Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Best Espresso in Chicago?

I think it is about time that someone compares the quality of the espresso at Chicago establishments, and since no one as of yet seems to have stepped up to the plate, I figured I might as well post my current evaluations. All my evaluations are based on tastings performed completely in secret.

But, before getting into these observations, I might as well make some preliminary remarks. By espresso I mean a drink that is perhaps the purest expression of coffee on the planet. Why? Well, it is a small cup of a highly concentrated liquid that has no sugar, cream, or syrup to disguise its flavor. Further, unlike the normal cup of joe, espresso is always served absolutely fresh, and preferably at precisely the moment when the coffee extraction process has finished. Furthermore, unlike Turkish or Greek coffee (which I enjoy tremendously), it is the product of a highly mechanical process that enables a skilled barista to achieve a high degree of consistency over time.

And making good coffee does require skill. Since it is so pure it is a very demanding medium. And there are a number of requirements that need to be met. First, let's dispense with the first faux pas of espresso service: espresso can never be served in a paper or plastic cup, and should only be tasted from a cup that can retain heat, and that is preferably warmed ahead of time. An espresso must be served hot, and it should be served absolutely immediately, since the flavor changes over the first 120 seconds after it is made, and a patron should be able to experience the subtle changes from an initial bitterness to a more mellow and full-bodied flavor. Second, you have to have decent crema. The crema, or foam, on the top surface of the coffee has to be thick (at least 1/8th of an inch) with very small bubbles, covering the entire surface of the cup (although there can be breaks in the center), and perhaps with small curving lines or dots of discoloration throughout, as a side effect of the extraction process. Thirdly, as with all cups of coffee, it's far better for a cup of espresso to be overly strong than it is for it to be weak. A weak or watery espresso is not a cup of espresso at all. Fourthly, the coffee has to be ground finer than regular coffee, and it should be roasted somewhat darker than regular coffee, although I personally often prefer a medium roast, such as the one made by Illy. Fifthly, it should receive a proper tamping: the barista should firmly press down on the coffee before inserting it into the machine (some machines do this automatically). This is important because, unlike with a regular filter cup of coffee, the espresso is being forced through the grounds at a high pressure, and thus the water will not be in contact with the coffee long enough if it is not properly tamped. Finally, and most importantly, the coffee itself must have real flavor. I tend to like an espresso that has a rich and full flavor, with heavy accents of chocolate, caramel and butter, but with the aroma of jasmine, nuts, tea or cocoa.

Oftentimes espresso is served with accompanying items. A coffee shop that really cares about espresso will be willing to serve it with a glass of water, and with the options of sugar, cream, or a thin strip of lemon peel.

Although espresso is a highly mechanical process, this doesn't mean that there's no room for mistakes. Here are a few common mistakes that one could make in the preparation of espresso:

• The coffee quality was poor.
• The coffee was not roasted properly.
• The length of time between roasting and serving was too long.
• The coffee was stored improperly, or allowed to age too much, or was too exposed to the air.
• The coffee grinder did not grind the coffee evenly.
• The coffee grinder did not grind the coffee to the right size.
• The ground coffee was exposed to moisture.
• The espresso machine was dirty, or not regularly cleaned.
• The machine is not delimed often enough.
• The coffee was not tamped properly.
• Too much or too little coffee was added to the machine.
• Too much or too little water was allowed to pass through the coffee.
• The machine was not at the right temperature or pressure.
• The espresso was not dispensed directly into a cup.
• The cup did not retain enough heat.
• It took the wait staff too long to bring the coffee out.

Many people only think of espresso as a "strong" form of coffee, and since they associate strength with caffeine quantity, they assume that they are getting more caffeine from a cup of espresso than a regular cup of coffee. While it is true that the caffeine is more concentrated in espresso, surprisingly enough, a cup of espresso often contains much less caffeine than a strong cup of tea or drip coffee.

Anyway, this pretty much describes what I look for a in a cup of espresso. In the course of my time in Chicago I have had the opportunity to taste many cups of espresso. The good news is that I have had some really great cups of espresso in Chicago, the bad news is I've also had some of the worse cups of espresso I have ever had from a regular espresso machine. In the course of time I've developed a rather subjective scale for ranking cups of espresso. I basically use a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the highest. I suppose, however, I can add a little content to my scores.

• 95-100: A perfect cup of espresso. It is precisely what it needs to be, and I wouldn't want to alter it at all.
• 90-95: a damn good cup of espresso, and it is only differentiated from the highest category in that something in it wasn't perfect. I admit that it is entirely possible that I'll rate a coffee in this category rather than in the highest category for purely circumstantial reasons, so any coffee that gets above a 90 should be seen as a work of art.
• 87-89: similar to a higher-ranking cup, except that it might be somewhat nonstandard. There might be a touch of an unusual flavor, or aroma that is nonetheless pleasant, or the crema might be a little unusual. Since variety is a good thing, oftentimes one might seek out a coffee in this category even in preference to some of the coffees in higher categories.
• 83-86: is a relatively standard cup of espresso. Nothing has necessarily been done wrong, but the flavor or the aroma is just not enticing or exciting.
• 80-83: something has probably gone wrong, but it is nonetheless drinkable.
• 70-80: something has definitely gone wrong, but the cup is nonetheless drinkable.
• 60-70: a rather lousy cup of espresso. Ask for some sugar and cream.
• 50-60: hardly worth drinking except for instrumental values (you need caffeine and there is no decent cup of joe, you are about to close a business deal, and don't want to suggest that it hasn't been a perfect evening). If you don't have an instrumental value, demand that the waitress makes you another cup, or deducts it from the bill.
• Below 50: leave now, don't even bother asking for a refund, it's not worth it!

