In an era in which everyone and their grandma seems to be opening up ramen shops around every corner, an American chef dedicated to the precision, the art, and the slurpiness of the ramen is a breath of fresh air.

Ivan Orkin took a chance in Tokyo.

Originally from Long Island, Orkin packed his bags and landed in the Far East to master the art of ramen from its motherland. And remarkably for a ‘gaijin’ foreigner, he became a culinary marvel after opening two successful ramen joints in Tokyo.

Now Orkin is back in New York.

Momofuku’s Lucky Peach magazine first introduced Orkin’s return to the West. Re-assimilating to Manhattan was not an easy task.

“I had terrible culture shock when I came back to New York two years ago. During my 30-year relationship with Japan, I had spent a long time learning how to do things a certain way.”

But Orkin embraces his new brothy challenge.

“As a white guy from New York opening a shop in the heart of ramen land, I dealt with some pretty hard customers. But New York’s the same—there I’m still a white guy making ramen trying to convince people that I can cook noodles.”

In this short film, director Jake Sumner captures Orkin’s New York comeback, the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop at Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. Not all bowls of ramen are created equal, and Orkin knows that. He breathes that truth. A fresh gust from the East is about to blow through New York, and one only hopes Orkin’s ramen truth overflows to DC and elsewhere in a hurry.

Enjoy.

The Eight Chapters of Ramen on Nowness.com

The “Soup Nazi” was probably not an unfamiliar site in many developing nations in the last century, minus Manhattan. A big cauldron filled with odd bits of animal parts, radishes, cabbages, and the most basic of seasonings, boiling away for hours upon hours, to be replenished at intervals with stock and more cabbages, until all the marrow escapes the carcass and into the soup.

While many forms of soup have now become “exotic” must-haves or hangover cures for Sunday mornings, soup, at its inception, was the lifeblood of the working poor.

Therein lies the true beauty of soup.

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel-to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

I love Nikos Kazantzakis, not only for his fictional work (such as Zorba the Greek), but also for his travelogues. As if his eyes photo-captured every lasting detail, Kazantzakis masterfully portrays the vast layers of his destinations – its people, scenery, architecture, scent, and food.

What made him an “expert” traveler  (and even more gifted travel writer) was not merely his in-depth depictions and artful prose. What made him great was his willingness – and yearning – to get out the comfort of a car and walk the streets, smell the meat market, and chat with locals about anything and everything.

Peking in the early 1900s was no easy place to travel.

“On a cool square a multitude sits cross-legged. In the center, a girl, slender, with disheveled hair, holds the large scissors which she opens and closes continually while she sings and dances slowly. A harsh voice, a hyena howl, an incomprehensible harmony. An old woman sprawled on the ground, stooping, bald, plays a strange elongated lute. Nearby, an old man with glasses and sparse gray beard and two or three thick hairs on his upper lip is sitting on a stone reading a religious book. As he fans himself, his body from the waist up moves rhythmically with his monotonous voice in a lamenting lullaby. And all around, women listen to him, gaping, with bleary eyes plagued by flies. Sweltering heat. And across at the butcher shop the butcher hangs his jacket over a loin of beef.

Two-wheeled carriages drawn by the coolies who run, panting. The sidewalks are covered with goods – old eggs preserved in lime, innumerable pickled vegetables, sour fruit. And next to them, the fairy-tale shops that sell silk lanterns, ivory fans, precious green gems and transparent porcelains with light drawings.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Japan China

The wonderment of this passage is that Kazantzakis’ description of “food” is inseparable from its surroundings. The loin of beef, eggs preserved in lime, pickled vegetables, and sour fruit are almost painted in black and white with limited verbiage, while the old woman, old man, and coolies are written in splashes of color.

And yet I feel as if I could taste the pickled vegetables. The eggs are right there, within reach of my grasp. My mouth already waters from the colorful fruit sprawled about on mats in this busy marketplace. Not from the words used to describe them, but from the accurate and lively depiction of that hot summer day in 1935.

So what, then, is the true beauty of soup?

The true beauty of soup is that, for many of them, it simply cannot be recreated from a “recipe.” A recipe is only useful for one purpose: to bring about a taste portfolio intended to be drawn out by its author. So if a recipe fulfills its purpose successfully, a cook will no doubt recreate the “flavors” of a soup, maybe even better than its original intentions.

But what a recipe does not contain are the blood-soaked wars, ravenous famines, and suppressive dictatorships from which these soups were conceived.

