"Shiny beans,” says Dave. “Sure sign.”
444 W. Cedar Street, Little Italy
He’s talking coffee beans. And he should know. He’s managing this new coffee place-café here kitty-corner to the Firehouse museum at Cedar and Columbia in Little Italy.
“Uh, sure sign of what?”
“Over-roasting,” says Dave. “It means the oils have been roasted out. The brew oxidizes. Not good for flavor. The beginning of bitterness.”
“So, what’s the solution?”
“There’s no set formula,” Dave says. “We learn to bring out the flavors we most want. Third-wave coffee places like ours don’t brew or roast to set formulas, like medium or dark. You roast according to the particular beans and the flavors you want to highlight. Coffee’s getting more and more like wine.”
Though they’ve only been open two months, you can tell the place is serious about coffee. Most of their menu boards are taken up with it. Everything from my two-buck drip to — erk! — a $15 brew, “La Esmeralda” coffee.
I’m impressed. Even though, well, first impression of the architecture? Honestly? Black industrial shed with the walls ripped off. Sunny California? We’re talking black, gray, and back to black.
Still, once you get up the steps and onto the big open patio, you suddenly feel light and airy and in a good space.
This was at about two in the afternoon. I was hoping for a good coffee and a light brekky. I headed to the counter. Blond wood, along with a wall of what looks like white mud cracked by the desert sun. “Line up here,” reads a sign. So you know they get lines.
“Definitely on weekends,” says the barista. “Farmers’ market is right outside.”
Her name’s Amrita. She sets me up with a $2 cup of regular coffee and shows me the overhead menu boards. Salads, like the arugula with figs and goat cheese ($8.50), and the Caesar ($8.50). Then, granola and yogurt with fresh fruit ($7), organic french toast ($9), and “ancient grain farro bowl” ($8.50). Turns out this is multiple traditional wheat species mixed with greens, avocado, grape tomato, ricotta, and cilantro lime sauce.
Then there are a couple of panini: American (with turkey and cheddar, basically) and Italian (with ham and prosciutto, roasted artichoke, mozzarella), both $10.50.
But actually, the most breakfasty item is up top. “Organic artisan bread & poached S.L.O.E. Eggs (wha? Slow Laid Organic Eggs?), $7. I go for it.
“Anything with that?” Amrita says. And I notice a sides list below. Things like local avocado ($2), local spinach ($2), wild arugula ($2), and chicken apple sausage or “plant-based sausage” ($3.50).
“What’s the chicken sausage like?” I ask Amrita.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“I don’t eat animal foods.”
So, okay, I go for the sausage made of plants. You also get a choice of topping for the bread. Butter, jam, or hummus. I pick hummus.
So, that’s $13 out. With coffee, hummus, tax, tip, $16.80.
After that outlay, what you get is kind of a shock.
A cook brings up this oblong plate with two eggs poached in a mold, two breads spread with hummus, and two rounds of vegan sausage. Plain and very simple.
This is what my carnivore friends always whine about. “Nuts and twigs! No colors! No flavors!”
The eggs are fine, poached and gently runny. The hummus is good on the nice country-rough bread. The sausages do have a savory taste that I could have believed was chicken.
But it seems of a piece. Plain black and beige architecture — plain beige food, organic and clean, but where’s the kick, the colors, the eye candy? The spices?”
’Course, then a snappily dressed barista named Noel (“Think Coward”) passes by with some stuff that really does look colorful. An American panini, and a croissant I don’t recognize.
“Fig croissant,” says Noel. “One of our own baked butter croissants with caramelized onion, black fig, gruyere cheese, and arugula. All organic.”
It costs $8. Dang. Gal named Elli’s having it. “I had one this morning,” says Geordie, the guy with her. “It was so good, we came back.”
It’s that idea of fig, gruyere, and sweet onion that gets me. Sigh. Even though, the more I eat, the more I start to appreciate the hummus. Especially after José, the chef, brings some cilantro lime sauce, which adds a tangy sweetness.
One thing: the coffee is excellent — and the best is still to come.
“Our owner, Eric Meyer, designed this place himself, after starting up places in Encinitas and Solana Beach,” says Dave, the manager. “The idea was: very simple food, clean, fresh, organic, avoiding fattier foods. Eat here, you’ll live longer. And talk more: we have no outlets for laptops.”
Pretty soon we’re talking coffee. Cold rested, 12-hour slow drip (“less bitterness”). The problem with heating coffee (“heating burns the bean”). Using agave and simple syrup for sweeteners (“lower glycemics”).
I end up buying a cold-brew Kyoto, with nitro to cream it up ($3.50). And, I swear, this little drink, which comes in a snifter, is a combination of Ethiopian-Konga and Guatemalan beans and is almost like a wine. I swear. Fruity, chocolatey, citric. No way bitter.
But halfway down I discover the way to take this to Nirvana: add some agave syrup. OMG. Now it’s like the finest sweet wine I ever got a sip of, Château d’Yquem. And that cost way more than $3.50.
This, I am coming back for. To sip, slowly. And in between, exchange deep thoughts with real aficionados, on this chatty terrazza.
I’ll even forgive these guys their black-on-black color hang-up.
The Place: Lofty Coffee Co., 444 West Cedar Street (at Columbia), Little Italy, 760-230-6747
Hours: 6 a.m.–6 p.m. daily (Saturday, Sunday, from 7 a.m.)
Prices: Organic bread, poached egg, $7; adds include avocado ($2), spinach ($2), arugula ($2), chicken apple sausage, or plant-based sausage ($3.50); arugula salad, figs, goat cheese, $8.50; Caesar salad, $8.50; granola, yogurt, fruit, $7; organic french toast, $9; ancient grain farro bowl, $8.50; American panini (turkey, cheddar), $10.50; Italian panini (ham, prosciutto, artichoke, mozzarella), $10.50; fig croissant (black fig, gruyere cheese), $8
Nearest bus stops: Cedar and India (northbound), Cedar and Kettner (southbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest trolley stop: County Center Little Italy