Wednesday, January 30, 2008

CC: Saxbys Coffee

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Saxbys Coffee
Location visited: Malvern, PA
Free WiFi ? : YES
Rating: 2+ [see key]

One of the things that boggles my mind is how many hotels make their guests pay for WIFI. Sure everyone is out to make a buck but for goodness sakes, raise the rates about $0.25 and you'll still make money off your wireless networks. Personally I won't pay for something I can get at a nearby coffee establishment, so if I stay at a cheapskate hotel, I go coffee hunting (which I do anyway, so no real big addition to the agenda).

But recently at a sun-up-to-sun-down conference near Malvern, I was in severe email withdrawal on the third day of the conference so I had my wife do a web search (over the phone) for nearby coffeehouses to expedite the hunt. The only place she turned up that looked close by was a chain I had heard about on Menupages Philly called Saxbys Coffee. Needing really only their WIFI, I gave a call to confirm location, hours, and that they do indeed have free WIFI (which they do).

So on day four, I woke up to get to Saxbys when they opened at 630 AM. Fortunately, I found it with little trouble (though the signage was more like camouflage). The exterior was flat stone with a huge unlit Saxby sign above the door. Inside was a warm corporate chain-ish set up with numerous tables and tremendous lighting.

The coffee is their own, which to my distress, was not very good at all. I had a cup of the Costa Rican that really left me hanging as I typed away on various e-business. The espresso was expectedly worse, as it comes from these elephantine automatic machines and pumped out a tepid, body-less shot. Didn't note the tea (it was early and I was dashing) but according to their website, it seems they have their own tea line.

The only thing that kept Saxbys alive in my heart was that amidst the trend of certain coffee chains charging their customers for the WIFI, Saxbys offers it for FREE as they should. So since they got the whole internet aspect down, now they should focus on improving the whole coffee thing...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

CC: Northern Lights Espresso Bar

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Northern Lights Espresso Bar
Location visited: Scranton, PA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 5+ [see key]

These days, many of the prime would-be coffeehouse locations are just too high in rent. I've seen several coffee establishments go out of business and many more suffer because deeper pockets have their eyes on prime retail space.

But in the town of Scranton, I was delighted to find Northern Lights Espresso Bar smack dab in the midst of central Scranton. The first time I caught sight of it was during some huge Italian festival where the streets were packed with tents and pedestrians. I was passing through at a late hour, needed a good pick-me-up, found it in decent time, and narrowly missed the last call. Fortunately it wasn't the last time I'd be driving through Scranton at a late hour.

The place is housed in a majestic stone building with gargantuan storefront windows right across the street from an old church (and maybe a park; I forget). There's a good deal of metered parking nearby and the oddly when I manage to visit, parking isn't a problem.

Walking in, it's a two-floor space with a wonderful furniture arrangement and beautiful art hanging on the wall. The line is usually healthy and the place almost always hopping.

The coffee is Gimme! out of Ithaca, which was a welcome surprise. The coffee brewed was about up to par with Gimme! straight from the native spout (i.e. little blundering in the brewing at Northern Lights) and they seemed to serve the better coffees (Gimme! has a few dark roasts that make me cry). The espresso was pretty good, as it was pulled decently but for some reason, it just didn't wow me. The tea I think is free leafed.

If I was a native Scranton-ite working in the downtown area, I would be uber pleased to know that Northern Lights was a viable coffee (and meeting) option so close by. I think the place could definitely use some fine-tuning but overall, I definitely plan on stopping in when I'm in the area.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Poor Coffeehouse Warning System

In a lot of my first visits to coffee outfits, there have been some times where I can usually tell before I even sip anything that it's going to be a rough experience. I have compiled a list of warning signs that a coffeehouse might not be that great. Some are scary, some are weird, but all seem to be fairly obvious. Without further delay:

You can tell a coffeehouse is poor when:

1. They ask you to instruct them on how to make an americano

Their menu says "expresso"

3. The barista greets you with "What do you want!?"

4. Where they get their coffee is a secret

You can't see the beans inside the espresso grinder because of all the residual oil

6. When you order a double shot of espresso, the barista looks at you all weird and retorts "You drink that!?"

They don't have ceramic cups and a menu option is espresso

8. You watch the barista start the pulling of a shot of espresso by first pulling out a small bag of ground coffee from a freezer

9. The coffeehouse owner is afraid people will steal the signature drink recipes and is in the process of getting the rights to a peppermint mocha latte (the ingredients are all trade secrets of course)

10. Everyone is wearing the same outfit

11. All of the recommended coffees are flavored

12. Their coffee roaster is in Italy and the coffeehouse is in the States

13. The coffee is sitting on a hot plate

and last but not least
14. The owner/barista asks you what blood type you are before she sells you coffee, as coffee is only good for some blood types (this really happened)

If you have some warning signs yourself, feel free to post them as a comment!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

CC: Bean Exchange

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Bean Exchange
Location visited: Philadelphia, PA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 3+ [see key]

ny native Philadelphian knows of the rich history the city holds but few people really know all the various stories and random facts of the age-old city. I personally love to wander as a curious native, learning of places of (relatively) ancient lore where great men and women stepped out of their comfort zones to do what was needed in shaping this nation.

