Whether it was the reign of Jerry Brown, the recent housing boom, or the fact that it has simply taken nearly 20 years to recover from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, downtown Oakland is finally starting to be an upscale destination spot for food (and drinks). The Washington Street corridor is brimming over with pricier options like B, and less expensive options like Cafe 817, Breads of India or the weekly farmer’s market (not to mention good Belgian beer at the Trappist). There are new growth areas like the Grand Avenue/Broadway zone, home to Luka’s, and the forthcoming Ozumo, and even newer areas like the Telegraph Avenue corridor, home to Cafe Van Kleef, and a little further up, Flora – which Michael Bauer added to his top 100 list this year. Fortunately for this blogger, the coffee is following suit.
It’s pretty much a given that no business district could survive without a decent supply of coffee, but downtown Oakland goes to show how bad that coffee can be while still meeting the need. Until very recently, the highlights consisted of a small number of establishments churning out a decent cup of Illy and the addition of a Peet’s Coffee last year. It may not surprise you, then, when I tell you that I’ve spent the past year watching the boarded up space of Awaken Cafe (occupying the space formerly known as the Golden Bull) with the geeky obsessiveness displayed by those people who line up outside Star Wars films, weeks in advance of the show, usually in costume. Awaken Cafe advertised the potential to uplift the downtown Oakland coffee experience.
However the road that Awaken has taken has been fraught by several bumps and even more frequent delays. If you followed the opening like I did, you may have wondered if it was ever going to open. I couldn’t help conclude that they were being just a tad too ambitious by trying to be all things to all people – a 3,500 square foot, burning man spirit-infused, community business model, coffee bar, restaurant, art gallery and concert space. This all seemed a little too unfairly ambitious to me when I just wanted a good cup of coffee. Perhaps my judgmental attitude was the reason why I was dealt some karmic justice; I got word that Cafe Awaken was going to open just as I was leaving town. (Hrmf!?!)
So was it worth the wait? Mostly, yes. Over the past few weeks, Awaken has quietly convinced me of their skill. I’ve had 4 different people make me espresso on their 3-group La Marzocco and the consistency has been solid. The French Pressed coffee has also been good. There’s nothing mind-boggling in their approach. They simply know and care about coffee. They time their shots. They remake them if needed. They frequently re-press their brewed coffee. They ask you how it tastes and are genuinely open to feedback. They produce real microfoam and the baristas all possess enough skill to throw in a flashy move or two along the way.
Overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with their craft, especially given that they’ve been open only a matter of weeks. Oh, and by “open,” I mean the small, but very attractive coffee counter that occupies one side of the larger space that Awaken occupies. That ambitious multi-function space, accessed by the doors to the left of the coffee counter and which oddly has a duplicate copy of the Awaken Cafe sign overhead, is still apparently in the works.
So what’s not to love? In a word, the coffee (or wait, that’s two words). A few months back, Awaken posted a sign in their papered up window indicating that they had chosen Taylor Maid Farms to source their coffee. At that point, I have to confess, my spirits sagged a little, leaving me with a sense of disappointment I’m not sure I’ve ever fully recovered from.
Don’t get me wrong, Taylor Maid is certainly better than most other coffee in downtown Oakland. The espressos I’ve had – made with the Espresso O blend -have all been very good, with beautiful, lightly golden crema and a smooth, silky mouthfeel. The taste conjures unsweetened cocoa, raisins and figs. The French Pressed coffee has also been good; I’ve mostly had the Sulawesi, a full-bodied, earthy cup with just a hint of pepper and spice.
I guess my issue with Awaken’s choice of coffee is twofold. First, I find Taylor Maid espresso too delicate for milk-based drinks, even a macchiato. The espresso just doesn’t hold up to the milk and ends up tasting flat and uninteresting. I think this is a huge problem for drawing in the crowds since probably very few people are wandering into Awaken to order straight shots of espresso.
Second, I think that a place with the commitment to good coffee that Awaken has could do better than Taylor Maid. When I asked the staff why they went with the coffee they did, I was told that it was because it was organic and local, but there must be more to the story than that. There are so many other roasters in the Bay area that also do organic that I think are pretty universally agreed upon as better than Taylor Maid.
The bottom line, though, is that Awaken really is doing a stellar job. They definitely deserve your business and you definitely deserve their coffee. I just want them to pick a coffee that lives up to their potential.