Take “gamjatang” for instance (first photo above).

An exquisite Korean delicacy, this stew is made from pork spine, rehydrated Napa cabbage leaves, and peeled potatoes. The soup – a culmination of pork marrow, dwenjang, garlic, and hours and hours of boiling – is simply divine. It is not a taste one can create easily in haste, and in my gastronomic experience thus far, there is not a single Korean restaurant in the U.S. that is worthy to be called a true gamjatang joint.

While it is something I eagerly scavenge for these days, gamjatang was born out of utter poverty. Pork spine (and other odd bits of animals) was cheap and easy to get, and potatoes (“gamja”) were the staple for the poor. Napa cabbage leaves from last year’s harvest were hung to dry in the autumn wind, to be rehydrated during the winter. So during the crude winter months, when good eating meant nothing more than bowls of barley, folks would throw these together in huge pots with dwenjang and boil away. And voila, gamjatang (literally means “potato soup”).

Many soups were born out of necessity – the necessity to eat, the unavailability of ingredients, the compulsion to multiply quantitatively. More from less.

Soup is beautiful because it’s a story in a bowl. It’s not just maddeningly flavorful broth you are slurping, but also heritage and history. Food, and soup in particular, cannot be accurately depicted without its cultural context. As many of you would agree, a bowl of pho one had a few Friday nights ago somewhere in American suburbia is nowhere near the same thing as a bowl of pho one had squatting on a bright red plastic stool on a street corner in Hanoi.

As the saying goes, you had to be there.

Especially for soup.

 

I came upon a delicious clip about coffee, by pure chance.

“A Film About Coffee” is a feature-length documentary that follows coffee production and consumption, from harvests in Rwanda to coffee farms in Honduras.

“No matter the quality of your cup, people who love coffee, love it. Coffee is about people, and people are what I’m interested in ultimately.” Brandon Loper, Director

Brandon Loper’s work (see his portfolio here) is more than impressive. Born and raised in Alabama, Mr. Loper has worked in San Francisco for the past seven years, mostly in short films and advertising. I would sum his work as “honest” and “direct,” a powerful storyteller who guides you through the jungles at root-level.

“A Film About Coffee,” due out sometime early this year, is Mr. Loper’s first feature film. If you would like to sign up to receive more information on the film’s release date, and learn more about this project, visit the official site here.

Truly, no matter how you see it, coffee is about people. While there are many coffee videos out there, I am looking forward to see how this feature film will shed new light unto our old, beloved beverage.

Enjoy the teaser from a “film about people.” Coffee people.

 

“Breaking Bad” was blue crystal meth. Chances are, you’ve never heard of crystal shrimp.

Crystal meth is cooked in a lab. Crystal shrimp, in the kitchens of far too many sushi bars in Reno, Nevada. Deep fried shrimp (for the “crystallization”), finely chopped, mixed in with a concoction of mayonnaise and sprinkles of other things. Stuff that into any sushi roll and people’s eyes would roll over with a “Mmm that is like so good!”

From the age of three, I roamed the aisles of Noryangjin fish market in Seoul to sample fresh squid and flounder. From the age of four, I appreciated sashimi. Ten years in Reno (a surprisingly good destination for reasonably priced, reasonably fresh, all-you-can-eat sushi bars) meant stuffing my face with many many servings of crystal shrimp. More recently, I experienced the “art of nigiri” at Sushi Sunsoo in Seoul (read my review here).

In short, the breadth of my experience with Japanese cuisine ended there. Sashimi, nigiri, and yes, crystal shrimp.

Don’t get me wrong. Sashimi and nigiri sushi, I think, are exemplary diplomats of Japanese culinary heritage. In fact, I will take a masterfully crafted course of nigiri over any steak dinner. But I always knew there was more out there and struggled at the thought of never being able to expand my limited exposure.

Then I dined at Makoto.

This is the temple of authentic Japanese dining in DC, if not in America. Since opening its doors in 1992, Makoto (which means “harmony”) serves a chef’s tasting menu (“omakase”, which literally means “chef’s way”), with menus changing daily depending on what’s fresh and what the chef feels like serving.

Makoto is not a sushi bar. While sashimi and nigiri was featured during the omakase, they are not the focal point of the dining experience. I got a chuckle from its website, which says “Our sister establishment upstairs, Kotobuki can provide you with all your diverse sushi cravings.”

Three things caught my attention even before I even stepped into the cozy establishment.

