Finding My Latte Out West

…While Spring Skiing in Sun Valley; Ketchum, Idaho

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Everything was about 5 minutes away by foot in Ketchum, Idaho.  Which made exploring it approachable (that, and how friendly people were from the hotel desk clerk to the ski lift operators).  Before heading out to the base of Bald Mountain at River Run in Sun Valley, there was breakfast at our funky-sheep-accented boutique hotel, the Hotel Ketchum, and a couple of quick morning walks to check out two of the coffee shops in town.

Just past the Ketchum Town Square is Maude’s Coffee and Clothes, a cottage at the corner of Walnut Avenue and 4th Street.  It’s March and still seasonably cool in the mountains of Idaho, but I recollect a bench out front for sipping coffee in the summer.  Maude is the name of the dog (there was a Polaroid of Maude propped up on the counter).  The “Clothes” part is in fact a vintage clothing store within Maude’s.  Bold belt buckles, bowling shirts, and fair isle sweaters were displayed on racks and counters to the left and behind the “Coffee” part.  Coffee and clothes – literally for purchase at the same time.  Opening the door, I felt like I was walking into someone’s light-filled quiet kitchen.  Maude’s was relaxed and welcoming, and let me gradually wake up to the day.  The coffee counter was heaped with pastries and there was an eclectic mix of a few low tables and chairs at which to sit and appreciate the serenity.  I took my smooth latte to go in a paper cup unassumingly stamped with Maude’s logo.

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On Sunday morning, across from The Board Bin snowboard shop and rental, the low-slung house that is Ketchum’s Java on 4th – part of an all-Idaho group of five coffee shops from Twin Falls to Boise – was bustling with weekend skiers in insulated pants and zippered turtlenecks waking up with coffees and breakfast burritos before the short drive down the road to Sun Valley’s slopes.  People were in and out and back and forth, breakfasting at the bar and at the few scattered tables, their movements like that of a large family able to seamlessly go about their morning breakfast routine.  Service at the ordering counter was quick.  And my latte was presented in a cup calling me to, “Wake Up and Live.”  Perfect words for making my way with J to the next adventure of snowshoeing on the well-marked and beautiful trails at Galena Lodge.

…While Dodging 2017’s Rains in San Diego, California

The motel was located on a main road, a blah strip with other motels and low-slung shops on either side.  It happened to be the rainiest weekend that January 2017 – in 10 years  – in San Diego.  So maybe the strip would have looked more laid-back California than sadly grey, if the sun had been shining and the streets had been dry?  Finding a walkable latte-making coffee shop seemed like it was going to be a difficult task here.  But it wasn’t.  Like a beacon through the driving rain Better Buzz Coffee’s turquoise sign, bright lights, and carefully weathered exterior guided me inside to meet a California that wasn’t itself on the outside.

Better Buzz was only a few blocks from our motel, and J and I gratefully hopped on stools at the distressed wood table and dug into some avocado toast, me with latte in hand, cup cheerfully printed with “Life’s Better Buzzed.”  A collective obsession with avocado toast may have come and gone, but I’m still a fan, and the 3 Seed Avocado Toast at Better Buzz is the best I’ve had.  On thick slices of multigrain bread and piled high with mashed avocado, a little lemon and red pepper flakes, topped with microgreens, and made pleasantly nutty with a combination of chia, sesame, and hemp seeds – I still remember it a year later.   Better Buzz and, yes, that toast, powered J and I to joyously plot our mostly rainy few days in San Diego.

Get This Wine…Sparkling na Punta

 

Le Vigne Bioin the town of La Morra in the Piedmont region of Italy showcases wines from winemakers using biodynamic and organic processes.  The wine bar’s temporary, raised outdoor patio (reminiscent of a small music stage) was across the street and abutting the face of the La Morra town hall, which is just about to the top of the hill where the via San Martino meets the Parrocchia di San Martino.  The wines by the glass, including several sparkling options, were written in chalk on a blackboard leaning against the town hall wall.  Several small tables and chairs were arranged and two sets occupied by a visiting German family on this cool late afternoon in early September.  It was a perfect time for J and I to sit down for an aperitivo on our first day in La Morra.

