The Coffee Project 2: Electric Boogaloo

This week’s adventure took us to the wilds of Ravenswood and North Lincoln Avenue. Only two stops this time – I think three may have been a bit of an overreach last week.

Ron is out of town, and Jim had a family errand to run, so today’s cast consisted of myself and Valerie, who is, for some arcane reason, married to Jim.

On to the reports!

Location #1: The Perfect Cup, 4700 North Damen

“The Perfect Cup” is a bold, ambitious name to take, and one that I imagine is quite hard to live up to. Unfortunately, I don’t think this place quite qualifies. The morning got off to an inauspicious start when we ordered, only to learn that the shop is cash-only – a detail that was not mentioned in the Chicagoist piece that prompted this whole project. The nearest ATM decided to break down, but fortunately there was another nearby. Still, in retrospect it seems this may have been a sign or omen.

The shop itself is very spacious and comfortable, taking up two storefronts on the corner of Damen and Lawrence. It’s a warm, inviting space that works really well as a neighborhood non-alcoholic watering hole. We saw a variety of people walking in – bearded men with toddlers in arms, bicyclists, the usual assortment of young urbanites working on laptops. (Wi-fi comes free with any purchase.) A group of five people convened around a low table in one room for some kind of committee or community group meeting. Nonetheess,

But the coffee, sad to say, was nothing special. I started with an iced coffee. The barista didn’t know anything about the beans, only that they were a dark roast from Seattle’s Caffe Umbria. It was… fine, I guess? Maybe I expected too much – iced is never the best way to drink coffee – but still, whether it’s the beans or the brewing process, there was very little going on with this cup. Valerie had a cafe au lait, which she reported was pretty blah.

I followed up with an espresso which (unlike all the espresso last week) was not served on a plank with a side of sparkling water. I suppose it wasn’t necessary, because the espresso itself was watery enough. It was so weak that I could barely taste the natural bitterness I expect from an espresso. Valerie tasted it and said, “Yeah, we can make better at home.”

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Location #2: Bad Wolf Coffee, 3722 North Lincoln

Bad Wolf Coffee lies almost exactly opposite The Perfect Cup along multiple axes. The space is small, with no seating. Customers stand around a single long table or at the counter. Despite that – which means, of course, that the shop is not suitable for extensive lingering – I really liked the place. Maybe it was the Ramones playing as background music when we walked in. (I asked the owner if it was a tribute to Tommy Ramone, who just died last week, and he had no idea. Coincidence? In a shop called “Bad Wolf,” with a door painted like a TARDIS, you can never be sure.)

There’s also a very agreeable communal atmosphere. People are pleasant as they share the tabletop, and recommend whichever baked item they happen to be enjoying to any stranger who seems to be dithering.

Because, did I mention the pastries? Bad Wolf is a one-man operation, and that one man happens to be an accomplished pastry chef. He makes a variety of goodies every day, and, uh, wow. Valerie had something eclair-ish (eclairoid? eclairean?) with what seemed to be a butter cream filling, and I had a canele, which was a little cake with a crunchy caramelized outer crust. There were a couple of other items on offer as well, but we did not sample them.

“But what about the coffee?” I hear you cry. This was another area in which Bad Wolf was extremely different from The Perfect Cup. Both Valerie and I tried the espresso, and it was excellent. I make no claims to be an espresso aficionado, but this cup was sharp and strong with just the right acridity. It complemented the canele very nicely.

I finished the visit with a cup of Bad Wolf’s straight-up brewed coffee. The owner said it was Ethopian – specifically Idido, which is a reference either to a town or a coffee grower (Idido Union) in the Yirgacheffe region. He said it had orange blossom notes with a hint of brown sugar (which becomes more maple syrup-tasting when iced). If you read last week’s post, you know my view of tasting notes. Once he had said “orange blossom,” that’s what I was going to taste, and though it had a sweet undertone I didn’t really get “brown sugar.” Valerie tasted it and pronounced it “very mellow”; I have to agree. This was one excellent cup of coffee.

Of the five shops I’ve visited in the past two weeks, Bad Wolf is probably my favorite. No, you can’t sit and schmooze or “work” over a string of cups of coffee. But if I lived closer, I would be in there all the time – not for long each time, maybe, but often.

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We didn’t get to a third stop on this trip. We both favored discretion over hypercaffeination. I think I may take a break next week and regroup the following weekend for the third installment. Stay tuned!

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