One, “proper attire” is required. Even without instruction, I pulled out a suit to prepare myself for what was to come. Only the best for the best. And one must remove one’s shoes before entering. When you put on those slippers, you are entering the omakase domain. Two, no electronic devices allowed. Phones and cameras were okay, but no tablets, no laptops. Focus on the food, says the chef. Three, no strong perfume or cologne, as strong odors (other than what comes out of the kitchen) may inhibit one’s senses. This was a first for me, and it makes more than perfect sense. Again, focus on the food, says the chef.

 

“Food should fill the soul, not the belly,” says the chef and owner Gene Itoh.

After finishing his meal at Jiro’s sushi bar in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain exclaimed something like, “That was like a symphony. The way that one course leads to the next, it’s like a masterful symphony.” If Jiro’s sushi is a symphony, Makoto’s omakase is a playful jazz set. (For one, the restaurant played great jazz throughout the dinner – lots of Coltrane! – which was unexpected. No elevator music or mysterious “Asian” sounding stuff.) A masterful, perfectly devised jazz set. The ebb and flow of the meal never bores you, never fails to surprise you, and never fails to tug at you, like the rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” making you fall deeper and deeper into its hole.

Reproduced here is the omakase menu from January 25.

 

First Course (starter): Daikon Wawa Salad (julienned daikon skin, wild cilantro and carrots served with sesame dressing), Ichigo Shirae Champagne Fume (strawberries, tofu sauce and Gorgonzola cheese, with Champagne essence)

Second Course (Kobachi): Unagi Sunomono (grilled freshwater eel with cucumber and carrot, served with amazu dressing), Hokkigai to Rapini no Sumisoae (arctic clams and rabini with vinegar and miso), Kampachi Tartare (amberjack tartare garnished with shiso leaf), Gyu no Kanroni (thinly sliced beef with sweet and savory sauce)

Third Course (Yaki Uni No Age Mochi Basami): seared sea urchin roe in crispy mochi cake, served with scallions, spicy radish and agedashi broth, instructed to eat all the elements together and drink the broth (dashi) at the end

Fourth Course (Tsukuri): maguro (tuna) and hirame (flounder) sashimi, instructed to enjoy the hand cut daikon and shiso leaf together with sashimi

Fifth Course (Agemono): langostino karaage (deep fried langostine served with ankake fish sauce)

Sixth Course (Yakimono): choice of grilled fish (we had grilled cod with miso) or organic local prime tenderloin

Seventh Course: nigiri assortment, chef’s choice (we were served maguro, hirame, and hamachi)

Eighth Course (Futamono): Salmon Suimono (Norwegian salmon in clear dashi, with scallions, shiitake mushroom and ikura)

Ninth Course (Dessert): grape granita with Grand Marnier

 

The entire presentation was like a fantasy, a dream that started with a flavor I’ve never experienced elsewhere (tofu sauce with Champagne essence) and ended with refreshing Grand Marnier, with layers and layers and layers within. Like the movie “Inception”  – a very delicious, immaculate movie.

Shoes come off, slippers come on. The dining area is tight, but not crowded. Cozy. The kitchen, partly behind the bar, is not entirely visible, but you see glimpses of the chefs prepping, chopping, frying. The steady humming of the knives and the murmurs of the chefs is somewhat comforting, a sort of lullaby luring you into a multilayer omakase fantasy.

Chef Itoh is a master of flavor and texture contrasts. He understands how to tickle every corner of your tongue and all your senses. For a number of menu items, he specifically instructs you on how you should consume that particular dish. Here is a chef that truly understands the human palate.

 

 

Here are four observations on the omakase.

1. Layers of Flavor

Fresh strawberries with tofu sauce and Champagne fume. First you get the sweet tartness of the strawberries, followed by a creamy, nutty tofu puree. Just as you detect the nutty flavor, the Champagne rises up, pleasantly. All that in one bite. No photo can do justice to those layers of flavors.

2. Dashi!

Dashi means broth. There are dozens of different dashi, and Itoh uses different kinds in several of his dishes. Some more delicate with nuanced flavors, some bolder with a more prominent, even smoky profile. Dashi ties the omakase together. The rare beef in the second course, the uni mochi, the fried langostine, and of course the salmon soup – dashi (or sometimes dashi-like sauce) is a major component of each dish, highlighting the main ingredients.