So it was to my delight that I learned of the London Coffeehouse, a place of 18th century Philadelphia that was a hub of business and politics that closed its doors forever shortly after the Revolution (apparently it couldn't compete with the City Tavern). I'm not sure where the original location is or if the building still stands, but it turns out that there is a coffeehouse called the Bean Exchange that stands as a commemoration to the long gone establishment.

The Bean Exchange sits on Bainbridge in a lovely corner brick building, with the name emblazoned proudly along the length of the building. The warm colonial interior has various tables running conveniently the length of the long space.

The coffee is a brand called Lacas, which according to the BE barista is a quality "Greek" coffee (website says nothing along those lines). The house blend was decent, embodying only a very noticeable spiciness. The espresso was also mediocre, not having much body or pizazz. The tea is Mighty Leaf.

While I'm glad to have come across Bean Exchange for its historical commemoration, it doesn't really add much to the Philadelphia coffee scene. Nonetheless, if you like a dose of American antiquity with your java, stop on in.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

CC: Esselon Cafe

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Esselon Cafe
Location visited: Hadley, MA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 5+ [see key]

ay-long conferences without a drop of decent coffee is a bit of a trial, but very worth it when you stumble across a local gem on the way home.

Traveling west from U Mass Amherst, my fellow colleagues and I had a long road ahead of us and as I was behind the wheel, I was aching for a decent cup of coffee. I noticed a place on our way in that looked like it served coffee (had a coffee cup on the sign) but also noticed that it said "now serving breakfast." The sign as well as the the title "cafe" made me wonder whether it was a legit coffeehouse or one of the many eateries labeled cafe that gives the impression that they serve good coffee, only to shatter my hopes the second I see the old coffee sitting on a hot plate next to the deep fryer.

Fortunately, Esselon Cafe was not an awaiting disappointment. Walking up to the red awnings of the stand-alone building, I could see the expected coffee menu. The inside was spacious and pleasantly arranged, with both inside and outside seating.

Moving on to the coffee, it's all roasted in-house and displays a nice variety. The java sampled held a beautiful body and splendid flavor. Similarly, the espresso was pulled decently by a very congenial barista and tasted bright and lucious. The tea was Oishi.

As mentioned above, the stop at Esselon definitely made my drive home a whole lot sweeter. If you frequent nearby U Mass or happen to be in the area, I would definitely make a recommendation to stop in for a good cup of coffee.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

CC: Connect Cafe

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Connect Cafe
Location visited: Marlton, NJ
(Rt 70, heading east of the 70/73 circle)
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 3+ [see key]

*Update 1/1/09*
It appears that Connect Cafe is out of business.

ooking back to the old days, I remember when the internet first came out. It was the coolest, most mysterious thing that all the hip people had. And where did they all hang out when in groups? At an Internet Cafe of course, yet only if you lived in a cool town or the city, and my town growing up had neither. Then WIFI came about as well as laptops, and the fad was dead before it ever came alive on most of the East Coast.

But a couple months back I heard someone actually opened a coffeehouse in Marlton with the intent of capitalizing on the internet cafe niche. Thinking the rumor half-joking, I decided to pop in the next time I was in the area.

After finding it, labeled "CAFE" (that's eye-grabbing!) in a boring beige strip mall along Rt 70, I soon realized my suspicions were confirmed. The interior has a heavy internet cafe theme (though beautifully decorated), with the drinks labeled "bytes" and "megabytes" to denote the sizes and a policy that you have to buy a certain amount in order to use the internet (I thought that was assumed?). Another side note about the inside is that they have this long, spacious deep-red wall empty of any kind of local art, which seems to be an utter waste.

Moving on to the cafe end they surprisingly serve Crescent Moon Roasters, a dynamite roaster based out of the Mullica Hill area. The coffee served tasted a little stale (as if it hadn't been refreshed in a timely manner) but it was decent. On this particular occasion, the espresso was drastically over-pulled by the young barista and the taste reflected it. Didn't observe the tea selection.

Overall, I would say Connect Cafe could fill the perfect coffeehouse niche in the area if they lost the internet cafe look (the trend died; leave it be), presented the work of some local artists, and really stepped up their coffee passion (Crescent Moon must offer subsequent training...). So when in Marlton, as there's no other decent coffee to my knowledge in the whole town, give it a go and hopefully things will have improved.