My first cup of coffee was at a dinner party at our house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was 10 years old, and I remember not so much the way it tasted, but the way it felt to be in grown up conversations with this deep rich coffee smell all around and a plate of Italian cookies on the table. I remember the warmth of the cup in my hands, the inky cold blackness outside the dining room windows, and the sophistication of the whole experience. Coffee was special-occasion-only until high school and a regular daily ritual after that. By the time I finished college and moved to DC, I’d figured out the importance of fresh ground beans, had the epiphany of espresso, and had started hanging out at Quartermaine, my local coffee shop, rather than staying holed up in my apartment.
It took until 2007, 24 years after that first cup, to discover really good coffee, at Caffe Medici, on West Lynn. Medici opened up a whole new level of coffee in town, and served as Austin’s gateway drug to some pretty extraordinary highs: Once Over, Houndstooth and half a dozen other top-level shops are turning out amazing drinks, Austin baristas are placing at the top of US Barista Guild national competitions, latte art has become commonplace, and Mike McKim has taken Cuvee Coffee Roasters to national relevance.
The space is light and airy – two stories of glass with loft seating and warm colors. There is a clean modern aesthetic to it all, but the basic design is all about theater. After entering the front door you walk past a massive square espresso bar housing two complete espresso work stations to the back of the store to order. You place your order and pay up, and then head back up front, where shots are pulled on a pair of gleaming red 3-group La Marzoccos. It made for a good show when Starbucks first tried layout this in the 80s at Pikes Place, and it makes for a good show now.
There are seats outside, on the wide sidewalk next to Congress Avenue, inside along the windows, and upstairs in a gorgeously engineered loft. A benevolent Medici looks down from a mural on the back wall.
The space is fantastic, but the key to what Medici is doing now is in the cup. Medici has been using the same Espresso Medici blend from Cuvee Coffee since the get go. Every Barista there knows exactly how these beans want to be treated, and they have dialed in the temperature and the grind to impossible precision. The resulting espresso is rich and winey, with a chocolaty first taste and a long, lingering almost tart bite at the finish. Alone, it’s fantastic, though ristrettos can pack a puckering wallop.
With milk it’s out of this world. I would happily drink anything they make, but my go-to drink is the Espresso Macchiato, where just a few ounces of perfectly steamed milk tops the espresso. If I’m there for a little longer, I’ll get the small latte and linger on the silky roasted marshmallow flavors that come out when the milk is taken to just the right temperature. They have food, and it’s good enough, but the action is universally and unapologetically the coffee.
I came to coffee for the smell and the taste, but mostly for the experience. This most recent Medici outpost has brought that back home more directly, and more elegantly than any place else I’ve been.
More pictures are up on the Grubbus Facebook page
For a historical trip back in time: My original review of Medici, back in 2007 is here.