The tacky, smoothy poster standing on the sidewalk in front of Urth Caffe’s Beverly Hills store was the first sign that the coffee here might take a back seat. The second was the well lit display case filled with frilly pastries that immediately greets you upon entry. Then there is the fact that the full menu is posted over top the counter while the list of coffees being brewed that day is relegated to the immediate left of the front door above the condiment and water counter such that I didn’t see it until after my coffee was in hand. By the time I approached the cashier, I barely noticed the 10-12 coffees Urth roasts and sells stacked behind the counter or the 2 group Bravo espresso machine (one I’m not familiar with) viewable behind the racks of things for sale when standing on my tippy toes.
The reason why I was there of course is that Urth Caffe constitutes one of those obligatory coffee stops due to its long time standing on espressomap.com and frequent mentions on various coffee boards. As a coffee pilgrim, I’ve been remiss not to visit it before now, even though, as suspected, these recommendations seem to usher forth from the past at a time when Urth still ruled. The coffee in today’s LA, as it has in most cities, has greatly improved.
My Antigua Sumatra Java was described on the marginalized coffee menu as spicy, earthy, heavy and full-bodied. It struck me mostly as teetering close on the edge of the tar pits. OK, it wasn’t really thabt bad, but the joke was irresistable. It was simply very roasty and, despite its freshly brewed and very clean characteristics, it was more or less on par with the dark-roasted coffee you might find at any of several major chains. Brewed commercially and stored in airpots, this coffee was didn’t yield much in the way of comlexity having to do with the bean. Urth also offers their French Roasted decaf, and, at various points in the day, their Vienna Roasted blend.
The espresso, in contrast, was too shabby. My demitasse held a lighter red, slightly bubbly crema that dispersed rather quickly. The espresso, noteably, was ground to order (due to procedure or high traffic, I’m not sure) and surprisingly fruity and sweet, with notes of dark brown sugar and the suggestion of blueberry. It had a tangy acidity that was in check with the sweeter elements although the shot yielded to a somewhat unpleasant, bitter aftertaste.
While Urth’s espresso is by no means a great, I can see why this cafe has survived so long and earned the past kudos it has, especially when you factor in the cafe’s socially conscious mindset that was still a realtively new concept in LA coffee when Urth began back in the late nineties. Of course, one also can’t disregard the fact that the heavy flow of traffic that late in the afternoon and the fact that Urth is opening yet another cafe in Pasadena means that its owners are clearly making the right business decisions, even if these decisions may take factors other than elevating coffee into consideration.