Eyeing the sparkling, I went with the na Punta (2012) an Extra Brut produced by Franco Conterno, based in Monforte d’Alba just across the hills.  What a find!  The pale gold color of the na Punta delivered a dry smoky taste that was so unexpected from a sparkling.  Made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grape (the grape of this, the Piedmont region of Italy), na Punta had a heft I hadn’t tasted before in a sparkling.  I sipped mine while nibbling on a selection of salumi, the aperitivo food complement to our glasses of wine.

I was wracking my brain trying to think of ways to carry back some na Punta despite only traveling with small, international-size carry-on bags.  Was the na Punta worth investing in a large hard-sided suitcase?  Would we be crazy to pay more outrageous shipping fees to the US and buy a case to be shipped from Le Vigne Bio’s friendly owner, Severino Oberto?  In the end, sensibility won out, but we took a photo of the bottle just in case we might find it back home.  We didn’t.  Franco Conterno distributes some of their wines, but not the sparkling na Punta, in the US.  J surprised me, though, and for Christmas, he ordered a half case from the winery and we enjoyed na Punta on a twinkling Christmas Eve on Hilton Head Island.  Most appropriately, with elegant Poached Oysters, light and tangy with Pickled Cucumber and Caviar.

No Reason to Whine With These Wine Bars in DC

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Capping off 2017, I tried two newer wine bars in DC – both in the Shaw neighborhood.  One cheeky, one engaging, both welcoming in small, street front corner spaces, perfect for stopping in and trying a few new wines.

December was Merry Meritage month at Maxwell Park.  The small corner wine bar was shoulder-to-shoulder people early on a Saturday evening for a drink before (or with) dinner.  J and I weren’t sure we’d make it to a seat, but the amiable hostess assured us that a couple at the bar was just paying their check and the large party milling around them was about to leave.  Both happened, just as she said, and there we were with two seats and two wine menus, exploring the meritage offerings.  Bill Murray exclaiming “Murray Meritage” was emblazoned on some of the bartenders’ t-shirts, echoing the web site’s tongue-in-cheek, where “Wine” incites, “Trust me, You Can Dance.”  The bar is clean lines and serious wines, but the wittiness assures a wine experience that is lighthearted and fun.  Maxwell offers select bar snacks, with a few “mains” if you want to stay for a full meal.  J and I enjoyed the thick slice of truffle-honeyed butternut squash with pine nuts and feta while we tried a couple of glasses of the meritage selections.

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I made it to La Jambe on New Year’s Eve after reading their web site declaration to come by and ring in the New Year on Paris time!  I was lured in by the opportunity for an early toast at a neighborhood wine bar I’ve wanted to try with no over-priced NYE set menu.  La Jambe welcomed us, and later two friends, into a stylized modern bistro.  The massive mural covering half the rear cement wall set a cool edgy tone softened by marble top bistro tables.  A chalk board hanging on a cement pillar in the middle of the u-shaped bar announced specials.  Strings of Christmas lights and a lighted tree in the street-facing corner windows gave off soft and twinkling light throughout.  J and I chose from the menu a cremant rose from the Alsace (Cremant Rose Jean Claude Riefle) – dry, light, with a hint of pink – beautiful in color and taste.  We shared as part of this aperitif a charcuterie and cheese plate, “Le Surprise” (with a very flavorful goat cheese), a basket of crusty bread, pickled vegetables and black olives.

La Jambe and Maxwell Park are two of a number of new wine bars (and bakeries and coffee shops) popping up in newly constructed or renovated buildings around Washington, DC, but offering happily unique atmospheres not dependent on older buildings layered in years of character.

