting with a glass of wine, pint of beer, and yes, coffee. Gourmet snacks, gourmet-level independent films, and a gourmet atmosphere is very fitting for gourmet coffee.

Angelika’s iconic logo, resembling the likes of a mixed breed between a Greek god, Roman soldier, and rugby stud, hangs prominently on one wall, as if to watch over the patrons as they ascend or descend the glass stairs to and from the theaters. I wish, however, that Angelika would make more use of the logo. Simple prints or stamps of it on the coffee cups or sleeves would be a nice touch, and would enhance its branding.

Tapping the Fandango app on my phone, finding a new movie I’ve barely heard of, realizing that it starts in thirteen minutes, rushing to the theater, barely making it to my seat to catch the final seconds of previews – with a cup of Intelligentsia coffee in hand. Fewer things in life could be more satisfying.

Breaking bread at the table has always meant more than caloric input for physical survival. While nourishment is important – and while, tragically, millions are still starving today – food has a way of communicating the noncommunicable. When no amount of words are sufficient to convey remorse and sorrow, food is the medium in which one heart is transplanted to another.

Food’s role as communicator also transcends borders and race, and this truth was recently displayed on the shores of Jindo, where hundreds of distraught family members still await the return of their loved ones from the sunken Sewol ferry.

Koreans and Turks affectionately refer to one another as “Brother Nations.” This bond was initially forged when a sleu of Turkish soldiers fought and died with other allies during the Korean War, and was readily apparent after the bronze medal football match between the two countries during the 2002 World Cup. That is why Enes Kaya, Bal Zuma and their Turkish friends drove five hours from Seoul to Jindo on the wee morning hours of April 24 – with enough kebab for 2000 people.

Enes Kaya first immigrated to South Korea in 2002, enrolling as a student at Hanyang University in Seoul. Transitioning to a new country and culture was rather smooth, and he described his Korean acquaintances as friendly and understanding, especially regarding his religious beliefs on pork consumption and alcohol. When Kaya heard of the Sewol tragedy, he and few of his friends agreed to act out this notion of “Brother Nations” by physically trucking down to Jindo. The entourage was formed. Eleven individuals – both Turkish and Korean – prepared the kebab at a Turkish restaurant in Gangnam, Seoul, and loaded a food truck at 2 a.m. On the outside of their truck, the entourage clamped on a banner, in Korean, which read: “May the victims rest in peace. We pray for the safe return of those still missing.”

Upon arriving at Jindo at 7 a.m., the entourage checked in with authorities and set up their kebab truck near the community gymnasium, where most of the family members have been camping out for the past week. Heads started turning. First, the sight of foreigners in a sea of Koreans was not a common sight around the campground. Second, the smell of slow-roasting meat was also a novelty on those shores, particularly at that hour. Nevertheless, the entourage started serving free kebabs to anyone willing and able to eat breakfast.

Turning heads lead to voiced complaints. Other volunteers from all over the country allegedly approached the entourage and the authorities and complained that the “smell” of kebab was “inappropriate” for such time of mourning. Many of the family members have not eaten for days, they said, and the smell of meat permeating the Jindo air was not appropriate for the occasion. Despite such dejection by some, the entourage carried on, serving fresh-made kebab to hundreds of volunteers and family members, and even hand-delivering the food to those unable to come to the truck.

In tragic times like this, one is always careful about voicing one’s thoughts about anything. However, acts of kindness and compassion are always worth discussing. The “Kebab Volunteers” were not part of any large organization. They paid all of their expenses out of their own pockets, and drove five hours to a remote town, with the sole purpose of providing free food to devastated family members. This effort, however, was scolded by some because of alleged “cultural” differences, that the smell of roasting meat is inappropriate for times of sorrow.

One cannot easily agree or disagree with such “cultural” notions. I am aware that, in the past, meat was reserved for festive occasions in Korea. However, this meat rarity was largely due to the country’s economic situation, where meat was expensive and one could only splurge on it when absolutely necessary, such as birthdays. In large part, that is not the case anymore. For the vast majority of the Korean population, meat in some form is consumed almost on a daily basis and is no longer reserved for festivities (although, admittedly, one still finds more quantities of meat during festivities). The same goes for the “smell” of roasting meat.

One cannot help but imagine. If the Kebab Entourage was entirely composed of ethnic Koreans, and if they had served a different type of food, say sullungtang (ox bone soup with boiled beef) or bulgogi, would the people have reacted the same way? If, instead, Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ was there with one of his Kogi taco trucks, would they have reacted the same way? Sullungtang, bulgogi, Kogi tacos – all dishes would arguably perfume the area with the “smell” of meat. Was the scolding truly due to the smell of meat, or was it largely due to “unfamiliarity”? Unfamiliar people, unfamiliar food, unfamiliar smell. And what does this scolding say about Korean society as a whole?

Maybe “meat during tragedy” is still inappropriate in Korean culture. Maybe the scolders were truly concerned for the well-being of the family members, that the smell of kebab would truly upset them. What the entourage did, however, resonates powerfully. Empathy transcends cultures.

