Casa Lapin

Today is the start of a four-day weekend for the Songkhran holiday (aka Thai New Year). Tawn took me to a cute little place he had been wanting to try, the Sukhumvit Soi 49 branch of Casa Lapin.

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This chic coffee chain (some might say “hip”) is tucked away behind Paste, a currently trendy restaurant across from Samitivej Hospital.

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Owned by architect and coffee lover Surapan Tanta, Casa Lapin (“rabbit house”) also has branches on Soi Thong Lor and Soi Ari. The fact that the place is owned by an architect isn’t surprising, as the interior is inviting and thoughtfully designed.

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The spacious setting makes effective use of the narrow footprint of the shophouse it occupies. It has a warm feeling that encourages you to hang out.

2014-04-11 02Coffee is offered in a variety of ways – drip, French press, espresso, siphon – and is tasty. A limited selection of foods is available – I had a container of cornflakes with dried fruits and cashew nuts added, kind of a cornflake muesli.

2014-04-11 03The selection of pastries was nice, too, and make for a tasty treat. The ham and cheese roll was flakey and delicate, a great pleasure to eat. The almond croissant was also nice.

2014-04-11 04While it would be nice if they added some more food selections – quiche and salads, maybe? – Casa Lapin x49 is a pleasant place to hang out. One more sophisticated but affordable brunch option in a city in which such places have long been a rarity.

 

You Get What You Pay For

Interesting conversation recently. It began with the subject of the fast food workers who were striking to earn $15 an hour. It continued with a discussion of how the middle class in the United States has been hollowed out, with meaningful, well-paying jobs going overseas as consumers search for the least-expensive items without regards to the impacts of those purchasing decisions.

McDonaldsFrom there, we talked about the high cost of Starbucks coffee versus the coffee at McDonald’s. I pointed out that, while there may be many reasons to explain the price difference between Starbucks and McDonald’s, one main reason has to be that Starbuck’s provides a relatively generous set of benefits to front-line employees, compared with McDonald’s. Kind of illustrates the point about the impacts of our purchasing decisions.

starbucks-barista-620xaA gross oversimplification, of course, but if we choose to buy from companies that poorly compensate their employees, we are sending a message. If we choose to buy from companies that treat employees better, we are sending another message.

 

Dining in Bangkok: Rocket Coffeebar

For nearly eight years living in Bangkok, I have lamented how few good breakfast and brunch restaurants we have. This has started to change recently and Rocket Coffeebar on Sathorn Soi 12 is a welcome addition to the breakfast scene.

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Opened by several of the people behind Hyde & Seek on Soi Ruamradee, Rocket Coffeebar’s vibe would fit in well in Stockholm, Sydney, or San Francisco. The interior is small – seating perhaps sixteen people – and is done up in stylish marble counters and tiles. Continue reading

Food in SF: Four Barrel Coffee

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Located in the Mission District (Valencia Street between 14th and 15th), Four Barrel Coffee is a place that takes its artisanal coffee to a level of seriousness that you might expect from a master sommelier. Their attention to detail, bordering on the obsessive, would be ripe for parody if the results weren’t so impressive. The coffee is amazing, the pastries are fantastic, and the atmosphere is communal in the best sense of the word.

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The space is a large warehouse. From the front, you could breeze by (as I almost did) without realizing that there is a coffee house inside. If in doubt, look for the funky bicycle racks and outdoor seating (above).

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Immediately on your left as you walk in is a pour-over coffee bar. This “next thing” in coffee is all about the slow brew of coffee through a cone shape filter. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s the way most home coffee machines brew coffee. It seems, though, that you can get really particular about the details.

Anyhow, the person working at the bar can also answer questions about their coffees (sourced from micro-regions all over the world and brewed at the back of the shop) and other coffee making paraphernalia. In fact, one lady spent twenty minutes demonstrating the various Japanese made ceramic coffee grinders to me.

The counter and espresso machines are in the center of the room. The baristas have their own personality and flair, demonstrating a level of artistry that your average Starbucks barista will not. Of course, your average Starbucks barista is also now using a fully automated machine that requires no more skill to use than the average coffee vending machine minus the coins.

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The coffee roasting takes place in the back half of the warehouse. You can sit at a counter watching the action take place and it gives the space an especially industrial feel, which may explain what attracts the huge number of hipsters.

Besides the coffee, Four Barrel offers really amazing pastries, sources from three different bakeries.