3. Texture Contrast

I love uni. No words could describe my love for it. And I’ve never seen someone deep fry it, until Makoto. The sea urchin roe is placed in mochi (sticky rice cake), deep fried, and served with agedashi broth. The fried mochi develops a crispy skin, but maintains its softness inside. After the initial bite, the indescribable creaminess of the uni rushes in. I thought the mochi and the nori garnish overpowered the uni a bit, but when I sipped the dashi (as instructed), the subtle sea-goodness of the uni came back. Delightful. (And daring, as not everyone should attempt to deep fry uni).

4. The Japanese Know Their Steak

“Beef steak is served rare only,” says the menu. No further comments necessary. But I will say, the rare, thin sliced beef during the second course was possibly my favorite bite of the entire omakase. The perfectly red beef was rolled with a few sprouts inside, and served with a “sweet – savory sauce.” This sauce is more like a dashi – an enchanting creation that says “hey you are eating the best beef in the world.” The freshly grated wasabi on top completes the bite with a hint of spicy tartness. Bottom line is, the Japanese really know their steak. Really.

 

Good restaurants (good food in general) pay attention to the little things. Subtlety goes a long way. Nuanced flavors, balanced approaches, push and pull of texture combinations all speak volumes of a chef’s ability to show you what he wants you to see in his food. Cups, tea pots, logos, seats, wood – minute design details also add value to the dining experience, leaving a permanent etching of an establishment on one’s gastronomic memory card. The noise, smell, colors and patterns, plating of food, all culminate to complete an omakase.

Makoto does everything right.

Chef Itoh gets it. Makoto is not a sushi bar – and thankfully so. It illuminates the depth of Japanese cuisine, highlights the limitless potential of everything beyond crystal shrimp rolls. After a whirlwind of an omakase, you’re left begging for more, inquisitive as to what else is out there.

The shirt I wore that night still smells of the smoky fumes of the flame-kissed eel. And I don’t mind.

*          *          *

Makoto Restaurant

4822 MacArthur Blvd, NW
Washington, DC 20007
www.makotorestaurantdc.com

In his beloved novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera talks about a lot of things.

For one, he talks about “shit,” calling it a “more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.”

In relation to this revelation on shit, and perhaps more famously, Kundera elaborates on the true meaning of “kitsch,” a critical theme of his book.

“‘Kitsch’ is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

That is some heavy duty manure to digest in one sitting. But in re-reading Kundera’s classic, I’d like to sum his ramblings into two words: “transitory nature.”

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing . . . Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Coffee from the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia is why I first fell in love with specialty coffee. I vaguely remember where I had that cup – perhaps somewhere on the West Coast, perhaps some douchey cafe in Shinsa-dong in Seoul. I do remember flowers, an entire, radiant bouquet, perfuming my mouth. I do remember bright acidity, not enough to wince, but just enough to acknowledge its existence.

I do remember, most of all, its “transitory nature.” The flowers, the acidity, the brightness, all of it was fleeting, gone before I could ask anyone what I just put in my mouth.

There is no reason for good coffee to stick to your tongue like caramel. That is the beauty Verve’s Yirgacheffe coffee from the Konga Cooperative.

Verve describes the washing process as “a single washing station member of Konga was isolated for employing stringent attention to detail and extremely ripe coffee cherry delivery. As an experiment, this station was isolated and milled separately to see if the production would be heightened. The result is a coffee that is filled with concentrated flavors and extremely electric citric tones.”

No doubt, the wet-process for this batch was a success. In addition to the intense tropical fruit flavors and floral tones that I am accustomed to from coffees from this region, the wet-process adds a creamy, velvety feel that I was not aware of. The descriptor “graceful” on Verve’s beautifully designed packaging is accurate. When brewed just right, flowers burst up-front, followed by a mellow wrapping of lavender, which leads to a creamy finish.

Verve’s logo is simple yet brilliant, using a bold yet elegant typeface to etch a permanent image of the “V” for Verve in your retina. The scorpion-leaf-vine-like pattern, repeated endlessly on the black packaging, stays true to the roaster’s roots in Santa Cruz, while the color combination of olive green, brown, and orange (used sparingly, once towards the top of the bag, and once more on the side) breathes air into a potentially dark and heavy exterior, perhaps as a prelude to the brightness tucked within.

