Thursday, January 8, 2009

Espresso Vivace (Capitol Hill)

As I was grinding my coffee beans this morning, before the grinding was finished, I heard the grinder speed up a bit. Oops! I ran out of beans. Well, that gave me a perfect excuse to delay my bathroom remodeling project a while and head out to buy some beans. Oh well, why not have a latte also?

It's been several months since I visited Espresso Vivace (across the street from REI's flagship store), so I went to the website and found out that they had opened their Capitol Hill location on Broadway. The parking is much better in Capitol Hill than near the REI store, so I decided on that location. They are right in the heart of Capitol Hill's main drag on Broadway:

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As usual, I ordered a latte. They didn't have small, medium, & large, only 8oz. and 12oz. sizes, so I opted for the 12oz. They had 2 baristas working the machine: one pulling espresso shots, and the other steaming & pouring the milk. As the barista was swirling and tapping the steamed milk on the counter, I felt like I was a drooling dog anxiously waiting for my food to be served. From the first sip to the last, I was in caffiene heaven. While some of the other coffee houses served up some really good lattes, this one took the prize. It was just so smooth and yet intense at the same time. I think I drank the coffee in about 1 minute.

Espresso Vivace is an espresso house. They don't even serve standard coffee, only espresso drinks. This place reminds me of the coffee shops in Italy. As far as I can tell, in Italy standard coffee isn't even made. When you order coffee there, it's pretty much limited to drinking an espresso or cappuccino. I remember quite vividly being at a coffee shop in Rome. There was a really long stand-up counter where you would be served your shot of espresso. It was a pretty interesting experience watching a businessman walk up to the counter, order, dump a boatload of sugar into the espresso, give it a quick swirl with the spoon, and down it in 2 swigs. I think the whole process took under a minute. Espresso Vivace has a nice long counter where you are encouraged to slurp down your espresso. This is as close to the Italian espresso shop as you will find in the US.

This reminded me of the history of Starbuck's entry into espresso drinks. The story is something along these lines: Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) took a business trip to Milan and visited their espresso shops. Seeing the popularity of these establishments, he figured that it would be a good idea in Seattle. I think most of us know the rest of the story. It was wildly successful and Starbucks spread like a wildfire in Southern California. I remember those early days quite well. I went to my first Starbucks in the early 90's when I lived in Chicago's Oldtown neighborhood. They had a location one block north of where I lived on Wells St. The Starbucks locations back then resembled the good coffee houses in Seattle today. Their baristas were well trained and actually had old school espresso machines and separate grinders. Somewhere along the way they got so focused at expanding, they must have been forced to go to the all-in-one, simple to operate, espresso machines instead of having well trained baristas that could be trusted to make espresso. There's something wrong when there are five milk steaming pitchers next to the machine that have been sitting there for God knows how long and the barista uses it to top off your drink.

Companies can get so focused on expansion and profits that they lose sight of what made them successful in the first place. Making good espresso isn't rocket science: design a good blend of beans, properly roast them, and then make while the beans are still fresh. I know this will sound pompous coming from a guy who writes a coffee blog, but if I were running the place, I'd go back to the basics.

Back to Espresso Vivace. This is the place to get the best possible espresso drinks in Seattle. They aren't a diverse shop like Zoka where you can get whatever you want. This is about espresso. They don't offer a bunch of styles of coffee beans. They have two blends, which are optimized for espresso. That's it. I'll be heading back soon to get espresso instead of a latte. I'm guessing that it will be perfect.

Espresso Vivace on Urbanspoon

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