Well, It Kinda Counts Maybe?

This post is music-related, so it’s going to stand in for Friday Finds this week. The excellent news is that I found out how to get music from my library at home onto my new phone. Oh sure, it’s so simple that actual blocks of concrete can do it, but the point is I never did it with my old phones, so I had to ask the Internet how to do it.

Of course, I have 13,000 tracks sitting in my music library, and picking the subset to transfer over is a time-consuming process. But I need them there to be able to make ringtones from them, so I’ll make the sacrifice. I’m so brave, I know.

Oh hey, I haven’t told my erstwhile compatriots yet, but I’m thinking of rebooting The Coffee Thing this weekend. I should probably tell them, huh? I just want a reason to visit Bad Wolf again before it goes away at the end of the summer.

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This Shouldn’t Be This Hard

I got a new phone today, upgrading from a Galaxy S4 to an S6. I decided against the S6 Edge, because I couldn’t think of how I could extract $100 in additional value out of that beveled edge. Oh, you can program in five people with a different color each so if your phone is face down on the table, and one of those five people calls you, you’ll be able to tell from the color showing along the edge which one it is? Wow. Our long national nightmare is finally over.

Anyway, I had forgotten (since it’s been two years) what a pain in the ass it is to switch phones. Even though 90% of my account stuff was in the cloud, and even though Samsung has a nifty app for transferring data from an old phone to a new one, some stuff – including all my ringtones – got left behind, which really sucks. Also, I activated Yahoo’s Aviate launcher, which is nice, but I’d like to turn it off for a while to use a different one… and there seems to be no way to do so. The instructions on Yahoo’s site don’t work.

The horror! The horror!
The horror! The horror!

So I’d say my life is pretty much ruined at this point. On the other hand, it’s almost Friday.

Yesterday was National Cocktail Day or something of that nature, so before midnight, I put together a variant on my variant on an Old Fashioned (which I call a New-Fangled, of course). I didn’t have simple syrup, so I improvised with some candied lemon peel and some of its associated lemony sugar crystals. Not the most successful adaptation.

For those who wish to know how to make a real New-Fangled, here’s the recipe:

  • 1-1/2 oz. aquavit
  • 1/2 oz. simple syrup
  • a dash or five of Aztec Chocolate Bitters
  • serve over rocks, garnish with some variety of citrus peel

Proportions of aquavit and simple syrup may be adjusted to taste. I usually try to tone down the sweetness, seeking that perfect balance with the caraway flavor of the aquavit. (By the way, I am using North Shore Distillery‘s really lovely aquavit. I haven’t ever had the spirit before, so I can’t really compare it to anything, but I really like it.)

The New-Fangled can also be made with honey or ginger syrup instead of the simple syrup. Each variety has a distinct flavor profile, and they’re all excellent (if I do say so myself). My preference is ginger syrup, but I don’t have any of that around.

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!

The Coffee Project, Part the First

Last week, I saw an article touting the “18 best coffee shops in Chicago.” (It turns out the article is from March, but in a world where Andy Grffith’s death announcement can make the rounds this week, two years after he died, it’s understandable that it might come up again.)

Anyway, I looked at the list and thought to myself, “Challenge accepted.” Visiting all of these coffee places seemed like a research project for which I was ideally suited, due to my appreciation of good coffee and my willingness to divert myself with completely useless activities.

Through the miracle of Facebook, I enlisted a crew of irregulars who expressed greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm for joining me on this quest. I had originally planned it as a one-a-week project over 18 weeks (I did the math for you); but looking at the map of locations, it became clear that some of the shops were close enough to accommodate multiple stops.

Today the Grand Project began. Three of us met in a suburban parking lot, piled into a single vehicle, and set forth into the city. Herewith, the first report.

Dramatis Personae
Dan, your humble narrator
Jim, who has separately chronicled the day’s events here
Ron, the self-proclaimed “least hipster” of the three of us, and that’s saying something

Location #1: Gaslight Coffee Roasters, 2385 N. Milwaukee

We arrived at the door a few minutes early, as the place doesn’t open until 9:00 on Sundays. Inside, the smallish room is sparsely appointed, with hardwood floors, exposed-brick walls, eclectic wall decor (old blueprints, a taxidermy duck, a mounted deer’s head, an old barbershop sign), and simple furniture.

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Ron had a cup of Gaslight’s regular drip coffee (I don’t know the roast). Jim sampled the espresso, which he declared unambiguously the best espresso he had ever tasted. He enjoyed it so much that he had a second cup. I started with a cold-brew iced coffee, but based on Jim’s euphoria, I decided to try the espresso as well. (Jim doubled down with another espresso himself.) I’m not sure why, but all the espresso we saw today was served with a small glass of sparkling water. Is this a Thing now?