The coffee from Konga is enriched by its “transitory nature.” A typical batch of coffee may have one of many flavor notes – caramel, fruits, floral, cocoa, lavender, you name it. But whatever the note, I think the beauty of specialty coffee (and the masterful picking, washing, drying, roasting process) is the ability to make the notes dance for a brilliant moment – then vanish. Linger, yes, but vanish. Just as the passion fruit note hits you, just as the lavender starts to peak, the “unbearable lightness” of the flavors swiftly lift them as if they were never there.

Verve does that. Gracefully.

*          *          *

Verve Coffee Roasters – Konga, Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia
12 oz whole bean – $19.75
Santa Cruz, California
http://www.vervecoffeeroasters.com

For those who have read Albert Camut’s “The Stranger,” warm graham crackers and hazelnut would be the last things that come to mind. While the classic novel takes place under the blistering sun of the Algiers, “warmth” is not often associated with it.

But there is a paragraph that lingers in my mind, one that paints an ordinary man, eating an ordinary lunch, followed by an ordinary nap. One that features the most unassuming cup of coffee, summed in three words – “had some coffee.”

We arrived at Celeste’s dripping with sweat. Celeste was there, as always, with his big belly, his apron, and his white moustache. He asked me if things were “all right now.” I told him yes they were and said I was hungry. I ate fast and had some coffee. Then I went home and slept for a while because I’d drunk too much wine, and when I woke up I felt like having a smoke. It was late and I ran to catch a streetcar. I worked all afternoon. It got very hot in the office, and that evening, when I left, I was glad to walk back slowly along the docks. The sky was green: I felt good. But I went straight home because I wanted to boil myself some potatoes.

I have wanted to try Café Grumpy’s coffee for some time, so when my Parsons student/future superstar designer sister-in-law visited with this bag in hand, I was delighted.

There is nothing ordinary about the coffee from La Esperanza farm in El Salvador. Owned by the Pacas family for generations, the El Carmen lot is 1600 meters above sea level and is 100% bourbon variety.

Bourbon – the variety named “2013 Sexiest Coffee Variety Alive” by Sprudge (read the article here). It was one more reason to try this coffee from Café Grumpy.

“Sexy” is not the word I would use to describe this batch. Graham cracker and hazelnut notes were prevalent, and overall the cup was smooth and balanced. (I missed the key lime note, as indicated on the packaging, but that could have been less than perfect brewing on my part.)

“Warm” is the word for this batch. An unassuming “had some coffee” may have been the phrase I uttered when I was brewing this in and around Christmas, but not out of indifference. Rather, it was a home coming from all the bright and fruity Ethiopian coffees I’ve had in previous weeks – back to balance, back to subtle sweetness, back to smooth cocoa.

The brown paper bag used for packaging adds a rustic, crafty feel. And the infamous Grumpy logo displayed on the label is eye-catching, prominently showcasing the roaster’s brand.

Whether it’s an evening in front of a crackling fire, or an afternoon on a beach under the piercing sun of Algiers, Café Grumpy’s bourbon variety will leave you with lasting traces of warmth.

*          *          *

Café Grumpy – La Esperanza, El Salvador (bourbon)
12 oz whole bean – $16
Brooklyn, New York
www.cafegrumpy.com

If there is one site that genuinely influenced the way I think about coffee, it is Dear Coffee, I Love You. In its fourth year, DCILY has become the go-to resource for inspiring articles and reviews on “the intersection of coffee, culture, creativity and design.” In addition to publishing quality content, DCILY has branched out to sell stellar original coffee products.

For most of 2013, my mind was mulling over thoughts on coffee, branding and design – coffee taste, coffeehouse atmosphere, coffee and design, coffee and creativity. There was one way I could delve further into this rabbit hole, into the qualm of everything coffee, everything creative, everything design: ask DCILY. So I did.

Meet the wizard behind DCILY, Brian W. Jones.

Brian is a designer, photographer, writer, Project M Advisor, Sandboxer, & social entrepreneur who currently lives and works in Göteborg, Sweden. His work has been recognized by Print, STEP, ID, The New York Times, Fast Company, the AIGA, Swiss Miss and numerous other places around the web. On top of all that, Brian is a contributing writer on consumerism & sustainability for Unconsumption.  In his “spare time,” Brian is completing a Masters in Business Design at the University of Göteborg in Sweden.

For those of you that are fortunate enough to attend the 2014 SCAA Annual Exposition in Seattle, Brian is giving a talk entitled “Value of a Distinct Brand” (click here for more information), challenging businesses to think differently about their brand and customer experience.

This Q&A was a tremendous learning experience for me. As my thoughts on coffee and design continue to develop, Brian’s work will always be appreciated.