As with the entire Sewol situation, many questions remain. But one thing is certain.

Food speaks, and these gents spoke loudly. Thank you.

*          *          *

The images used in this post are owned by Newsis and Yonhap News.

When it comes to Greek cuisine, I usually prefer the quick bites, the grab-and-go lamb souvlaki, wrapped hastily in pita bread, tsatziki imminently and inevitably dripping over the not so far reaching aluminum foil. Take, for instance, Kosta of the Greek Deli in the heart of DC. A legendary figure, with a bellowing “Next!” not so unfamiliar with the “Soup Nazi” character from Seinfeld. The food is prepped and cooked daily, the line almost always protrudes into the sidewalk, and there are only a handful of tables, used when the sun permits. You go in, you order with Kosta, you get your food in a paper bag, and you’re out. Next.

Greek cuisine at a white tablecloth establishment was new to me, until I dined at Nostos in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia.

Previously, I stopped by to try the moussaka – it was unearthly. Perfectly baked, with distinct, unforgettable flavors at all layers. On this occasion, I had one thing on my mind: lamb. As its Easter Sunday lunch selection, Nostos offered a three set course menus, each one featuring a different lamb creation. The traditional roasted lamb, dashed with herbs and olive oil, is an homage to traditional Greek flavors. The lamb skin was crisp, while the lean meat was moist. And bless the chef’s soul – there was a slight mound of extra skin on the side. My obsession, however, was with the lamb shank. Slowly cooked in a tomato-based sauce, the meat – and the gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth fatty bits – literally fell off the bone.

Chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson understands fat, texture, and flavor. Lamb, when not prepared correctly, is not a thing of beauty. But when masterfully done, the interplay of skin, lean meat, and fat offers a depth of flavor not easy to find in other red meats. Not only was the lamb superb, the chef’s other items on the Easter menu were spectacular as well. Chunks of liver and sweetbreads is something I have not tried in a soup, but together with fresh dill, I had glimpses of hearty offal heaven between spoonfuls. The grilled octopus leg, a house specialty, was dreamy soft and had a great charred flavor. The rock fish was cooked well, and the assortment of bread and traditional red eggs tied everything together on this occasion. (And I assure you we had more than one basket of bread.)

The Easter meal finished beautifully with crafty desserts and tasty coffee. The galaktoboureko (semolina custard wrapped in phyllo, sprinkled with honey and cinnamon) was other-worldly, and the kantaifi (shredded phyllo dough stuffed with walnuts and honey), although a bit on the sweet side, had great texture between the shreded phyllo, honey, and walnuts. Nostos serves coffee from Eagle Coffee, a Baltimore-based roaster founded in 1921 by Greek immigrants. While the Eagle House Blend did not light up any new light bulbs for me, the balanced coffee matched well with the honey-laden desserts.

Lamb on Easter. Fewer things are more beautiful, especially when it is prepared by Chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson of Nostos.

As expected, the lead curator for modern, “New Nordic” cuisine does not use a standard, traditional kitchen. In a video made for the Culinary Institute of America, Noma’s René Redzepi explains why his kitchen is designed the way it is, and why he does not have a traditional kitchen brigade, composed of saucier, poissonier, and so on.

“We’re trying to move away from the traditional steel cage.”

Sometime in 2015, Noma will be uprooting and replanting itself, in its entirety, from Copenhagen to Tokyo, while its current home undergoes renovations for two months. This begs the questions: how will Noma’s menu change halfway across the globe? Noma’s rise to the top of the gastronomic elite was, in my opinion, its near-obsessive focus on locally-sourced ingredients, mostly in the plant kingdom; Mr. Redzepi is an expert in sourcing and gathering edible creations around their current location.

I know for a fact, however, that reindeer moss does not grow in the wild anywhere near Tokyo. If Noma is to stick with its current mantra of using seasonal, local plant matters, one should be more than intrigued to see how the restaurant will adapt to its new temporary home. Will the torch-bearer for New Nordic Cuisine act as ambassador for its roots, or will its dishes resemble some new creation, a Nordic + East blend?

One can only wait to find out.

Until then, Noma’s ingenuity buzzes on in its kitchen.

With no hesitance, I may say that I return to restaurants for the food. If the food leaves even a slight inscription, I most likely shall return.

At times, however, the inner markings of an establishment, in conjunction with the distinct quality of the food served, also leaves more than a slight inscription on my palette of memories. At times, the mere act of entering an establishment, sitting, and staying seated, has significance that surpasses any level of deliciousness, and exponentially multiplies the joys of dining.

This is why I find myself repeatedly returning to Eamonn’s in Alexandria, VA.

The beer-battered, deep fried cod is a popular classic, the grouper is also fantastic, and my favorite, the ray, literally evaporates on your tongue, bones and all. Eamonn’s fish and chips are superb, but here I focus on its innards.

The innards of Eamonn’s – classic, rustic, new, old, discombobulated, random. Everything you’d want in a chipper. As with many old Alexandria shops, the original brick walls are still in tact, serving as the base of everything that goes on it, in front of it and above it. The dark brown wood frames seem almost as old as the bricks themselves, the chipped crimson hue and the wood creating an overall rich, dark setting.