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One that caught my heart (and caused me to make two return trips) was the kouign amann, a butter pastry from Brittany that seems to be the new cupcake on the west coast. These are provided by Starter Bakery in Oakland.

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Layers of buttery, sugary goodness that caramelize as they bake. You are not allowed to think about diets while you eat this. Just don’t.

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Another wonderful treat (not sure what bakery it was from but possibly Dynamo Donuts on 24th Street) was a lemon-thyme donut. I’m not generally a huge donut fan, but this was a spectacularly light, pleasant, and surprising donut. The lemon-thyme flavor is refreshing and much more complex than you might expect.

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And then there is the coffee. You can order any of Four Barrel’s single-origin coffees as an espresso. Not sure what the default espresso is, but I found it nicely balanced, not too acidic, and just what I needed to start the day.

 

Croissants in North County: Loïc

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The last night of our June trip to California was spent in Oceanside, a small beach town in northern San Diego County, visiting friends.  The following morning, I decided on a whim to search for a French patisserie, or pastry shop.  Perhaps I was in the mood for something like Tartine, a corner bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District that I make it a point to visit each time I’m there.  We ended up driving a quirky route through the hills until we wound up at Loïc, a bistro and patisserie in Rancho Santa Fe.

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The bistro and patisserie are adjacent buildings nestled in a small shopping complex at the foot of a large housing development.  The design is meant to evoke an Italian village, which it more or less succeeds in doing.

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Would an Italian village have a parking lot like this?  Probably not.  Just a small concession to Southern California’s car culture.

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The interior of the patisserie was a little stark but the smell and sight of freshly baked goods were every bit as welcoming as the lady working behind the counter. 

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As we ordered, the lady explained that the chef is French.  After several years working aboard cruise ships, he decided to settle in the Rancho Santa Fe area and open his own restaurant and patisserie.

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We sat in some comfy chairs, sipped our café au lait, and picked apart our croissants, smearing eat bite with jam and pretending we were back in Paris.  The croissants were very nice: light, flaky, and buttery – everything one wants in a croissant. 

Afterwards, we took a few more pictures then climbed back in the car for our drive back to Orange County, where we met another Xangan for lunch.

 

Coffee Bars and the Quest for Third Places

An interesting article appeared in the New York Times this week about a trend of some coffee shops not offering seating – standing room only – and trying to make the space more about the coffee and the other customers than about hunkering down, plugged into your iPhone, iPad, and iPod.  This spurred some thoughts and I beg you to bear with me as I bring them up in the disjointed manner one might expect after having had a double espresso on an empty stomach.

First, a few excerpts from the article, to give you the general idea of it:

At times, the large back room at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has so many customers typing and wearing noise-canceling headphones that it looks like an office without the cubicles.  A second Café Grumpy location, in Chelsea, prohibited laptops after too many customers ran extension cords across the room. …

When Café Grumpy’s owners … decided to open a third location … they built a solution to the laptop problem right into the design. The furniture consists of a counter in the back and a chest-high table in the front. …

“I don’t think I’d ever do a bigger space with tables and chairs again,” [one of the owners] said. “I appreciate the idea of when you go someplace and it feels like a home away from home, but I don’t think it should be a home office away from home.” [emphasis mine]

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Photo courtesy the New York Times

Earlier this summer, the Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village replaced half its tables and most of the chairs with two counters and a few stools.  “A coffee shop should be a place to meet your friends and hold conversations and cultivate ideas instead of — I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, so I have to be careful — instead of sticking your head in a laptop,” said [Bluebird’s owner].

 

Third Places

Years ago, just as I was starting university, coffee shops were starting to come into fashion in the US.  Starbucks was around, although not as ubiquitous as it is these days.  I remember reading an in-depth article about the concept of Third Places, an article that contributed to my interest, and my brief majoring in, urban studies.

Third Places are informal public gathering spaces that offer a balance between the spheres of home and work, the first and second places, respectively, in our lives.  Just as a tripod offers more stability than a bipod, the third place can serve to keep us from falling into a mental trap of “home to work and back again”.

The article, and many like it, identify examples of third places such as the cafe in French culture, the corner pub in the British Isles, and the espresso bar in Italy.  Places that serve to anchor neighborhood life.  The underlying thesis of the article was that the overall quality of life in a society is better when there is such a third place and declines in the absence of such spaces.

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The corner pub has served as a third place in Britain

 

Do We Actually Have Third Places?

