LAMILL is not your ordinary cafe. It’s a full service restaurant that happens to focus intensely on and roast its own coffee. I’d loosely classify it as a cousin of Blue Bottle’s Cafe or perhaps the new Intelligentsia Venice when you consider range of options, level of service and overall aesthetic. LAMILL presents diners with a selection of coffees, multiple brewing methods, knowledgeable wait staff, and a setting that’s hip enough to impress a date, but relaxed and friendly enough to enjoy coffee (and food) with family and friends. I report the latter from experience since my recent visit included my wife, daughter, parents and brother who sportingly came along for the ride.
As the hostess led us to our table, I couldn’t help but ogle at LAMILL’s chic, bordering on Rococo, design. The lavish display of coffee equipment includes: a gold-plated, 3 group La Marzocco GB/5; three Clover brewing machines matching the restaurant’s exterior red; several shelves of siphons, Eva Solos, chemex brewers and Frieling press pots; and a bevy of grinders, hot water dispensers and cups. The seating is comprised of black benches which match the black onyx tables, green faux alligator skin swivel chairs that surround the bar, and a number of light blue faux ostrich print chairs whose color matches the top of the bar and the light blue Malkonig grinder. This bold, yet carefully thought through aesthetic is united by way of a roman-themed mural that conquers the back wall.
The multi-page coffee menu might prove a bit daunting for the coffee-unitiated. The concept, however, is simple and the wait staff seem willing to talk things through as best they can for a busy place. You select a coffee and a brew method and that’s pretty much it. The ideal scenario would probably be to visit LAMILL with a small gaggle of coffee-loving friends so as to maximize your ability to try various coffee/brew combination. I was with my family however, who don’t mind sharing, but have a limited repertoire of coffee they like to order. While I never did try theirs, I can report that my mother found her vanilla latte one of the best she’s had next to those from her beloved Kaffa!, and my father was pleased his decaf from the Clover. My wife drank tea and my daughter seemed content with her hot chocolate accompanied by potato chips dipped in whipped cream (I believe the city of Berkeley will officially expel us when they read this). I think everyone enjoyed the beignets, which appear to be a new family tradition.
My brother and I shared a a 16 oz. Eva Solo of LAMILL’s Esmeralda Geisha ($10). The brew method was an easy decision for me since it was the method with which I have had the least experience but probably the most excitement. As this piece (which appeared a couple of days after my visit) explains and based on what I’ve read elsewhere, the Eva Solo promises a more cupping-like quality coffee due to the way that it strains the coffee as you pour. My choice of coffee was a bit more labored. While I really enjoyed the Geisha I had last year and have been intrigued by past cups, LAMILL’s is a different lot (Batch 9 vs. Batch 7) and yet still from last year, a fact made painful given that the 2009 auction just concluded. The waitress assured me that the Geisha she had earlier that day was still good.
I probably should have listened to my intuition. This Geisha was clearly good, but just didn’t speak to me. I certainly noted that it was complicated as it hit me up front with an unexpected syrupy, dark sweetness not stereotypical of a Geisha, gradually yielding to some very luscious tropical fruit and a lemon-like acidity. It was simply neither as surprising nor as unbelievably delicious as I felt a Geisha should be for approximately $5 a cup. Of course, it might have been the brew method, but my bet is largely on the age of the coffee (or perhaps the roast).
My espresso, fortunately, was more up to par. The attractive, off-center demitasse held a dense shot with slightly mottled and fairly substantial crema. It was very round, full, rich and slightly buttery, with prominent notes of fairly bitter chocolate and a touch of dark brown sugar. It was a mostly sweet and mellow shot, yielding only a a slight pucker from me as the rest of the flavors subsided.
On the way out, I couldn’t turn down the recession special – a $2 cup from the Clover – so I ordered the Ethiopian Limu to go. What I drank wasn’t bad, but it was probably worth about $2, given current Clover prices. It had no profoundly negative characteristics but otherwise didn’t compel me to write much either, which is a bit disappointing given the position LAMILL has sought to occupy within the coffee world.
Overall, LAMILL is a top notch spot. The service is friendly and completely unpretentious. LAMILL also provides more brewing options than I have yet to encounter in a cafe (although the new Intelligentsia Venice will match them once they open any day now). LAMILL also offers an impressive food menu that my family only barely explored. That said, while I found the coffee very good, it lacked a certain something I would have expected from a coffee roaster and cafe of their stature. In the end, I would certainly recommend them, especially for a coffee afficianado, but hope you’d modify your expectations accordingly.