Monday, July 16, 2012

Octane at Last. Great Coffee in the ATL.

Waiting three years for a chance to visit, my expectations for Octane were unreasonably high. Last week, after a heated argument with a very confused GPS, I managed to get myself to the newest outpost - in The Jane in the Grant Park neighborhood on the East side of Atlanta. It did not disappoint.

Like so many fantastic coffee places, Octane occupies a reclaimed industrial space with weathered beams, giant factory windows and enormously tall ceilings. All of this history leaves a patina that contrasts beautifully with the shining chrome and porcelain of the coffee gear. The space is shared - about a third belongs to the brilliant A Little Tart bakery, about a third to Octane's coffee operation, and about a third to a well-stocked full bar. Beer. Coffee. Cake. I could be happy here for days.

Coffee is roasted in house, thanks to a recent merger between Octane and Primavera coffee roasters. The outcome is amazing - on par with the coffee coming out of the very best places I've been - with a punchy, citrus-forward espresso, and a good selection of farm-specific pour-over coffees. Frankly, it's getting harder for coffee places to stand out on this basis alone. Everyone has their Strada dialed in. Everywhere has competition-level Baristas pouring gorgeous latte art with local milk. Everyone either scours the world for the perfect coffee bean or has a partnership with someone who does. What I was sipping wasn't the heart stopping moment of that first sip of Handsome Burundi or Cuvee Chachunda, but it was every bit as good as the best of everything else.

So where do you go when you're clearly the best coffee in your town, maybe the best in your State? You go to food. This, for me, was where Octane really shined. The combination with The Little Tart - a bakery focused on finely crafted, traditionally prepared, locally sourced sweets and savories - is nothing short of brilliant. This is where every other coffee place I've been falls short. There's just never a kitchen. Here, in this cavernous warehouse, there is space a plenty, and a subway-tiled commercial kitchen is hanging out behind the coffee churning out buckets of amazing.

I wasn't kidding when I said I could live here happily for a while. The almond cake was simple, fresh and moist, with a delicate crumb; the almond nuanced - an echo more than a flavor. The cakes you find nearly everywhere else - cakes stowed in a cooler, shlepped across town, pre-sliced - simply can not match this. This is what expert cake tastes like when it's born and it is as good a compliment to a rich cup of coffee as you're likely to find.

Octane is beyond a good coffee shop, it's a worth-scheduling-an-extra-long-ATL-layover-coffee-shop. It was worth every minute of the years I spent waiting to find it.

  Octane at the Jane on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Erikson's Throwback, All American, Summertime, New England Ice Cream

My sister recently moved from one Boston suburb to another, landing in the sleepy former mill town of Maynard, MA.

Maynard is Norman-Rockwell-charming, all rosy red-brick storefronts populated by pizza places, neighborhood bars, and quaint, scrappy retail. And Erikson's. Erikson's is a mile or so from downtown - a pristine white creamery and ice cream stand smack dab in the middle of a pretty, but modest Victorian-era neighborhood.

This is All-American ice cream through and through, and has been for more than 75 years. Neighborhood families flock here day and night, and even though the gravel parking lot is stuffed with cars, half the people arrive on foot. Despite the crowds and the mind-boggling array of flavors and presentations, there's never much of a wait.7 separate lines and registers cover the building and there's a clock-work of teenage bustle inside. A scattering of picnic tables sit out back under the canopy of immense trees.

The ice cream is made in Erikson's creamery right next door. You want local? How's 15 feet? It's good ice cream - really good in some cases - but it's not the variety that will leave you speechless in ecstasy. Particularly loved the Strawberry, which despite a shock of color not found in nature tasted like it was mixed from farmer's market berries that morning. Vanilla was more sweet cream than vanilla bean, without a lot of zing. But you don't come here because of the killer hot fudge or the mountain of whipped cream on your sundae. You come here because the sun is setting on a long sunny day and there's a breeze rustling the leaves. You come here because the fireflies are out. You come here because it's still light after dinner and nobody's really paying that much attention to bed time. You come here because it's summer, and that's just how it's done.

Erikson's Dairy on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 02, 2012

Sightglass Coffee. Va Va Voom.

Sightglass is breathtakingly, heart-wrenchingly, staggeringly beautiful. 

I don't know if it's the side project of some infinitely wealthy dot com kid, or if they sell a bajillion dollars of coffee every day, but this is a cost-is-no-object shop. The ceiling soars 40 feet above the massive bar, criss-crossed with giant wooden beams. Enormous windows frame the front of the store and combine with expansive skylights to bathe the place in warm light. On the second floor there's what looks like a coffee tasting lab, a little steampunk and completely functional. There's taxidermied owls. There's a good size drum roaster. There are bags and bags of green coffee and roasted coffee, rows of tags on bakers twine, paper-bag brown bags and boxes. And it's not just that all these amazing details come together into a cohesive modern-rustic style - there's also a lot of open space - vast fields of hardwood floors on three levels, right there in the high-rent capital of the universe.

So, that's the first thing you notice when you walk in. Then you catch your breath, and set about ordering yourself some coffee. And mostly it's just about the coffee here. The pastries are delicious, but an afterthought - the teeny tiny pastry case is situated between the iPad/registers, easiest to peruse after you pay.

I ordered a macchiato - it was really good, but not perfect: the milk was not as smoothly textured as it could have been and while the coffee itself was lovely, it was not particularly complex. Ideally, you want a distinct start, middle and finish to the taste in a coffee. Sightglass coffee is good, but there's none of that tartness you get from some coffees on the first sip, none of the woodiness on the finish. Not bad, and certainly not unpleasant, but a little flat. I took home a bag of the Guatemala Cubito, tried several different brewing methods and found the same simplicity relative to what I've been tasting from Counter Culture, Cuvee and Handsome over the last few months. A lovely cup, to be sure, just not dazzling.

So - is Sightglass one of the best on the planet? In some ways, absolutely. I have a hard time imagining a sexier location for coffee. But in other ways, it doesn't reach the etherial, constant perfection you see from the very best places that do this. It's a relatively new entrant, and they are very very good. I don't doubt that they may well evolve into something mind-blowing, but for now, the big draw is the view.

Sightglass Coffee on Urbanspoon


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