I’ve observed is that we’ve built a great number of spaces that are designed to look like third places – indeed, Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz (no relation) acknowledges that as one of the omnipresent chain’s motivations.  But these spaces don’t actually function as true third places. 

How many of you go to a business like Starbucks regularly enough that you know the employees who work there, but don’t know any of the other customers?  There are certainly many small businesses within walking distance of my house (including a Starbucks, I type a bit guiltily) where I recognize the staff but none of the patrons.

The element that is missing from our pseudo third places is our interaction with our neighbors, the other customers in the place.  Some of that may be because the third places we visit are largely outside of our neighborhood, often on the way to (or nearby) work.  That begs the question, are they really third places in the true definition of the word?  They cannot anchor a neighborhood if they are not in your neighborhood.

As an aside, I have to wonder whether the increasing political polarization in the US is due in some small part to this lack of third places in which we interact with our neighbors.  When we don’t know our neighbors, much less have the opportunity to interact and converse with them, what hope is there of having a civil dialogue about the issues of the day?

 

What About My Third Places?

About a five-minute walk away from my home, at the mouth of the soi (alley) where I live, there is a small corner spot that is a small, failing Japanese bar.  It is steps away from the entrance to the Skytrain station, near a busy intersection, and across the street from a private international school.  It strikes me that it would be the perfect location for a coffee bar that the NY Times article talks about.  Being at the gateway to my neighborhood and just next to a transit station, it would be the ideal crossing path for neighbors.  I don’t know if it would work financially – there are a lot of factors at play here – but in terms of being an effective third place, it would be well suited.

Another possibility is one of two small retail spots on the street level of my 8-story condo building.  It is currently empty but the juristic board says that a lease has been signed for someone to open a small cafe of some sort.  That would be an ideal third place, right?  Go down for a morning coffee, meet and chat with my building’s neighbors and other people in the neighborhood.  We’ll see if it works out like that.

Espresso Bar
Courtesy The Age newspaper, Melbourne

Somewhere in my mind, I imagine either patronizing (or owning) a place like the one pictured above.  An espresso bar that is crowded with people from the neighborhood, getting their coffee, chatting for a bit, and then going on their way.  Somewhere warm and convivial. 

What about you?  Do you have a third place?  Do you see an absence of third places in our societies?  And what do you think about coffee bars without a place to sit down and plug into your digital devices?

 

Could All My Troubles Be Caused by My Coffee Grinder?

The past week or so, things have just been off.  My mood has run foul, Tawn and I have had a hard time coming to agreement on some decisions we would like to make, and things have generally just been funky.

Casting about for answers, I looked at the tides, the phases of the moon, and changes in the weather systems with an eye to determining what it was that was causing these unusual bumps in the road.  Then it hit me: the problem is with my coffee grinder.

You see, about a year ago we caved in and purchased an espresso machine.  A bit of a luxury item, yes, but one that really helped set the mood for the start of our day.  The machine, a Starbucks branded one, has performed well all year but a bit more than a week ago it seized up in what the instruction book called a “vapor lock.”  When opening the valve for the steam wand, water would instead come out the brew head.  We could get all the espresso we wanted but none of the steamed milk.

french-press-261x300-thumb.jpg After trying all of the troubleshooting remedies called for in the instruction booklet, I caved in and brought the machine back to the store where they are handling repairs.  Good service on their part so no complaints there.  But in the absence of our espresso machine I’ve been brewing our morning joe in a French Press.

French Presses are the glass containers with a plunger you press down after several minutes of steeping to separate the grounds from the brewed coffee.  They have the reputation of producing wonderful coffee.  Some aficionados say that French Press is the ideal way to appreciate coffee.

But each morning we wound up with mouthfuls of grit in our coffee, small black flecks floating to the surface of the scalded milk foam. 

When I examined the grounds they appeared quite sizable. so I was confused as to why the coffee was turning out so poorly.  What I determined was that our coffee grinder, a Krupps model that is reportedly one of the higher quality grinders, grinds very unevenly.  In addition to some large chunks – half-bean size! – there are other parts that are pulverized to a fine powder.  The result was coffee that is still watery but also contains lots of sediment, a brew that does nothing other than put me in a foul mood.

Finally realizing what might be the source of all my troubles, I headed to the coffee shop, bought a half-kilo of coffee and had them grind it in their professional grinder.  Sure enough, the coffee was a uniform coarseness and when I put it in the French Press this morning, the resulting coffee was richly flavored and without any significant sediment.

I was happy.  Tawn left for work with a smile on his face.  I think things are looking up!