As we were ordering the first round, a tray of fresh-baked goods was brought in, so for round two, I had a blueberry pastry, and Ron had a cherry version of the same thing.

The iced coffee was quite good, with a subtle citrus tone. Being cold-brewed, it did not suffer any weakening from being iced. I believe it was Guatemalan, but I hadn’t quite decided what notes I was taking. (It was my first coffee of the day. Sue me.)

I did, however, take note of the conversation topics:

Paris – Ron and family are heading there in a couple of days; while Jim went a couple of years ago, so they discussed housing and restaurant options. My only visit to Paris was in 2000, for a three-day business trip.

Cameras – I am considering getting a good camera, so we talked about DSLR versus mirrorless. My Galaxy S4 takes decent photos, but I want MORE BETTER.

The inherent phoniness of tasting notes – yeah, when I said “citrus” up there, I was totally making it up, but now if you drink the same thing, you’ll taste citrus. (Or you’ll come up with your own phony descriptor.) This part of the conversation also involved Jim’s assertion (which will be tested) that in a truly blind test, people often cannot distinguish between red and white wines.

Location #2: Ipsento, 2035 N. Western

At first glance, Ipsento is a tiny space mostly occupied by the coffee bar and a separate sales counter, but there’s a staircase at the back leading to an additional small room with tables and a couple of bench seats. Furnishings are eclectic – perhaps the remnants of yard sales and estate sales, and the wall decorations are old window frames and doors. Still, the space is warm and comfortable.

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The coffee choices were numerous and hence difficult to decide. Ron went with a Panamanian run through an aeropress – essentially a French press; I’m not sure what makes it different. Ipsento had two espresso varieties – a “Wildfire,” which was portrayed as “smoky” and a Guatemalan which sounded pretty similar to the espresso at Gaslight. Stricken with indecision, Jim took the obvious tack of having one of each. I went with one of the house specialties, the eponymous “Ipsento,” which is a latte with coconut milk, honey and a touch of cayenne. That’s it in the photo. I am normally a black coffee guy, but someone had to try a froufrou drink – and the Chicagoist piece had specifically mentioned this one – so I made the sacrifice. It was very tasty, though had I realized how rich and filling it would be, I might have foregone the breakfast sandwich.

Oh, did I not mention the breakfast sandwiches? Ipsento has several of them, and a variety of lunch sandwiches as well. All are named for authors. Jim went for the Ernest Hemingway, which consisted of salmon, egg, cream cheese and capers on a large croissant; and Ron and I had the Mark Twain: egg, tomato, basil, and cheddar cheese, also on a croissant.

As I mentioned, the Ipsento was filling, and the sandwich was even more so. Jim was beginning to think that four espressos in short succession might not have been the best idea for his stomach, so we had to decide: call it a day, or hit one more location? We chose to be Men of Adventure, and set out for the next place.

Location #3: Buzz: Killer Espresso, 1644 N. Damen

Had we been thinking a little more clearly at the beginning of today’s venture, we might have gone here first and worked our way north. Buzz is just north of the North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection in Wicker Park, which meant that by the time we got there, parking was in scarce supply.

Buzz is a bit larger than Gaslight and Ipsento, with a very pleasant- (and full-) looking outdoor patio. Inside, again, a very simple clean establishment with a few two-person tables along one side and a four-top at the back (which was conveniently empty for us).

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All three of us, perhaps feeling a little coffee-choice fatigue, elected to go with a pour-over of Sidama Chire. As we sat around discussing blogging, we concocted more made-up tasting notes: citrus (again), fruity, bright, and Ron said nutty.

The baristae were clearly very passionate about their product and their work. The pour-over technique involved pre-measured cans of beans, ground immediately before use; filters soaked ahead of the pour with water at the exact proper temperature; and the pictured single-cup… whatever you call that device that fit over the top of the cup. In any event, it was a really good cup of coffee.

Conclusion of Part the First

And with that, the first leg of the journey was over. In Ron’s car on the way back to the burbs, we agreed it had been an auspicious start to the venture, and that we would have to figure out when to do the next one. Ron will be out of town for a couple of weeks. He valiantly said we could go on without him in the interim, but I think I spotted the glint of a tear in his eye, so we may wait.

I had originally decided that I was not going to try to rank the coffee shops. And in fact, I had such widely varying drinks that it would be extremely difficult to compare them. However, I did find one objective measure for comparison: ink – how many tattoos the workers displayed. (I will not make aesthetic judgments, and I didn’t get a good enough look at the clientele to determine the customer ink quotient.) Therefore, in high to low tattoo-quantity order, I rank these first three establishments as follows:

Gaslight
Buzz
Ipsento

In the next installment (unless we decide to go elsewhere), we will visit a shop that makes a bold assertion; a place that may be of special interest to Doctor Who fans; and perhaps … a bicycle shop?