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Blue Bottle Café
Another Solid Anchor for the New Mint Plaza
by Michelle Chan on Sep 05, 2008
Tucked away on a corner of the newly-renovated Mint Plaza in SOMA, Blue Bottle Coffee opened its long-awaited café in January 2008. Previously, BB addicts could only find the hand-pulled brew at small kiosks located in the Ferry Building farmers' market and in a Hayes Valley alleyway at 315 Linden Street.
Known for their fanatical approach toward proper preparation, the Oakland-based company carefully roasts organic coffee in 21-pound micro-batches, which minimizes bitterness and maximizes freshness.
Their new café takes obsession to another level, featuring a Lucky Cremas Bonmac 105 "siphon bar" imported from Japan. Reportedly, this is one of only a few such machines in the U.S., not just because of its $20,000 price tag, but also because the maker will only sell to those customers who are deemed worthy of owning one.
This brewing machine is a mind-boggling contraption of steampunk elegance, which uses halogen lamps to heat glass globes of water. The water is siphoned into an upper chamber, where it is hand mixed with a bamboo paddle then suctioned back down. At around $10-12 per order (the small pot can be shared by two), it certainly forces one to sip and savor every drop. The final brew is juicy and mouthwatering, with flavors getting richer as the liquid cools.
Unfortunately, the outrageous price effectively forces the siphon coffee into the "gimmick" category, especially when the café's normal drip coffee is excellent and can be had for a reasonable $2. It's the kind of thing one would order once to try it -- and say that you've tried it -- rather than enjoy on a daily basis. Their other coffee drinks ($2-4.5) are likewise top-notch, and espresso drinks are served with a delectable salted caramel or toffee chips.
But the place can take itself a little too seriously, which can be off-putting. For example, most customers will be forced to ask what a "Kyoto style" coffee is ($3.5), only to be told that it is simply black iced coffee, albeit cold-extracted. Similarly, the menu mentions that it uses Michael Recchiuti chocolate, but the name-dropping only serves to make the watery and lukewarm hot chocolate ($3.5) all the more disappointing. (In fact, we've heard a number of complaints from friends and colleagues that Blue Bottle's strict adherence to a 198-degree coffee brewing temp results in warm -- not hot -- coffee.)
The café offers non-coffee beverages as well, such as lemonade ($3) made with intriguing twist of yuzu, as well as a nice selection of beers and wines ($6-9.5), including Hitachino Nest white ale ($7.5) -- the tasty but hard-to-find Japanese ale which sports an appealing owl logo.
The café has had their share of early problems. One weekend morning, when it was not particularly crowded, it took 45 minutes for our coffee to arrive, a function of forgotten orders rather than the extra time needed to prepare the siphon coffee. It has also taken a while to work out the kinks in their food menu. One week, breakfast items were consistently gone by 10am, leaving patrons nothing more than diminutive shortbread cookies (2 for $1) to start the day.
Breakfast options change by the week and may include Acme Bakery toast ($4.5), Belgian waffles ($7.5), or "Popeye eggs" ($6.5) -- what many of us called "egg in a hole" as kids. Blue Bottle's version uses crisp, 2-inch thick slices of toast, with the crunchy plug of toast playfully served on the side.
Starting at around 11am, the café serves soup and small European-style sandwiches ($3.5) made with a few simple ingredients, such as salami and cheese or egg salad. When we went, the soup of the day was lentil and vegetable ($4.5) in a slightly sweet broth scented with cloves. Later in the afternoon, sweets like chocolate truffles ($3.5) are featured.
The food may be unremarkable at Blue Bottle, but the coffee is undeniably first-rate, and the interior is cool, modern and pleasing. The Mint Plaza redevelopers envision a car-free, mixed-use residential/cultural spot inspired by the vibrancy of Italian piazzas, and since Chez Papa Resto and Blue Bottle have opened, this goal seems to be coming to fruition. A hip café, where patrons can drop in for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, is critical to that vision, and Blue Bottle delivers nicely on that count.
(Select restaurants serve the infamous Blue Bottle "crack" as well, including Mission Beach Café, Bittersweet Café, and Piccino.)
Reservations Essential? No.
by Michelle Chan on Sep 05, 2008