My most recent tour of Philadelphia coffee (now badly in need of an update) never did include a visit to La Colombe. I was well aware of its reputation as a Philadelphia landmark whose coffee is subscribed to by Michelin star chefs, but nearly every report suggested that their extremely dark-roasted style wouldn’t be one I enjoyed. I didn’t actively avoid La Colombe’s coffee on that trip (then again, what is one supposed to make of a cafe whose name translates roughly as “the dried-by-fire, or scorched, dove.”), but they ranked low enough on my list that some other cafe or roaster always ended up superseding them. I finally ended up trying La Colombe’s coffee for the first time on my recent trip to New York. Their Church Street cafe, where La Colombe reportedly pays up to $10 K a month in rent, was close enough to my other targeted stops to warrant a trip of its own. Beside, I felt somewhat obliged to try La Colombe’s coffee given their place in the larger coffee cannon. Maybe I wouldn’t like their coffee, but I had to be sure.
The Church Street cafe, which is oddly absent from the company’s website, doesn’t precisely match my aesthetic. At the same time, it’s hard for me to say that I don’t at some level appreciate the care and attention given to the place and to simultaneously recognize that many New Yorkers might find La Colombe’s sense of design appealing. A theme it shares with many New York locations are aged/restored brick walls. This cafe contrasts this older look with a more modern, deep gray, dove-insignia-painted back wall. This mix of wall patterns blends smoothly into the rich, dark wood of the rounded, triangular tables, benches and counters. The total effect, however, is a little slick, cold and dark, even as it does convey some feeling of elegance.
The stand out element that embodies both style and function, and one of the reasons I was actually excited to come here, are the twin, vintage 2-group, Faema E61 espresso machines. From these two machines the barista pulled me a dark, smokey and mellow espresso that tended towards the sweeter and not too bright side, with some richer, chocolate notes. The crema was reddish and moderately thick, but the overall shot was somewhat harsh in the back of the throat and didn’t otherwise wow me with any flavors or aromas.
I forgot to note the brewed coffee that day although I believe it may have been the Corsica. Of course, La Colombe, bucking anything resembling coffee’s latest trends, offers only 5 blends – no single origin coffees – and roasts them all towards the darker end of the roasting spectrum. At the Church Street cafe, brewed coffee is prepared in a commercial brewer and my cup of coffee didn’t give me a lot of insight into any particular origins of the beans in this blend. The roast flavors were very heavy, resembling a slightly less compelling version of the shop brewed coffee from Peet’s.
The bottom line is that La Colombe produces a slightly above par espresso with room-to-grow brewed coffee and not too many options in terms of the latter. I think my initial expectations were more or less on the nose; it’s certainly not to my liking. It also troubles me that La Colombe is so well received by so many top-rated chefs. Just to be clear, it’s better than Starbucks and this cafe would have been a welcome sight 4-5 years ago in a much less coffee-rich Manhattan. These days, however, unless you live around the corner from La Colombe, there are so many other better options right near by.