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Mission Report: Coffee Bar (a preliminary review)

Name: Coffee Bar
Location: 1890 Bryant Street, San Francisco, CA (entrance on the corner of Florida and Mariposa)
Roaster: Mr. Espresso
(find a link to the full review here)
Rating: Not Yet Rated

Coffee Bar opened last December in that nebulous neighborhood - Potrero Flats? – located between the Mission District and Potrero Hill. It’s that kind of micro-neighborhood that you could easily overlook unless you happen to live or work there, or just happen to be intimitely familiar with the city. Coffee Bar resides in the space formerly occupied by Arc Cafe, and is the love child of Luigi Di Ruocco (as in the Mr. Espresso owning Di Ruocco family), Jason Michael Paul and Michael Richardson.

Now you may have not heard of Coffee Bar, but I don’t think that its location is necessarily the reason. After all, if you build it, they will come. It seems to me that there was a lack of hype surrounding its opening – and I’d be interested in knowing if others think this may be true – especially in contrast to two, more recent, similar coffee endeavors – Blue Bottle’s Cafe which opened in January and Four Barrel Coffee, which is (hopefully) opening in May.

This lack of attention very well could have something to do with self-promotion. I honestly don’t have a good sense of how the Coffee Bar crew worked the media, but it seems to me that James Freeman and Jeremey Tooker are no slouches when it comes to this task. More importantly, though, I suspect that there may be a kind of bias towards the fact that Coffee Bar uses (not surprisingly) Mr. Espresso coffee. Mr. Espresso has been around long enough now that it may be perceived as part of the coffee establishment. It subsequently lacks the cache and headline driving media cred of a third-waver (I’m using this term in its most limited generational-describing sense) like Blue Bottle, Ritual, or Four Barrel. And, although I personally like the qualities of Mr. Espresso’s espresso, I have heard some general professional disagreement mumbled from time to time about Mr. Espresso’s wood-based coffee roasting method.

I don’t want to get sidetracked, however, on publicity and public opinion and miss the much bigger story happening here. This triad of new entries in the high-end coffee scene – Coffee Bar, Blue Bottle Cafe and Four Barrel Coffee – mark something of a coffee revolution in San Francisco.  I’ll hold off saying too much until I see exactly what Four Barrel decides to do with itself when it opens, but all three appear to be moving the coffee genre forward: offering unique ways to experience coffee (single-origin espressos, the clover, a siphon bar, coffee cuppings, etc) while also rethinking the space in which to do so (a bar, a high end restaurant and a coffee tasting room). The goal appears to be to create something other than the usual study/work/casual meeting space that might loosely define a venue as a cafe. Instead, each appears to be aiming more towards a destination focused conspicuously on consumption (food and alcohol as well as coffee).

So what specifically is Coffee Bar doing that is so revolutionary? As far as coffee goes, they offer two choices for espresso pulled on a Faema: Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan blend and (at least when I was there) a single-origin Kenya AA. They also have a choice of about 5-6 different beans they brew on their Clover. (Yes, they are one of the lucky few in the city to have purchased a Clover in the nick of time now that Starbucks has purchased the Coffee Equipment Company that makes the Clover.) Coffee Bar also offers a fairly extensive food and wine menu (think coffee/bar in addition to coffeebar), all of which looks appealing but which I didn’t have the opportunity to try.

The venue, itself, is really three distinct spaces. There is the semi-private picnic tabled outdoor seating, which is less elegant but terrific when the weather is nice. And then there’s the interior. As you walk in the door, you see the bar and some limited bar seating. You then notice the second tier of seating up a short flight of steps from the bar. The entire interior space is spare and industrial, with lots of concrete pale wood (some good pics here). The overall effect is one that I think is both modern and elegant. There are some magnificent, enormous pieces of art on the wall and tables and furniture are modern and attractive.

How is the coffee? Sadly, that’s where this review falls short. The problem is that when I got there, I was still too hopped up on caffeine from my trip to Four Barrel Coffee to be able to consume enough to give a good evaluation. I ended up ordering a single cup of Kenya AA brewed on the Clover and only managed a few sips of that. My initial impression was that it was roasted too dark, but then I was hit by a burst of bright acidity and floral notes. The affect was neat – I think the darker roast helped mute what might have otherwise been an overpowering brightness. At the same time, I wasn’t wowed by this coffee like I wanted to be. The bottom line is that my opinion is far from formed – that’s why I’m calling this a preliminary review. I plan to visit again soon to give Coffee Bar’s wares the thorough tasting they deserve.

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