Free yourself from that “motor oil” and “warm asphalt” that you call coffee!

2 Oct

For generations, North America has been subjected to coffee that is nothing more than limp-wristed, bland warm water that happens to be somewhat black in colour. We have grown accustomed to making coffee taste like milk, sugar, or both, to avoid actually tasting the boiled manure that most cafés and restaurants serve. In many parts of the Levant, coffee is drunk very strong, very thick and very black. Italians have made a name for themselves for their fine espresso, with each one being slightly different than any other. Paris is fuelled by the café serré. In World War II, when the Americans arrived to rescue the French from the clutches of the fascists, they took normal French café and watered it down with hot water – a drink we now know as an Americano. We have managed to take a highly refined, wonderfully complex beverage and bastardize it to the point where it’s barely distinguishable from used motor oil or warm asphalt. The worst part of all this is that I regularly hear people say that they like Tim Hortons and Starbucks. When it comes to coffee ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s a felony.

Toronto hasn’t been spared from crime-against-humanity coffee. A good espresso was extremely hard to come by outside the kitchen of an Italian nonna. Working in the financial district, as I do, meant drinking Starbucks or, well, Starbucks. Mercifully, this is beginning to change. There are now at least three establishments in the financial district that make legitimate coffee. They focus on the flavour rather than on serving blackened urine in swimming pool sized cups. The first of these, and I daresay the best, is Dineen Coffee. A recent entrant to the downtown coffee scene, Dineen is located at the corner of Temperance and Yonge streets in a heritage building that was masterfully renovated to house the café as well as a douchebag-chic restaurant and a bar.

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The soaring ceilings, glass walls and stunning chandeliers make the space feel grand. The floor tiles are reminiscent of a hole-in-the-wall café in Lisbon or Barcelona. The patio is an inviting space among the cold, impersonal glass and steel towers that surround the building. You can drink your espresso like it’s meant to be drunk – quickly, in a proper porcelain cup, on a marble-top bar and with a little glass of cold water. Taking your espresso away in a pathetic paper cup to drink in your Dilbert-esque cubicle like a nekulturny ignoramus is a no-no. Coffee has a rather work-a-day status in our society, but having one at Dineen feels like a special experience every time.

The attention to detail doesn’t stop at the décor. Dineen has come up with a blend that drinks like a 2000 Château Pétrus – full-bodied, powerful, complex yet velvety-smooth. Their espresso (C$2.35) is an intensely satisfying little cup of heaven – almost creamy in texture, and free of any bitterness that afflicts most of the industrial effluent served up by the chain cafés. Despite my blasting the Americano as a sad excuse for coffee, Dineen’s version (C$2.75) is like sex in your mouth (without the salty finish).

Dineen also serves some of the best pre-made café food in the downtown core. None of it is fancy and, thankfully, none of it has succumbed to the misery-inducing trend of fat-free, sugar-free, dignity-free food that plagues places like Starbucks. For reasons that continue to elude me, getting a simple ham and cheese sandwich (C$8.97) to taste like a million bucks is incomprehensibly challenging for most Toronto sandwichmakers. Dineen manages this by doing two things that would seem to me patently obvious: sourcing proper, traditional baguettes from a competent boulangerie and using ham and cheese that weren’t sawed off discarded blocks of rubber. Their vegetarian quiche (C$3.25) is one of the best I’ve had on either side of the Pond. The texture of the crust was buttery and flaky, the egg mixture was velvety and light and the tomatoes tasted impossibly fresh.

Dineen is a winner on all fronts. Winners in my books get brown thumbs up, and Dineen gets a whole 4.08 of them.

For the PATH-dwellers among us, there are two recent additions to the underground maze that make a decent attempt at making proper coffee. The Sam James Coffee Bar has opened an outpost under the Sunlife building just west of First Canadian Place, on King Street. It may very well be the first place in the PATH that can boast such a singular focus on well-executed espresso. Unlike Dineen, there are no chandeliers, imported tiles or boulangerie-inspired sandwiches. There aren’t even any seats. Instead, there are some skinny hipsters merrily making coffee and only taking cash in exchange for it. (Digression: The financial core of Canada’s financial core is not exactly a barren outpost in Upper Mongolia, devoid of technology and connectivity. Accordingly, taking cash only is not a thing.) They look decidedly out of place in a space that is otherwise filled with bleary-eyed wanker bankers, but they know how to pull a decent espresso and look ironic while doing it.

The espresso is well-executed. An abundance of frothy crema tops a very tightly pulled, intense brew that emphasizes floral and citrus tones. While it lacks the balance of Dineen’s version, it does demonstrate the skill of the blender and roaster. The baristas are also aware that their coffee should be savoured in the best possible conditions – they give you a little cup of water to enhance the flavours of the espresso without you even having to ask. This attention to detail is intensely satisfying.

SJCB will be my go-to cafe when winter strikes and leaving the office to go to Dineen will involve donning layers of protection and trudging through soul-crushing slush. I will put up with skinny jeans and having to carry annoyingly noisy change on me so that I can enjoy a good espresso without boiling over in a heavy coat. In exchange for giving me a legitimate winter coffee option, I give SJCB a moderately respectable 3.52 brown thumbs up.

Another spot in the PATH makes a fair go of it when it comes to espresso. Despite being unnecessarily proud of serving “meatless, wheatless” food in boxes that are no doubt inspired by communism, I decided to give Kupfert and Kim a shot because I spotted little bags of Stumptown coffee in the corner. That was enough to make me stop, even after having just had an espresso from SJCB.

Surprisingly, the things I liked and hated about the experience have little to do with the espresso. It was decent, if lacking slightly in the dense, earthy flavours and full body of Dineen’s and SJCB’s creations. What I abhorred, however, was the fact that I was given a miserable little paper goblet without being asked. Putting proper espresso in a paper cup is like taking the 4.7L V8 from a Maserati Quattroporte and dumping it unceremoniously into the engine bay of a Hyundai. Unfortunately, it is safe in the PATH to make the assumption that your customers simply want to hurry back to the little hole from whence they emerged. However, for a place that publicly boasts about its “expertly crafted” coffee, making the assumption that every customer is a to-go twit who would rather take an espresso to his desk than spend the 43 seconds it takes to stand at the counter and consume it as nature intended is not a good way to back up its claim or to properly showcase the product it “expertly crafts.”

Unfortunately, this failure of epic proportions cannot be made up by the fact that Kupfert and Kim takes card. While taking cash only outside of the third world is most certainly not a thing, and places that take card usually attract my custom away from those that don’t, I will nevertheless be going to SJCB and, if necessary, I will panhandle to scrounge up the change. I give Kupfert and Kim 2.97 brown thumbs down for a merely decent product, and a large, swollen fuck you for the paper cup assumption.

I’m thrilled to have access to real coffee in the downtown core. For far too long, it was a wasteland of Starbucks and Timmies. Unfortunately, it is still the exception rather than the rule, and not enough baristas care about their product to the point that they will assume unless otherwise told that you’ll have your espresso at the bar, in a real cup and with some cold water. For a city of almost six million souls, Toronto has a long way to go. Thankfully, it’s (slowly) heading in the right direction.

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