After moving back to CT after 7 years in Seattle, there were a number of adjustments I had to accept in making Fairfield County my home (again). Some were trivial, like re-learning how to drive in the snow, while others were more significant: Income taxes and humidity for example. But no other trade-off was as frustrating as my fruitless search for a great cup of coffee.
I'm happy to report that while humidity and taxes may be here to stay, my espresso quest is finally over.
You may be wondering what I'm making such a fuss about. You might be thinking "Aren't there Starbucks all over the place? Doesn't America Run on Dunkin? What's the difference?" If so, I'd say we have much to discuss. You see, coffee is actually a lot like wine. Both require an obsession with quality sourcing, solid application of repeatable scientific methods, and an attention to detail that borders on compulsion. Think I'm crazy? Here's a primer on the subject. And for better coffee at home, here's some further reading.
Overwhelmed? Intrigued? Good. Because I'm going to make this very simple for you.
If you want a great cup of coffee, of any variety, get your next caffeine fix at Espresso NEAT.
Here at ctbites, we've watched with anticipation all summer long as Rachel Haughey and Lori Kirchen tantalized us with tweets about the progress they were making in building out Fairfield County's first true temple to coffee. Well, they opened on August 31st, right on schedule, and I think they've struck black gold.
They really care about what it takes to make a great coffee drink. And it shows, in the details. From the beans they've chosen to the methods they brew with, this is coffee, treated with respect, and elevated to art.
In fact, when I heard about what they were doing, my only concern was that the local population, numbed by big-gulp sized, Splenda and caramel doused monstrosities, wouldn't share their passion for the real deal. In the time I spent there enjoying back to back machiattos (perfectly made by their guest barista) I watched and listened as they educated their new clientele. And as a result, I'm optimistic, not only that they will thrive, but actually raise the bar in the area by creating a more vibrant coffee culture with a more sophisticated palette.
Enough rambling (I had a couple of shots right before writing this), here are the key facts:
You can get either drip or espresso based drinks, both made to order. Rather than have carafes sitting around, aging and losing their unique flavor profile, they make even the drip coffee to order, using a clever device designed for the task. First they weigh and grind the beans you've selected (both blends and single origins are available) before a timed extraction empties directly into your cup.
I watched them explain this to a couple of patrons who were at first confused around why they couldn't simply get their drip coffee to go instantly. In the end, I could tell each of them thought the wait was well worth it.
Another detail that will likely need explanation for some folks is around the more limited number of size options, particularly in the espresso based drinks. You see, to be properly appreciated, the ratio of milk to espresso is critical. So Cappuccinos are 6 oz. while Cafe Lattes are 10. It's this kind of commitment and focus on doing things the right way that sets this place apart.
P.S. If what you really want is a coffee flavored 20oz milkshake with caramel and whipped cream, Friendly's is just down the Post Road.
As I mentioned, my machiattos (a shot of espresso "marked" with foamed milk) were fantastic. Bold flavor from the espresso's thick crema balanced by the velvety smooth micro-foam in a lovely rosetta pattern (seen above). Steph's cafe latte was equally delicious, and boasted "the smoothest foam outside of Seattle" according to her.
And since we brought the kids with us, we had an excuse to sample the wide variety of coffee companions that Rachel and Lori have carefully sourced from local bakers. The Sono Baking Company provides muffins, wonderful anisette biscotti, scones and croissant...and many were quickly devoured while seated around one of the large comfortable window-side tables. Donuts from The Lakeside Diner in Stamford get brought in fresh every Saturday. Chocolates are available from Chocopologie in Sono, and there is a selection of cookies and cupcakes from dough girl Baking Company in Rowayton. If you are in the mood for a more savory snack, the sandwiches from the before-mentioned Sono Baking Co. looked great. We appreciated the intentional commitment to local CT goods, although it should be mentioned that the Liz Lovely Organic cookies from Vermont are outstanding as well. Don't miss them. (The Gluten-free versions are coming soon.)
While the kids were occupied with pumpkin muffins, we watched the barista in action and checked out the many novel coffee and tea related contraptions and devices on display and for sale. A welcome touch is that they include a freshly drawn sparkling water from their fountain with every espresso drink, which is a nice palette cleanser before and after. Another unexpected beverage surprise was the Mexican Coke, made with real sugar vs. corn syrup...just one of the many nice touches here at espresso NEAT.
Before leaving, we chatted about tamping and timing, and compared notes on favorite coffee haunts in NYC and beyond. And they were nice enough to let me buy some of the freshly roasted beans (sourced from Counter Culture Coffee) from their bin, so I could try my hand on them at home on my Brewtus machine.
Verdict: These folks are the real deal. Passionate about their product, and committed to educating the local population on the true joys that can be wrung from those tiny beans. Spread the word, and stop on in, its a new day here on the gold coast.
Update: I got a lovely rich extraction from the beans this morning at home, but unsurprisingly, Espresso NEAT did even better, with a beautiful tuned La Marzocco in the skilled hands of their talented barista.
espresso NEAT 20 Grove Street, Darien. 203.202.7215