Enjoy.

INL: What first attracted you to design? What first attracted you to coffee?

DCILY: What I love about design is the opportunity to transform things that aren’t working the way you want them to, into something more preferred. Everything around us is created by someone, and very rarely are those things questioned. We just keep using things, or doing things the way we always have—because that’s the way it’s always been. Design allows you to challenge that.

Originally, coffee gave me the energy to focus on design. I hated coffee for the first few years that I drank it (and made it for other people). I thought it tasted terrible, because it did back then. But the first time I had a sip of better coffee, my design mind kicked in and I wanted to know why everyone drank that awful burnt tasting stuff, when it could be so much better. So I started reading as much as I could about coffee, and looking into how I could improve the current state of coffee, not only in my life, but in the lives of those around me.

INL: You are currently living in Sweden. Why Sweden? What led you there? What was your first impression of the country (and the region in general)?

DCILY: The short answer, a girl. The long answer, an admiration and fascination with Nordic culture, the landscape, the people, the coffee, the women—see short answer.

The landscape is serene, and the cities integrate nature really well into their design—they don’t hide it or get rid of it. You always feel very connected to the environment around you. I really like that. The people are pleasant and easily approachable, but there is also a sense of personal space that I appreciate. So many things I’m use to in the US are simplified and systemized. The grocery stores are smaller, with less choice (less unhealthy choices). The transit systems, while not perfect, are better than anything I’ve experienced in the US. There’s also a much stronger emphasis on equality and accessibility than anywhere I’ve ever lived. I like those things.

“Take-away is not the default option for ordering coffee and I find that incredibly inspiring. Not only for culture, but for humanity.”

INL: What is inspiring about Nordic coffee culture? What are some hallmark differences between Nordic and American coffee cultures?

DCILY: People sit and drink their coffee in the coffee shops. Take-away is not the default option for ordering coffee and I find that incredibly inspiring. Not only for culture, but for humanity. You have to specify that you want to take it with you because most people want to take a break, they want to sit with friends and chat or read. There are also a lot less laptops.

In terms of specialty coffee, everything is roasted lighter, which leads to a much different flavor profile than some people are use to—but it’s definitely my preferred way to drink coffee. There’s more emphasis on the delicate notes, florals, berries, acidity. It can often taste as much like a tea as a coffee. Even the largest coffee chain in Sweden, Espresso House, uses coffee from Solberg & Hansen, that’s as light if not lighter than many US specialty coffee roasters.

INL: You run a design studio, you co-founded Coffee Common, you’re a graduate student, and you publish one of the most respected coffee blogs around. How do these different roles feed off each other?

DCILY: Each one of these things provides an avenue of procrastination from the others whenever I hit a wall. Which is great, but it can be hard to devote the attention I want (or that something needs) to each one of those things. Ultimately that’s why Coffee Common came to an end—everyone involved had too many other things going on. DCILY often get’s relegated lower on the list as well, since client work and school come first. That’s why there’s been a fluctuation in the post frequency on DCILY in the last year and a half—it’s not for a lack of content, but a lack of time.

INL: You have an interest in café design as well. After sipping through dozens of cafés in various cities, do you have a few favorites in terms of design?

DCILY: Koppi Coffee, in Helsingborg Sweden is just perfect. I love that shop and the people who work there. It feels like family when I’m there and the coffee is always great. Certain times of the day, the light is truly magical and I never want to leave.

The simplicity and warmth of Tim Wendelboe’s coffee shop is fantastic and I’ve had several of the best cups of coffee in my life there. If there isn’t a line, the smartly dressed staff will have a glass of water waiting for you before you even reach the bar. You always receive top notch service.

In the US, there are some really epic spaces, thanks to all the room available. Sightglass in San Francisco really sets the bar high, Verve Coffee in downtown Santa Cruz and the new Saint Frank are incredibly beautiful shops—and that’s just around a small region.

The problem with specialty coffee shop design currently is that too many of the start-ups and independent multi-roaster shops are relying on the formula that’s been proven to work. So there are a lot of places that, while nice, could all have the exact same sign out in front of them. They are just replicas of replicas—nothing new.

Very few companies are creating a space that challenges the preconception of what a coffee shop is or can be, meanwhile many people in the industry talk about elevating coffee in order to increase its value to become sustainable in the long run. It’s hard to change perceptions by recreating standard archetypes. Pretty wood and standard service is still just standard service and pretty wood.