Latte Away

IMG_2131La Morra, Italy (Piedmont)

I try to seek out coffee shops in the neighborhoods where I’m staying in each place I travel.  In La Morra, that experience was at the charming Bar Nuova Italia on the lower level below our rented apartment on via San Martino.  Every corner and surface of the cafe held cellophane bags of pasta or chocolates or candies or bottles of wine or water or was covered in Italian newspaper or magazine articles highlighted and underlined so that your senses were filled and eyes flitted and jumped over one and to the next, not being able to rest on one object or one clipping.  It’s the place on the street you go to for that little something.  My cappuccino was presented by signora Silvana with a dusting of chocolate and a light biscuit.  She enthusiastically greeted each local who came in for a shot of espresso at the small front bar, or a coffee and newspaper at one of the round tables scattered around.  Young mothers with babies in strollers and older rugged workers in hard hats.

Back in our AirBnb apartment, making my own coffee on the stove in in a Bialetti wasn’t quite the same as Silvana’s espresso.  But stepping out our front door, still pajama-clad, onto the narrow landing and into one of the wooden folding chairs, legs out and feet pressed against the railing, bowl of coffee in hand, I could gaze out at a soft pink morning sky rising over the undulating green vine-lined hills of the Piedmont.  A coffee experience worthy of not having a proper latte.

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Camogli, Italy (Liguria)

Coffee harborside at a tiny bistro table on the sidewalk right in front of our hotel, I Tre Merli, and just a few feet from the water’s edge.  Movements only from that cheeky seagull eyeing me and my breakfast onion focaccia, and from the small dogs trotting beside their owners.  There were the harbor pilots sipping espresso in their flip flops and board shorts and reading the morning’s paper, the day-trippers consulting the water-taxi schedule to San Frutuosso and glancing at the dock, where no water-taxi is anchored (the sea’s probably too rough and the taxi won’t run today).  Coffee was brought out in a white carafe with a side pitcher of frothy milk.  I could sit for hours here, absent-mindedly pouring more coffee and milk into my cup and gazing out and across the harbor of Camogli, watching the cliff-side town slowly, ever so slowly wake up.  J and I were easing into our day, too.  Making the most of our mornings meant sitting at this very table for as long as it took, and then wandering back upstairs to our room to gather water bottles, sunblock and head out for a day of hiking over the hills and coastline stretching south of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante of Italy’s Ligurian coast.

Eat Here…for Snow Days or Just Really Cold Days

IMG_0532Looking out the window I can see that the snow is tapering off, draping softly over the layers of branches that make up the evergreens.  The scene has me thinking about favorite snow day – and just really cold day – haunts over the past years in Arlington.  When we can’t stand being inside any longer, J and I bundle up in parkas and boots (strapping on yak traks when icy streets and sidewalks challenge our balance!), trudge up to some of our favorite local restaurants and park it at the bar we get to first that’ll take us.

I’m a fan of Screwtop Wine Bar.  It’s small, which I like.  (But many times, for me and J, that means waiting around, albeit with a glass of wine, for a seat at the bar or a table.)  It’s a wine bar that doesn’t take itself seriously – starting with the name.  Then with the menu.  Pick a glass from “Everything happens for a Reisling,” or “My Pinot is bigger than yours,” or start off with a selection from “My mind is a blanc” and fill up from there.  Apart from smiling just reading the wine list, the fun of Screwtop is picking out one (or more, no one’s judging here) of the close to 50 rotating wines by the glass or sip (and more by the bottle) and monthly changing wine flights.

The kitchen produces more than cheese and charcuterie plates to go along with your glass of wine.  The meat and cheese-centric menu extends to main course sandwiches.  The appropriately caveated “gut busting” Buffaloaf and the Hot Cuban stand out (with The Whole Enchilada! not falling far behind).  I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that J and I have tunneled through a piled-up plate of Fiesta Nachos with pulled pork, claiming it as our main course.  We went there, yes, even after ordering one of our favorites from the “Sharing & Pairing” selections, the cheese-less but pork-full zingy Pot Belly Pig Lettuce Wraps.  There’s a list of salads on the menu, and to make ourselves feel better, we’ll order the leafy green side salad to go along with our tangy Buffalo Sliders topped with chipotle aioli.

