Confession: I go to my preferred coffee shop every morning to enjoy a latte. While there, I read, write or visit with a friend. My visits fulfill my creative, social, and intellectual needs for the day by morning. And that is the way I justify the expense which, taken over a period of time, has been considerable.
I am particular and discerning regarding the quality of my lattes. I lived in Seattle during the coffee shop boom when every neighborhood boasted its own local café, each one better than the next.
From my youth into my forties, I never drank coffee. Even as a nurse on the night shift when prudence demanded coffee, I couldn’t do it. I found it bitter, it gave me adjita, and kept me awake long after I imbibed. Nothing helped - not special beans, cream, nor sugar.
In Seattle, a friend wooed me into my first latte. “It’s not coffee; it’s espresso which is milder and there’s less of it. It’s mixed with steamed milk. Just try it. My treat.”
How could I resist? I so envied all those who enjoyed a reliable pick-up while I dragged through my mornings. First try and I was hooked. Because I responded so vigorously to the caffeine, I ordered a single shot of espresso, half de-caf, half regular. The baristas hated to see me coming. I got in the habit of leaving large tips. I savored my latte early in the day so it wouldn’t interfere with sleep.
I moved to Buffalo from Seattle in 2003. My daughter served as a scout (she had been here for over a year) for many things, but first on the list was a coffee shop that served the perfect latte. I wanted a local café imbued with coffee shop ambiance, desirable location, trained baristas, terrific coffee drinks and a reasonable breakfast and lunch menu. In other words, an exceptional place to hang-out and drink lattes. She and I walked into Spot on Delaware and I was home. The large mural with Seattle landmarks posted around the old Delaware and Chippewa corner building sealed the deal. It seems the original owners had lived in Seattle for twenty years before returning to their home town (much like me). My first Buffalo latte was perfectly crafted and matched anything I could have gotten in Seattle. And in 2003, Spot was one of only a few local coffee houses in Buffalo.
The perfect latte requires a state-of-the-art espresso machine that includes a milk steamer and an espresso press. The automatic push-button machine won’t do. It’s the difference between Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings and a TV Thanksgiving dinner. The lesser machine offends taste, texture and mood.
An expertly trained barista is essential to the process. The barista must know about grinding, tamping and dosing espresso, the precise temperature of the steamed milk, etc. Rich, spicy, nutty, full-bodied, flavored, organic, fresh, slow roasted, fair trade, mellow, vibrant, and earthy are but a few of the terms tossed around to describe espresso beans. And, endless instructions exist on latte art (the design sculpted into the foam—heart, shamrock, flower). I know not of these things, but I thoroughly appreciate their craft and scholarship in one sip.
Four characteristics of a bad latte:
- Luke warm milk and espresso slopped together in a cup with little or no foam.
- Scalded milk: after it cools, flavor is affected and skim can form.
- Poor structure: weak, wobbly, bubbly foam.
- Most egregious: a bitter tasting latte, strong to the point of acidic. It is much like a cup of strong, inferior coffee disguised with artfully designed foam. I’m not sure what goes wrong here but for me this latte is the least drinkable of the offenders.
- Spot is still my number one choice for good reason: consistency. All Spot destinations can be relied upon to serve up an excellent latte. In addition, their café menu soothes the savage winter soul with hearty soups and nutritional, affordable breakfasts and lunches. (I gain all my weight in winter so I find this vital.) Over the years, Spot has only increased my loyalty by proliferating into various Buffalo neighborhoods and suburbs, one shop better than the next.
- Sweetness7—more expensive but equally consistent with quality of food and drink. With a large, well-lit wooden table in the center, window seats, and an old world feel, this café captivates.
- Daily Planet—while the menu isn’t as robust as my top two, their excellent coffee creations and cozy seating framed by large windows that provide natural light put them on the list.
- Honorable mention goes to Starbucks, always reliable and available (and ubiquitous). While not my first choice when at home (too corporate), they provide an acceptable back-up when on the road and a first line of defense in airports.
Just a Taste
Recently, I took myself on a tour of some of the newer coffee houses in the city. Nothing changed my mind regarding my favorites but it was fun to be in different settings and to discuss coffee and coffee establishments with the proprietors.
I live in South Buffalo, so ideally, I would like to recommend the two neighborhood cafes that offer espresso. Alas, one utilizes the offending push button espresso machine and the other delivers the bitterest of bitter espresso drinks. Both of these cafes are above average in ambiance and within minutes (one by foot and the other by car) of my house, so I write this mournfully.
I love it when owners subscribe to the Buffalo News so there is one handy. But even if they don’t, customers come in early, read their paper and often leave it behind—I hope with the intention of recycling, so others can pick it up and better enjoy their day. Some leave behind the New York Times. For me this is a banner day. However, in most establishments, newspapers are not allowed to linger. With horror, I watched one Sunday morning as an employee stuffed the entire NYT into a trash can—not a recycling bin. A café functions as a hang-out, now known as "third spaces." Newspapers and magazines are a part of the hanging out. Put them on the shelf. Brighten the visit of those of us who like to borrow resources. In other locales, daily newspapers are left for patrons. The Sunday Times or local Sunday paper should get to lease shelf space for the entire week.
Background music is fine, but loud music in small spaces during the day-especially in the morning-makes me peevish. I’m an older woman and maybe age is catching up, but truthfully, even thirty years ago that type of din was never welcome in my morning routine. I avoided those coffee houses regardless of the quality of the lattes.
On the Road to Latte Land
I know that I am consumed by the pursuit of the perfect latte. On the road, I am a pest. While most of my travel companions settle for a good cup of home brewed coffee or tea in the morning, I go on a quest. To express her annoyance, a friend bought me a framed poster of a highway warning sign: NO CAFFE LATTE NEXT 20 MILES.
If you have a favorite Buffalo coffee café, please share and tell me why you like it. I want to visit.