For those who've read Ms. Bean, Part I, here's part II dedicated to discussing the lesser mortals on the Dubai coffee scene. And for those who haven't - a couple of days ago, I started hunting for my fantasy espresso bean in Dubai. Something subtle, but powerful - and super low on the ugly bitterness scale. I'm one of those kinds who wakes up like a space cadet, and with that first critical cup of coffee, I can either transform into happy-me, or ugly-me. Past experience suggests that Bitter brings out ugly-me.
(On a related note, I think I've alluded to her on my previous coffee post, but I haven't formally introduced my coffee machine on the blog yet. She's a plain Jane this one - nothing too high maintenance, a simple DeLonghi pump-driven machine with a frother on the right and a heated tray up top. But in my eyes, she's a beauty. When Aramex delivered the brown Amazon UK box, a thousand little excitable jack-in-the-box clowns exploded in me - 'it's here! it's here! openitopenit-OPEN-IT!' The Aramex guy ruthlessly responded by shoving a 450 buck shop-and-ship bill in my face. [Me: Gasp. This totally defeats the purpose of buying the machine from Amazon UK and getting Aramex to ship it over to Dubai. The machine was 200 bucks cheaper than what I could get here, and now I've spent 250 bucks more...I had no clue that the Aramex bill would rack up to this much - it can't be!] [Ruthless Aramex guy: It is. We charge based on volume. Please sign here.] [My 1000 internal jack-in-the-boxes wheeze back limply into their boxes.]
As a punishment for not looking up the shipping rates before I used the Aramex account, I inflicted myself with dishwashed coffee made from the free tub of Illy grounds that came with the machine. No wonder they give the darn thing free. Two weeks later, Illy has purged me of my shipping sins. I've left the half-used tub on the shelf to serve as a brutal lifetime reminder of how life can smack you in the face with sleazeball postpaid shipping costs)
I had begun my hunt for my fantasy bean at RAW Coffee Company, one of the most revered coffee houses in the city. I'd sampled two of their lightest blends...BUT (a) even their lightest blend, one from Columbia, hit me in the no-man bitter zone, and (b) I later realized that there are a bunch of other factors beyond just roasting that contribute to bitterness, including water temperature, grind, brewing pressure and God knows how many other factors, each of which gets a different degree of importance depending on which online article you read. So maybe it was something in the coffee preparation at RAW that was destined make my espresso bitter? Not sure, but I need to get more coffee saavy. Friend-wanting-to-gift-me-a-gift, please gift me an authoritative guide to coffee.
As a break between espresso tastings that day, I thought of hitting up the newly opened branch of Sugarbox bakery in Mercato for some cupcake goodness and desert scouting. But as I was driving over to Mercato, a glimpse of a coffee house with old school English name and suburban American strip mall facade pulled me back to my original bean hunt mission. U-turn, cuppycakes on second priority.
Second stop (first stop being RAW, that I wrote about last time): Esquires Coffee Houses
I wasn't even sure what Esquires meant. It just had this 'proppa' feel to it, like words pulled out of Pride and Prejudice. (I later learned that they originated in Vancouver. Do Esquires, whatever they are, exist in Vancouver?)
I usually call for a more concentrated macchiato when I'm testing out espresso beans (a macchiato being the drink that really lets you taste a pseudo unadulterated shot of espresso, only somewhat tempered the touch of milk microfoam up top). But having already had two macchiatos in less than an hour, I called for a lightweight cappuccino with their lightest roast of beans, optimistically (or delusionally) hoping that the cappuccino's foamy milk would buffer the impact of this third shot of espresso. Last thing I needed was to start my new year with insides brutally burned by an espresso overdose.
Sip. Hmm...mild. Very mild. Ridiculously mild. In fact, so mild that...that, is there any espresso in here? Hello, someone forgot the espresso in my cappuccino?!
This was a warm gigantic cup of milk. I am NOT a fan of warm cups of milk. They remind me of third grade, when mom would force me to gulp down a glass of milk before school. [Mommy, I really don't want anything for breakfast. No milk pleeeease.] [No please don't tell dad. I just really can't have it.] [No you're right, I don't want to be grounded for the rest of my life. I'll finish it. Simper.] Gulp. Shudder. Wretch.
I walked out of Esquires dejectedly, leaving behind an unfinished cup of cappuccino. Their tag line should be changed from 'Good Coffee Helps' to...Good coffee helps. So leave and find it elsewhere.
Third stop: Lino Coffee
Totally caffeinated out, I actually stopped at Sugarbox before Lino's for their goodies. I discovered the most awesome truffles and a not so awesome cupcake to which I'll dedicate a separate celebratory post. For now, let's just stick with the espresso hunt.
I was somewhat desperate by this point. Saturday evening was drawing to a close, and I really needed a solid bag of beans to brew before work the next day. I just couldn't subject myself to that morning dose of Illy any longer. Desperate times call for lowering of standards...we're talking mid-range mall coffee chains, specifically Lino's at Bur Juman. To be honest, coffee chains are not all that bad - they're good for a standard cup of coffee, and I typically will grab a cup if I'm hovering around in any mall. They're just nothing to experience euphoria over.
