One secret to any good culinary sleuthing is understanding an establishment’s staffing pedigree. If key staff of your selected establishment have worked for high-quality institutions, they ideally carry some of that prior establishment’s sensibility with them. This approach isn’t without its flaws. The Bay Area is swimming with so many Chez Panisse alums as to make that particular credential nearly meaningless. And not every Diff’rent Strokes yields a Facts of Life. Ultimo Coffee, however, is one spin-off that can declare itself a winner.
Aaron Ultimo – and that is his real name – used to work for Spruce Street Espresso before opening up his own coffee bar just far enough away from Spruce Street to distinguish itself, which was important considering that it also uses Counter Culture Coffee. I guess when you have a name like Ultimo, you have to open up something and put your name on it. It’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.
Ultimo coffee isn’t that different a set up from Spruce Street. Espresso shots are pulled on a three group La Marzocco GB/5, while cups of Counter Culture beans are also brewed by the cup via ceramic cone pour over. The major difference from Spruce Street in terms of options is the lack of any sort of thermal carafe coffee. Spruce Street French Presses their carafe coffee rather than brewing it via a Fetco, but that apparently wasn’t good enough for the Ultimo gang, which does pour-over exclusively. To aid with the morning rush, staff do Chemex pitchers of whatever coffee they deem appropriate at the time.
I suppose the other major difference is that they’ve opted to use Counter Culture’s Aficionado espresso rather than the Toscano. I know neither espresso well enough to have a favorite, but the lighter Aficionado struck the right chord for me on this day. My shot was a medium-bodied, short shot with some surprisingly dark crema. It hit the middle of the palate, well balanced, slightly bright and a little earthy. It was very good, even if it fell short of a wow. (4-) According to the Ultimo blog, the cafe has just opened up another grinder to a guest espresso, which could be something from Counter Culture or another roaster altogether. This month, the coffee is from Novo.
My friend and I ordered pour over cup of the Shikasso Ethiopia Natural and the La Golondrina Colombia. It’s hard to say which I liked better. Both were very good yet quite different from one another. The Ethiopia is a naturally processed coffee. Not surprisingly, it is intensely fruity. I got notes of strawberry, blueberry, vanilla, banana and papaya. While I’m not sure I’d want a bag, I did enjoy the cup (4-). The La Golondrina, which I’ve had at home previously, was full of vanilla and orange. It was thick and chewy but still clean, with a gentle acidity. It came across as a bit mild-mannered next to the Shikasso, but was simply a more understated version of delicious (4).
The front half the cafe is very nice to sit in, getting lots of natural light through the large windows. You’ll find a bit more space in back, where things were a bit disheveled during my visit, but which are likely better by now. The cafe has opened up a take out beer bar. I won’t even try to understand Pennsylvania’s arcane and idiotic liquor laws that drove Ultimo to such a clever hybrid, but the selection sounds promising. You can pull your choice of any of several top quality beers from the row of fridges in the back. When the weather is nice, Ultimo also offers garage doors that open up to let the sunshine in.
Next trip to Philly, I’ll certainly have to hit up some of the spots I missed. But I’ll be impressed if I can find a spot that surpasses Ultimo.