Before heading off to Baltimore, I had found what looked like a recent addition to the their budding coffee scene. Artifact Coffee, as it was known, looked like a beautiful, modern space and their folks clearly knew something about coffee. They used Counter Culture Coffee – not a big surprise since Counter Culture is rapidly appearing up and down the East Coast these days – and had invested in a 2-group Synesso Cyncra. While these things don’t guarantee good coffee, they certainly do improve the odds of getting one.
A phone call, however, quickly dashed all hopes; Artifact was closed. Apparently, the cafe was never meant to be a permanent venture, but rather a side project for the Woodberry team (Spike and Amy Gjerde, and Nelson Carey) while they got their restaurant up and running. Woodberry Kitchen is, understandably a more ambitious project with it’s modern restoration of an old mill and a focus on organic, local, seasonal and sustainable, farm to table food. But I never did get a clear answer as to why opening the restaurant precluded having a cafe.
The good news is that the Woodberry team will be re-opening Artifact sometime soon. The bad news is that it wasn’t in time for my visit. Fortunately for me, I was able to get in touch with a friend who lives not too far from Woodberry Kitchen. We needed a place to meet for dinner and she had heard good things about the restaurant. The three of us (her husband too) met up for dinner, and, of course, coffee (at least for me).
The space itself is all that the photos on their website suggest. I apologize for not getting any photos, but theirs are certainly better. It has a rustic/modern design with lots of modern accents integrated into the the old brick mill. The restaurant really does occupy a space, including the interior and an expansive outdoor area with tiered sitting areas, several outdoor tables and the back house that Artifact used to occupy. The only slight mar on the otherwise fantastic aesthetic are the outdoor tables where we sat. They didn’t quite fit in, but the weather was so perfect we didn’t really mind
The food we had was generally pretty spectacular. The grilled squid and the shaved asparagus salad were both quite good, but the morel, pea and bacon flat bread and the rib eye steak with cheddar potato gratin were truly wonderful. The steak, one of the best I’ve had in a while was seared to crisp on the outside and juicy and flavorful on inside. The deserts – chocolate pudding and a fruit crisp – were good, but a tad too sweet. And then there was the coffee.
Woodberry has moved the Synesso from Artifact inside – you can see it in the photos right there behind the bar on the right – and prominently lists a ristretto style single espresso on the menu. They also list a macchiato, a cappuccino and no latte. They also serve both a single and “full table” French Press coffee. Overall, while entirely welcome and more than due, this listing seems pretty ambitious for a restaurant.
As much as I wanted to try it all, it was late so I went with a decaf espresso. It was very nice, full of bright orange, clove, brown sugar and a buttery mouthfeel. I sensed that it was just on the cusp of, but narrowly avoided, a bit of a bitter edge. The cup was so bright and crisp I called over the waiter over to ask him what beans they used (and to confirm that it was, in fact, a decaf). He mumbled something mostly incomprehensible, but knew enough to know that he didn’t understand the question. He excused himself to find someone who did.
A few minutes later, the barista – and not just the bartender who happens to make coffees – came out to let me know that they used CCC’s Mexican Zaragoza. He asked how it was (very nice) and mentioned that it was a little tricky as espresso (that’s what I tasted I think). He explained that they also use this bean as their decaf French Press. I assured him it came out well, and followed him inside to see the equipment first hand and get some other tips on coffee in the Baltimore area.
As a coffee spot, Woodberry Kitchen is not a replacement for Artifact and doesn’t really work as a cafe. They don’t open until 5 PM, charge $2.50 for an espresso (plus tip), aren’t that conveniently located and don’t serve coffee to go.
But Woodberry deserves a round of applause for their ambition and performance as well as doing coffee right. Thomas Keller might serve Panamanian Esmeralda Geisha (1,2) at the The French Laundry and Per Se, but the roaster is Equator Estates, which I’ve never formally reviewed but consider only just above average. Chez Panisse may have its very nice Blue Bottle pour-over house blend for drip, but the decaf espresso (from Mr. Espresso) served to me on a recent trip was nothing particularly noteworthy. If Woodberry’s regular espresso and French Pressed coffees are even close to the decaf espresso I was served, then I think you will be hard pressed to find a restaurant of this caliber serving better coffee. If you know of one, please do add it below.