Quality Coffee. Off the Grid.

Name: Hi-Rise Bread Company in the Blacksmith House
Location: 56 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA
Roasters: Barismo and Ritual

Rating: 4-

Earlier this week, the New York Times printed this review of Prime Meats in New York City. What is so striking about the article is that it takes exactly the same tack I started taking when I started writing this review of the Hi-Rise Bread Company (well over a week ago – hey, I’ve been busy). The New York Times’ Sam Sifton was intensely complimentary of Prime Meats’ product, lavishing their food with praise, yet remaining unabashedly critical of their high horse approach to not taking reservations and only taking cash. While my praises of Hi-Rise’s baked goods and and their coffee service don’t go quite as high, nor my critiques as low, I do want to point out my annoyance that a business as successful and enduring as Hi-Rise should get itself a shingle on the web.

That’s right. Hi-Rise has no web-page, no blog, no Facebook page (is that a loaded statement?), and no Twitter account. Not being web-savvy is hardly an excuse. Software options are abundant and simple, providing few barriers to entry. Some may find Hi-Rise’s internet absence quaint. I suppose Hi-Rise’s own excuse might be that that their success and longevity indicates little need to put itself on the web. Besides, plenty of food blogs, travel guides and restaurant food guides seem more than willing to write favorably about Hi-Rise’s amazing, if slightly over-priced, creations. Just take a look here or here. But shunning the web in this day and age, especially when your business targets the upper-middle class demographic (the one most likely to look up Hi-Rise on an iphone), may just cross the line into pretension.

Fortunately, Hi-Rise makes some really good food. The granola is great and I especially like the vanilla loaf, a recipe printed in Amanda Hesser’s, Cooking for Mr. Latte, which my wife has made for me. And while the main bakery on Concord Avenue offers the thrill of watching the baking in action and a slightly larger menu, the Blacksmith house location offers far superior coffee. I haven’t tried the coffee on Concord Avenue but the sorry state of their espresso machine and commercial machine brewed coffee as the only option didn’t inspire me to do so, even if they do use Ritual. If coffee is your goal, head to the Blacksmith, but um…only after 8 AM (another small criticism).

The Blacksmith location of Hi-Rise shouts good coffee to you as you first step through the door into the tiny serving space (there is seating upstairs and outside). The two-group La Marzocco GB/5 sits front and center, displaying the coffees that are being brewed that day, typically a filter coffee and espresso from each of Ritual and Barismo. Filter coffee brewing options include a commercially brewed drip, a pour over (Clever Coffee Dripper) and a siphon (typically afternoons and weekends only). Variety in coffee and brew methods and quality equipment is a very good first step indeed.

Given that I have easy access to Ritual coffee at home, I opted for all Barismo in my tasting. It also helped that my barista was Chris Van Schyndel, the brother of Barismo owner, Jaime. I figured he’d know a thing or two about the family’s coffee. My shot of Sonata 4 was very impressive. This relatively short shot with a thin crema, slightly flecked, hit me up front with notes of semi-sweet chocolate, crisp white sugar sweetness and a fruity acidity similar to a delicate red wine. It had a subtle complexity and was well-balanced and complex  enough to inspire me to by some for the trip home (4).

For filter coffee, I went with the siphon, which you can order as a single glass ($4) or a double ($7). My Costa Rica Helsar De Zarcero was very good. I noted chocolate and cherry with a solid shot of lime. It was both heavy in body but clean and quite good, if not a tad more bright than I would have liked (3+).

So despite my gripes, Hi-Rise’s Blacksmith House location is well worth your time for coffee (and food). It’s certainly the best coffee going in Harvard Square, and by my reckoning, the best in Cambridge. They have variety, quality and skilled production so long as you don’t mind using the phone book.

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