This darkness is balanced with the somewhat out of place chandeliers and “stained” glass on one side of the wall. The warm yellow lights slowly ooze from the candle-like fixtures, creeping through the Guinness and oil permeated air. The lighting, both man-made and natural, convert the “darkness” to “warmth,” a temperature of the mind that calls upon relaxation and a desire to stay.

As with great pieces of art or fashion ensembles, there are splashes of vibrant color throughout the establishment. Purple, green, and red from the displayed Maltesers and other candies, the not -so-subtle, forest green Guinness balloon, and the sexy fish on the wall, swimming in a sea of mustard yellow.

“Thanks be to Cod.” Yes, and Thanks be to the Capital E.

Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper

*          *          *

Wikipedia defines a collage as “a technique of an art production, primarily used in the visual arts, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.”

An assemblage of different forms. Creating a new whole. Most things we consider “uniform” did not start out in uniformity. At one point, most things we consider as uniform, as a singular “whole,” began as distinct, individualistic blurbs, heralding from different corners of this organized chaos we refer to as our world. An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes, whether or not the purveyor of the said whole or the recipient of the benefits of the said whole realize the distinctness that embodies this new creation.

When one studies the history of coffee, from its early beginnings through colonialism through industrialism and beyond, one realizes the undeniable fact that coffee history is “an assemblage of different forms.” As the coffee trade traveled through cities, countries, and continents, it absorbed distinct blurbs of disinctness, reformatting itself to the needs and wants of the people.

The coffee house was no exception. Debate house for debaters, political house for politicals, chat house for chatters. The coffee houses we know today are a product of this assemblage of hundreds of years, and is still being molded to create a “new whole.”

Killer E.S.P. in Old Town Alexandria is a collage.

The cafe’s entrance is bright and airy, as an impressive selection of colorful gelato and a hand-painted elephant greet you. As one walks deeper towards the back of the cafe, the more “random” everything becomes – an odd collection of tables and couches, eclectic photographs hanging throughout, and red brick walls as old as Old Town itself. Organized chaos, when executed precisely, is a beautiful thing. An assemblage of different forms creating a new whole is no easy task, and Killer E.S.P. almost has it.

“An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes.”

Seating per square feet says a lot about a coffee house. More seats, more bustle. Less seats, less bustle. To add to the character of a coffee house, the decision to place more or less seats per square foot should be made on an aesthetic basis. Done this way, even a “cramped” coffee house could resemble “an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.” Coffee houses should not be about “turning tables” without any design considerations on how the seating affects the cafe experience.

The random collection of tables and couches at Killer E.S.P., seemingly thrown together at the back of the cafe, is not ideal for reminiscence, quiet conversation, or work. However, that is why this coffee house has character. The random tables and couches add character, the photographs on the wall add character, the “tightness” of the space adds character, the loud music adds character. Killer E.S.P., in short, is visual arts demonstrated in coffee-form. Preference for lighter, airy cafes should not diminish the value of human warmth devised through the proximity in which my neighbor is sipping her latte.

 

This leads to an observation of something prevalent in the coffee house world, something that does not embody the collage of coffee history – coffee houses exclusively brewing coffee from a single roaster.

The economic reasons for such business decisions are clear. So are reasons based in reality and practicality. Exclusive dealing clauses are a way of life in the world of contracts, ensuring a protective bubble around a brand’s product in the market. Killer E.S.P. brews Stumptown beans exclusively. Stumptown Coffee is excellent. In terms of sourcing, roasting, and branding, it is indeed one of the leaders in the specialty coffee world. But it seems like every other coffee house brews Stumptown. Every other coffee house (at least in the DC area) brews Counter Culture Coffee, for instance (which is, of course, another excellent leader in quality coffee). The issue is not with the standard of quality associated with these roasters. Instead, the issue is the lack of choice for the customer.

“Coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only.”

Coffee connoisseurship is often compared with wine connoisseurship. There begins my analysis. When one walks into a wine bar, one expects more than one variety of wine from more than one vintner. A wine bar that serves only a limited number of bottles from one vintner from one region could be deemed a “specialist,” but it would indeed close its doors in no time. Singularity is not accepted in the wine world, and it should not be so easily accepted in the coffee world. Variety should be celebrated, not only in terms of coffee growing regions and micro-lots, but also in terms of specialty roasters.

For coffee houses that roast their own beans, singularity should be celebrated, and all attempts should be made to feature, front and center, their product. But for those that “import” beans from elsewhere, this is a thought to consider. There already exists coffee houses that practice this method. Even some coffee houses that roast their own beans often feature “outside” coffee. This added variety not only enhances the customers’ coffee experience, but also adheres to the history of the coffee house.

At their best, coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only. Killer E.S.P. smells of the brick walls of Alexandria. As a collage within a collage, the heart of a city thumps within this giant of a cafe.

*          *          *

http://killeresp.com/
1012 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Sun – Thur 9 – 9:30ish, Fri – Sat 9 – 11:30ish

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,301 other followers

%d bloggers like this: