Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Trying to Raise the Coffee Bar at Houndstooth
With some pretty strong recommendations coming from the good folks out at Cuvee, Houndstooth entered my list of must-try-places in Austin at number one. This isn't just coffee: this is a major entrant into the Austin espresso scene.
JP's blazed a trail. Caffe Medici made it real. Progress made it trendy. Once Over made it cheap. Frank made it with a hot dog on the side. And now Houndstooth is making a go at raising the bar for class A coffee in Austin just a little bit higher.
In Houndstooth's favor: super tasty espresso. There's a lot of factors here: clearly the barista knew exactly what she was doing; the beans came from premier roaster Counter Culture in North Carolina (more about that in a second); and the espresso machine is without equal, anywhere.
Houndstooth always offers two different beans - alternating between top notch suppliers Cuvee, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture - and between several different blends and single origins from each. It's a lot of different combinations. My Machiatto was tasty, sure, but I couldn't help wondering if it was just the luck of the draw. The trick here is in the temperature of the water and the fineness of the grind. If you're using a different bean, it takes a while to get all the variables just where you want them. Even with everything set, you have to make small adjustments for humidity, for temperature and for the age of the bean. A place like Medici works with the same blend all the time. So those guys know that coffee like they know the block they grew up on. But Houndstooth is always bopping around between coffees. How do they get that last bit dialed in? How many shots does it take them to make the appropriate adjustments? I'm not sure. I had a good shot, but I don't trust that it'd *always* be a good shot.
Not that I can't see the reasoning here - changes make it more fun for customers and for baristas. And the outcome for me was delicious - a single-origin Brazilian, which made up for a lack of complexity with a richness and silkiness that bordered on chocolaty.
There's other perks to the place: it's situated in one of the trendiest strip malls I've ever seen, on North Lamar just north of Central Market, anchored by the soon-to-open Uchiko. It's got nice light. The bar is totally slick. They serve wine. But there's downsides too: as trendy as it gets, it's still a strip mall - no where near the charm of Medici or JP's. And while the place is cute, there's a funny mismatch between the customer space, which feels a bit like it was furnished at an Ikea clearance sale; and the barista space, which is 100% custom cabinet gorgeous.
In a happily crowded coffee town, Houndstooth is definitely a player, and it's only been open a few weeks. For now, while I see the appeal, and while I'm definitely going to make another visit, it's not quite enough for me to adopt a new regular coffee joint.