Lino's is really not a Starbucks - they're pretty authentic Italian and haven't mass marketed themselves like the rest. And I'm a fan of the cutsie illustrations they've got above their menu describing the proportion of espresso to milk to foam in each of the standard variations of espresso drinks. The reason I drove over to Lino's all the way from Mercato was because I'd actually had a good track record with them in the past - the first time I ordered a cappuccino from them, the barista asked me if I'd prefer a light roast or a dark roast. And that totally made my day - both the drink that he brewed (which felt way above the subpar mall-chain standard), as well as the awesomeness of his question.
Just my luck that Lino's has decided to switch out some of its beans. They no longer stock the light roast I'd tried earlier. And the replacement variety I sampled was bitter beyond belief. It was like every coffee house in the city was ganging up on me. Taunting me...bitter, bitter, bitter, B-I-T-T-E-R!
Fourth stop: Costa
Okay, I know. This one is many, many notches below Lino's. There's no way I can justify looking for coffee beans at Costa, except that it fell directly in my path as I walked (dejectedly) back from Lino's to the car park. I almost felt obligated to ask, to confirm my view that places like Costa would never, not in trillion thousand light years, ever stock my fantasy bean. Costa does make a pretty decent, mediocre cappuccino with this cool chocolate powdered coffee bean design on the top (we're not talking latte art here, just a plain cocoa powder shaker with a coffee bean shape pierced on its lid). But who wants to start their morning off with mediocre?
When I asked the barista if they stocked coffee beans, she mentioned that they had only one type. So I go for a sample, steeling my nerves for another bitter beating. And what a beating it was. Bitter as all hell, and made worse many times over when the barista looked at my scrunched up face and condescendingly declared that "we keep beans for espresso. This is how it tastes." Right, thanks Costa, for really putting your foot out there to educate your customers. Incorrectly. In the insanely unlikely possibility that the Costa lady at Bur Juman is reading my post, lady, let me share with you a few words of wisdom:
"Espresso is not a specific bean or roast level; it is a coffee brewing method. Any bean or roasting level can be used to produce authentic espresso and different beans have unique flavor profiles lending themselves to different roasting levels and styles. In Italy, roast levels can vary quite a bit. In Southern Italy, a darker roast is often preferred, but the farther north one goes in the country, the trend moves toward lighter roasts."
Yours truly, Wikipedia.
Fifth and sixth stops: Paul's Bakery, and Le Pain Quotidien
I'm not quite sure why I've lumped these together...except maybe that I absolutely adore the two bakery / patisserie / awesome-baked-goodness chains. And maybe the frenchie names? (actually, Le Pain Quotidien is from Belgium...) I've had the most awesome macaroons at Paul's (right before a gym session, might I add), and this savory uber-flaky pastry soft with melted butter at Le Pain Quotidien. These guys have really upped the mall chain standards in Dubai - so coffee or not, I still love them.
Turns out, Paul's doesn't sell coffee beans [sad droopy face. need macaroon to ease the pain]. And Le Pain Quotidien sells coffee beans, but in these gigantic packs that would quickly lose their freshness and aroma on a single espresso drinker like myself. I've actually tried the cappuccino at Le Pain Quotidien a few months ago, and it was pretty phenomenal at the time. But when I tried their more concentrated macchiato on this trip last week, the underlying bitterness really stung me bad. Maybe I should stop doing these hardcore macchiato tests and switch to cappuccinos altogether...?
Fret not Paul's and Le Pain Quotidien, you both still have my undying loyalty.
Seventh stop: My neighborhood Spinneys.
I'm going to stop trying to justify why I'm steadily descending down the ladder of coffee bean prestige. Beggars can't be choosers, and if I have to scout around in my local grocery store for a decent non-bitter bean, so be it. The Spinney's coffee aisle has a range of everything possible, from the dreaded instant Nescafe jars that has sparked my compulsive need for better quality coffee at work, to the pricey Waitrose-branded bags of coffee - filter coffees, cafetiere grinds, and even whole beans. I finally chose the Waitrose Kenyan blend, rated 2 out of 5 on the Waitrose strength scale, and promisingly described as mild, with a lively fruity flavour.
Even more promisingly, an intensely aromatic, heady perfume blasted me in the face when I ripped open the bag. Sigh. I wish my car could smell like this.Cutting to the chase, I'd failed. Or Waitrose had failed me. Or we'd both failed each other. The filter coffee grind was probably too coarse for my espresso machine, so I probably didn't give it a fair enough chance. But the coffee itself was as tasteless as the one I'd had at Esquires. I haven't written it off completely - the Kenyan blend will get one more try after I re-grind it this weekend. For now, I've mixed a bit of it in with my Illy grind, which has actually mitigated Illy's nastiness to some extent. Note, it hasn't improved the Illy final taste by any measure - it's just that if you mix something tasteless with something vile, the diluted product must naturally taste less vile.
...the hunt is far from over. Foodie friends have taken pity on my plight and tried to raise the standard again by suggesting places like Brunetti's and Nespresso (though I think I'd need a whole new special machine for Nespresso...?). Keep the suggestions streaming in people, I need all the support I can get until I find that darned, totally impossible to find fantasy bean.