I should add that just because a particular restaurant, café or coffee house has scored excellent or poor doesn't mean that the espresso in the establishment or café will always have that score. Maybe it was an off night, a new barista on the machine, they didn't realize the coffee was not stored properly, etc.

So here's the places ranked so far from best to worst (I'll update it periodically, and consequently adjust the scores):

1. Intelligentsia, Belmont Ave --92-95
2. Istria Café, 57th Street, Hyde Park --90-95
3. Julius Meinl, Southport Ave --89-91
4. Argo Tea, 16 W Randolph --91
5. Intelligentsia, Monadnock Building --89
6. Gourmand, Printer's Row --87-88
7. Third World Café, 53rd street, Hyde Park, --86
8. Artists Cafe -- 69
9. Brasserie Jo --63

Let me also add a few more qualitative notes on these establishments:

1. Intelligentsia, Belmont Avenue: the best tasting espresso I've had in Chicago came from this establishment, the flavor was rich, deep and consistent with strong nutty and chocolate tones. And although the coffee wasn't quite as good the second time I went there, it was still what it should be. It has been a pleasure drinking coffee here. The coffee I've had at the company's Monadnock location wasn't nearly as good.

2. Istria Café, 57th street: a new establishment. This may very well be the best cup of espresso in Chicago, it certainly is in league with the Intelligentsia on Belmont. The staff seems to take espresso very seriously, and will go out of their way to tell you about their machine, and the different steps it takes to make espresso. I'm quite happy that such a place has opened up in my neighborhood. The coffee has a nice rich flavor and it develops rather nicely over the course of the first two minutes. The only drawback so far is that it is a less than ideal environment in which to drink your espresso; the train tracks are directly overhead, the set up is like a cafeteria with very small tables and plastic chairs, and it is quite small. But this is a small price to pay for espresso, and the space is at least open, well lighted, and very orange - in this case a good thing, I think. Matches the orange motorscooter that is often parked outside.

3. Julius Meinl, Southport Ave. For a long time this has been my favorite place to get a standard cup of espresso. The coffee I have had there may not be quite as good as the Intelligentsia on Belmont, but the coffee is served with much greater reverence and respect. If one orders a cup of espresso, one gets to have the coffee served on a silver metallic tray, along with a biscuit, a chocolate, real cream, a sugar tube, and a glass of water with a spoon balanced on the top. In my opinion no one serves a single cup of espresso in a better fashion in Chicago. It is the anti-Starbucks. An added bonus is the violinists and keyboardists who come in weekend nights. Very civilized.

4. Argo Tea, Randolph --91: A recent discovery. I was quite surprised by the quality of their espresso when I first tasted it. I suppose it is due in part to the fact they serve Illy coffee, which is the best large-scale commercial producer of coffee suitable for espresso production production. But the coffee also was made very well.

5. Intelligentsia, Monadnock Building: See the Intelligentsia listing above. I was sort of disappointed by my cup of coffee here, it was good, and professionally prepared to be sure, but it also seemed to be lacking the rich flavor I found in the more northerly establishment. The room the coffee is served in, while very nice, has a heavy amount of traffic due to the many local offices that get coffee there, so, it is not the most relaxing place to drink an espresso. But it is a pleasure to be in the Monadnock Building, and perhaps I'll find the coffee is better the next few times I pass through.

6. Gourmand, Printers Row: The coffee here was good, but not very flavorful. It was weak in the nutty and chocolate flavors. A sort of eclectic little coffee shop, with a lot of space, it can be a good place to sit back with a book, and light up a cigarette. But if you don't smoke, you may find the air a little stale or unpleasant due to all the people who do.

7. Third World Café, 53rd Street: This coffee shop is relatively close to my house, so I've ended up coming here often. The espresso does seem to be usually prepared decently, fairly good crema. Nonetheless, the flavor of the espresso is not as rich as I would like. Free wireless on weekdays is a plus, although it is quite unfortunate that the coffee house closes at 7:30 rather than 10 PM like it used to. There are very few places to get good coffee on the Southside at that time of night, and it is sad to lose one. I should note that the drip coffee at this establishment is unusually good, provided that you get a medium or larger sized coffee in a ceramic mug.

8. Artists Cafe, Michigan Ave: I have a lot of sympathy for this establishment. There are few places in the loop where one can get espressos after 9 PM, and the outdoor seating in the summer is definitely a plus. Unfortunately, the espresso was weak and had that thin quality that one associates with bad cups of regular coffee. Maybe I went there too late at night.

9. Brasserie Jo: An off night? I don't know, but this is one of the worst espressos I have had in Chicago, it was weak, almost watered down, and the coffee had a flavor that was barely distinguishable from the bad cups of coffee that were served to others at the table. One almost never expects an American restaurant to serve espresso that is as good as a coffee shop's but this cup of coffee brings that level down to a whole new level, and so it seemed worthy of note.