“Pretty wood and standard service is still just standard service and pretty wood.”

INL: What weighs more – coffee taste or café design and atmosphere? How do these things complement each other to present a unique coffee experience?

DCILY: Preferably it’s a completely holistic experience, but that’s rarely the case. I’ve personally been known to drink less enjoyable coffee to be in a space that inspires me. I would say that to most people, the brand and atmosphere (and location) probably matter more than the taste of the coffee—unfortunately. Starbucks has proved that point pretty well.

INL: Why is branding important to coffee?

DCILY: I think branding is incredibly important to coffee for several reasons. While coffee varies greatly from k-cups to the finest specialty coffee, the differences become less perceptible to average customers at the higher ends of the specialty spectrum. So how does one company set itself apart from another when they are essentially selling the same product?

First, brand is extremely important to customer acquisition. When someone is making the jump into specialty coffee, or from one company to another, it will most likely be based on a company’s reputation. If they are browsing the coffee aisle in Whole Foods, a combination of brand awareness and design (like wine labels) will play a role. If a customer has never tried your product, they will rely on all of the information they can gather elsewhere—which is intrinsically connected to a company’s brand. This information can be from word of mouth, previous experiences, or simple awareness of the name over others.

The tricky part is that people react differently to different design details, so there’s never a “one size fits all” solution. One person may connect better with the flashy packaging from Verve, thinking it’s more professional or premium, while another person thinks the brown paper bags from Stumptown means it’s more crafted and natural. These kinds of details reflect back on how the brand is perceived overall and can have a huge impact on whether a person connects with it or not.

INL: Which roaster and/or café has the most iconic brand, and why?

DCILY: Starbucks? That can be hard to answer with specialty coffee. I think there are regional differences, so everyone will have a hometown advantage, i.e Stumptown in Portland versus Intelligentsia in Chicago versus Coffee Collective in Copenhagen. Some companies have benefited from high profile media coverage or marketing on a national level, so Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Blue Bottle are pretty household names. Within the world of coffee nerds, the world is a much smaller place, but the companies that have been around longest tend to be more universally known.

“The future of coffee will be determined by service.”

INL: In your opinion, how does design empower coffee? What is the interplay between coffee and design?

DCILY: Design can help change the experience someone has with coffee in a positive or negative way. Whether it’s the interior design of a coffee shop or the way the service itself is designed, it can affect whether someone has a pleasant experience or not. The design of a cup, packaging, seating—they will all affect a person’s experience. The better the experience, the more willing customers will be to pay more for specialty coffee. Also, the way information about coffee is communicated can affect the level of knowledge consumers have, how much they retain and whether it’s interesting or off putting to them.

Design can also affect coffee behind the scenes on the supply side, like new processing and drying techniques, new storage methods and even harvesting tools. These things aren’t as glamorous but design could have a huge impact on them in the future. With different types of disease like Leaf Rust effecting coffee plants, it will become even more urgent for new solutions on the farm and design could play a major role in developing them.

INL: Where is specialty coffee headed in the next five or ten years? How will design be a part of that future?

DCILY: In 5 to 10 years, I think the changing climate will mean there will be less of the good stuff—so we’ll be buying it on street corners for exorbitant prices and injecting it straight into our veins.

In the next 2 to 3 years, I think there will be even more focus on the design of better service experiences and less on the theater of coffee. After a recent visit to LA and spending a lot of time in G&B and Go Get Em Tiger, I’m convinced that coffee from a Fetco, when used well, can be fantastic. It was better than any of the pour overs I had elsewhere and it was delivered quickly.

The focus and energy recovered from manual brewing can be refocused on making customers feel welcome in a way that won’t make them scoff about a $6 coffee served by someone with tattoos and a denim apron. I’ve been spending a lot of time in cocktail bars recently, and although there are a lot of differences (including cost margins), there is a lot that could be learned from the quality of service they deliver. The future of coffee will be determined by service.

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All images incorporated into this Q&A were provided by the courtesy of DCILY. All rights and privileges to the images belong to DCILY and Brian W. Jones.

The wind was blistering cold, churning the frigid air, molding it into icy torpedoes gusting through the narrow streets of Old Town Alexandria. Right in the heart of town lives Misha’s Coffeehouse, a local favorite known for its addictive Route 66 blend (roasted in-house, like all of its blends and single-origin varietals) and cozy atmosphere.

