I first experienced Intelligentsia’s Venice Coffee Bar back in May 2009. That visit – the grand opening party – was monumental in that it was the first glimpse that most folks were getting of this much hyped new cafe. It was filled with the portentious sighting of Andrew Barnett, who subsequently sold his Ecco Caffe to Intelligentsia and it offered me a chance for me to hob nob with fellow bloggers and other coffee types. It was also loud, sweaty, dark, crowded, fairly unpleasant and at night (not so great for coffee). My most recent visit was far less eventful, but much more enjoyable.
Intelligentsia’s Venice coffee bar really is a beauty to behold, but not in the traditional sense. The sense of design doesn’t confront you as it does in other cafes where furniture and furnishings rule you vision. The experience is more like viewing the inner workings of a watch. The feeling is industrial and functional with a sheik, transparent overcoat. The shelves and coffee bar expose their metal frames and concrete abounds with wood merely performing an accent. The glass and metal framed false ceiling reflects the total effect back at you. Seating in this coffee temple is still secondary although seemingly more abundant than I remember it being in the initial plans. Perhaps there’s a limit to how much seating you can remove when you otherwise encourage folks to consume their hot drinks in ceramic.
What was really supposed to set the Venice Coffee Bar apart from traditional cafes, however, was the service. The spaces was meant to create a coffee tasting opportunity much like the experience I had at the 2008 Slow Food Nation. The large, rectangular bar houses four, 2-group Synesso Cyncra espresso machines each capable of serving a separate party and each run by its own barista. There is also the gorgeous, custom four group La Marzocco in back, two Clovers and the much hyped brew bar at which baristas are capable of brewing flights or solo cups of coffee in a variety of ways including siphon coffee, Eva Solo and Chemex.
What I noticed about the service most of all were the highly efficient and skillful baristas. There are bussers who clean the dishes and prep cooks to stock supplies but baristas carry their fair share of the load, brewing coffee and espresso while hosting, serving pastries and playing cashier. They move incredibly efficiently and, indeed, the space is set up to enhance their movements from the height-adjustable espresso machines to the pre-measured tins of coffees in carefully labeled draws that make brewing Clover coffee fast and simple. I watched the baristas dance about with alacrity and speed, always friendly but without a lot of chat or banter.
There were some limitations, however. Only two Synessos were in operation and neither the La Marzocco nor the brew bar was operating. I waited in line in the resplendent atrium, complete with vines and outdoor seating, and then proceeded up to the first available barista responsible for both the my choice of three Clover brewed coffee or the Black Cat or a Single Origin espresso. I was told that the brew bar was closed while the cafe reconsiders the best way to operate things (please see the comments section below for clarification). It’s an understandable issue – maintaining this many highly skilled baristas is likely tough – but I considered the brew bar to be one of the main attractions and had traveled pretty far to see it.
In spite of my considerable disappointment, my coffee experience was still stellar:
- I started with a cup of the Colombia Finca Santuario, which exhibited the dependably high-quality character that I find Intelligentsia’s coffee nearly always posses. It was sweet with dried fruit and fresh cherries, a sharp piney acidity with some lime notes and had the mouthfeel of smooth olive oil. I liked this coffee a lot, even if it fell short of the highest of marks (4-).
- The Black Cat was also good (4) as it usually is. Lots of chocolate with notes of black tea, black cherries and figs. It had a wonderfully creamy mouthfeel and a mild lime-like acidity at the back of the palate. It was a well-pulled shot of this consistently high quality – if increasingly uninspiring (I’m finding) – espresso.
- The real winner was the Ethiopia Yergacheffe single-origin espresso (4). This shot was straight up lavender. Pure and simple. Sometimes flavor and aroma notes are elusive but this one was palate calibrating in the way that the best SO espressos can be.
In my earlier piece on the Venice coffee bar party, I questioned whether the Venice cafe hadn’t out-hyped itself and whether clever concept cafes such as this one might soon be a thing of the past. How much long can cafes continue to outdo themselves? The brew bar is being rethought and perhaps it will return as it was. Perhaps not. but I think its absence made me realize that what’s so good about Intelligentsia’s Venice Coffee Bar is simply the great coffee. The moral of the story is that you should enjoy this coffee bar for its skill and nuanced approach and not for its grandiosity.