It’s a common refrain amongst those who obsess over good coffee that well-respected restaurants rarely get the stuff right. At least with espresso, you can understand why the results are often poor. Producing good espresso takes tremendous care which busy restaurant staff are rarely able to give. But the middling brewed coffee often served at fine restaurants is simply inexcusable given that a good grinder and a french press are all that are required. These very establishments pride themselves on the quality of their ingredients and skill at preparing them yet their coffee is often too darkly roasted and not freshly ground. How do people who place such a premium on food, wine and spirits, so often serve such poor quality coffee (the same often applies to beer, but that’s a post for another blog)?
Fortunately, while I’m baffled by this incongruity, I’m rarely bothered by it. I don’t do a lot of fine dining these days and when I do, after dinner caffeine is generally out of the question. (Yes, there is decaf, but that can always be better.) Still, I was intrigued by a recent comment noting that Bay Area Top 100 restaurant, Camino, uses both Blue Bottle and Four Barrel coffees. You don’t use either roaster for too long if you produce coffee that’s sub-par. And, the timing of this comment couldn’t have been better. My wife and I had just settled on Camino, excited to explore the East Bay’s booming restaurant scene and to celebrate some new beginnings – preschool for my daughter and a new job for me. The food at Camino looked impressive. The coffee, if it turned out to be good, would be the icing on the cake.
As we entered the restaurant, I knew things were going to be good. Camino has a lot to offer in the way of design. The chairs and benches look like those from a old school house and the cast iron chandeliers are reminiscent of something rustic, European and from another time. The open kitchen with multiple fires and ovens makes restaurant cooking look surprisingly easy and amazingly rustic and primitive. Only four chefs, cooking and plating, seem to do all the work. It remains something of a mystery how everything gets prepped and the dishes washed.
Approaching things backwards, I started with an espresso as an aperitif, rather than one of Camino’s compelling looking cocktails. The coffee setup is up front with the bar serving as the space for all drinks – coffee and alcoholic. However, Camino is better equipped than most restaurants in its class, sporting a two group La Marzocco Linea and a fleet of Clever Coffee Brewers lined up to go. I watched the staff grind my espresso to order and test the first few shots before serving mine. Since we were basically the first people seated its not surprising that they still had to dial in the espresso. It’s also refreshing to note that they did.
I never did catch which Blue Bottle blend was used, but it was laden with long-lasting crema served with sugar in the shot glass version of their rustic-themed, heavy glasses. I found it earthy and savory with orange zest acidity and notes of cocoa. Overall, very nice, even for a cafe, although I wondered if the espresso might not be a tad too fresh; it seemed a tad gassy and not quite at its peak. Then again, I could either be imagining things or simply fishing for something that might be wrong.
Our terrific meal progressed through a sharp and savory butter lettuce salad to grilled calamari to a smokey, grilled chanterelle and radicchio entree. Despite needing to sleep that night, I did order an after dinner coffee which is where the Four Barrel comes in. I noted that Camino uses a gold cone filter with their Clever Coffee Brewer. This neat trick yielded a cleaner version of a french press coffee with many of the rich oils but only trace amounts of silt. The La Tortuga Nicaragua had a mild, but pronounced acidity and overall struck the right tone for an after dinner coffee. Sadly I was unable to detect dwell on much nuance given that my palate became quickly occupied by an amazing almond cake, salty lavender short bread and vanilla ice cream.
The big drawback, as I see it, is that Camino is a restaurant and not a cafe. It’s not obvious to me that the good coffee will compel people to visit it over a competitor. And you wouldn’t like just stop in for coffee given the primarily evening hours and restaurant prices ($3 for the small coffee or espresso). But the trick, I think, is that Camino serves brunch. I know that I’d find their choice of coffee, especially in conjunction with the food, a more than compelling factor in making my weekend plans, and likely enough to sway me in their direction.
There’s no doubt that this is the best coffee service I’ve encountered in a restaurant of this caliber. By using two coffees from two roasters, Camino has created variety while keeping things simple. While I’d like more choices, I don’t think most diners will. More importantly, their use of top quality equipment, skill and attention and use of high quality coffee means that despite the strain on staff, they’ve carried their commitment to food and food preparation through to their coffee. May this be the beginning of a beautiful trend.