The centerpiece of this coffeehouse is the vintage refrigerator, featured prominently next to the main entrance. Draped with all sorts of local community news and announcements, the fridge, which is still used regularly, shows how deeply Misha’s is integrated with Old Town.

I can sum up Misha’s as “vibrant.” The amount of red used in a cafe, let alone in any interior design layout, could be frightening. But the red used in Misha’s is anything but that. Rather, the red is inviting, complimenting the rows of freshly roasted beans, loud but not boisterous jazz music, and the unassuming black and white exterior.

In terms of cafe design, I prefer minimalist approaches, lots of black and white, modern metallic pieces mixed with vintage items, and bold colors used sparingly as highlights. If color is to be used, in any amount, it needs to make a statement without screaming at you. Misha’s interior accomplishes that at some level.

Fresh batches of coffee are roasted several times a week. While its signature Route 66 blend has customers incessantly storming the counter, Misha’s also roasts an impressive lineup of single-origin varietals, from Yemen Mocca Matari to Kenya AA. The barista’s pour over technique was less than impressive (did not pre-soak the paper filter to minimize the paper taste, and I always cringe when there is a row of commercial Bunn coffee makers displayed at a coffee bar), and the “French Roast” for certain beans seemed too dark to bring out any of the unique flavor notes of the coffees. That said, with a little training, this coffeehouse has potential to brew delicious coffee in a delicious, historic neighborhood.

Misha’s Coffeehouse & Roaster

Today marks the last day of the first full year of I Am Not A Lawyer. This site first started as an outlet for reminiscing my one-year anniversary of the New York bar exam. Since then, I have written about everything from suicide in Korea to traditional kimchi making to specialty coffee. Random is the appropriate adjective to describe the content of this site to date. I wrote about whatever that came to mind, and that usually meant food, coffee and travel, but not always. That is how I intended the site to be, unbound by topic areas, a whiteboard with no limits and no checks. Good food, good coffee, and great company.

The first full year for the site was definitely an exciting one. The number of subscribers and overall traffic ballooned tremendously. My travel essay on coffee was fortunately selected as a Freshly Pressed post by WordPress editors, and my interview with Jodi Ettenberg was featured on her site Legal Nomads, both of which helped expose the site to a broader audience. I’ve fiddled with shooting and editing short videos, and even attempted to start a photo series on line cooks. I thank you for putting up with sporadic content, both in terms of subject matter and frequency. Your comments and re-blogs have been more than encouraging, and having an audience to write for is more than an incentive to continue eating, brewing, thinking, and scribbling. So thank you.

In the coming year, I hope to narrow the focus of the site, to focus more on coffee, cafes, and life that revolves around coffee. Yes, there still could be more food porn to come, and yes, there could be some random ramblings at times. But expect more coffee reviews, cafe designs, and interviews with influential coffee people. With a new layout and a bottomless basket of ideas, I hope to share informative, inspiring posts with you about living the “coffee life.” The site is still a work in progress – design, content, everything. The process is painfully self-defining in nature, but I hope the outcome is a worthwhile site for you to come back to.

Here’s to a thankful year, and another great one ahead.

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Year-End Statistics for INL

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On Coffee

On Coffee: An Epilogue

The New York Bar Exam

Bleeding from Within: Korea’s Suicide Epidemic

Eating Your Way Through Soup Country – with GERD

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Somewhere in an alley.

That sums up the the massive yet delicious “El Gordo” burritos I’ve been devouring the last few weeks. Like a chapter out of Alice in Wonderland, the directions to this hole-in-the-wall consists of “make a right, a left, another right, and another left at the penguin sign.”

Since 1986, this 19th Street establishment has been serving up hearty daily specials – today’s slow roasted pork burrito with habañero crème and spicy coleslaw was immaculate – for the hungry, lost souls of the District.

The marinated beef is my personal favorite, and the grilled items (grilled salmon burrito anyone?) are nothing short of perfect. If you’re feeling extra famished, you may “gordo”-size your burrito, conjuring a sixteen-ounce behemoth that goes well with any one of the three house-made salsas (mild, medium, hot).

No matter the day of the week, no matter the weather, Well Dressed is packed, each patron holding onto a dear order form, eagerly awaiting their numbers to be called. Chipotle and Boloco are just blocks away, and who knows how many other burrito joints dwell within the square mile. But nothing feels more homey than Well Dressed.

Follow the penguin.

The Well Dressed Burrito
1220 19th Street NW
Washington, DC 22036
Mon – Fri 11:45 am – 2:15 pm

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