The Green Pig Bistro has a larger space than Screwtop, its neighbor of a few doors down.  J and I almost always find seats at the bar or communal bar table within minutes (with minimal stalking).  This makes “The Pig” extremely attractive on a Friday night when we don’t have the energy to cook and we’re starving before leaving the house.  The Pig, for me, is that quintessential neighborhood hang-out.  It’s comforting, its lively, it serves good food and wine.  Everyone knows your name – or at least your face if you eat there as often as we do.  Around Christmas they decorate by pulling out a leg lamp from that classic Christmas movie, A Christmas Story.  If you get there before 7 pm, there are happy hour glasses of red and white wines (and beers on tap).  They can humor me with a good ‘80s-ish playlist on occasion and show the Nationals (baseball) and Capitals (hockey) on relatively unobtrusive screens.

“The usual” for me in food is the hanger steak.  It was the burger until The Pig nixed the arugula salad from the burger/ fries/salad plate.  The hanger steak comes with both, so I can feel better about eating all of the fries.  The hanger also comes with a chimichurri sauce, which has varied in chunkiness and flavor over many years of Friday night hangar steak.  The fish changes regularly and rarely disappoints in preparation.  They’ve had a pork chop that does not remind me of my mother’s (sorry Mom!) because it’s thick and juicy and not thin and dry.  From chop, to shank, to schnitzel, the pork on the menu has always been good.  Pig tostada, albacore tuna, and the beet salad round out my go-tos for appetizers.  The brussels sprouts side satisfies us brussels lovers.  “The usual” in wine changes, occasionally, when the wines by the glass change.  The 7 Moons Blend is bold and flavorful at a good price point.  But the stand out for me is the Virginia Claret from just down the interstate in Williamsburg, Virginia, also bold, but hinting at a spiciness that is my taste of choice.  May it be on the wine list a little while longer.

 

But Where Am I Going to Get My Latte?

 

IMG_1922I like to spread the wealth, as one might say, when it comes to my daily latte.  I stick close to home and office and make my way through the homegrown places I’ve found on my routes.  Compass Coffee has the most bite of the five, with Java Shack and Baked & Wired on the other end with a smoother espresso.  I don’t know the ins and out of coffee and espresso beans, but I know what I like in a latte experience.  It’s a way of finding local color and being social, without having to be too social.  You’re immersed in warm nutty aromas in a comforting environment, even if you’re getting your latte to go during the weekday morning rush.  It’s my way of easing into the work day or welcoming a Saturday morning.

Northside Social on a weekend morning (or weekday holiday afternoon) is in constant movement.  There’s never a good place to stand – you’re always moving out of someone’s way, whether it be kitchen staff, baristas, or other customers – while waiting for your latte to be made.  Half the people are plugged into their tablets and laptops clicking away at the rows of tables and the other half in animated conversation with their table mates.  It’s all ages here.  It’s an energetic atmosphere.  The slight sweetness of my latte pairs well with one of Northside’s egg and spinach breakfast sandwiches on buttery slices of Italian loaf.  The egg is poached, but you can ask for it hard cooked, if you’re like me and like your egg yolks a nice pale yellow and dry as a bone.  Easing into a seat at one of the outside tables on the triangular shaped patio you can sip and eat in the warmth of the sun. 

Baked & Wired, on the side of a hill heading down narrow Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown, is my favorite girlfriends’ meet up or hang out.  Rarely have I escaped the long line for coffee drinks on a weekend morning, and stalking a seat on the curved couch or random chair is necessary if you’re not taking your latte to go.  But, oh, does that latte have the right touch of sweetness and creaminess!  And, there’s no judgment here if you sit down to a morning Peanut Butter and Chocolate cupcake with your latte.  Baked & Wired is also a joy to get to.  I’ll take the metro just a few stops to Rosslyn and enjoy the 20-minute walk across the Key Bridge and down M Street, or if the weather encourages a not-so-sweaty-run, it’s just shy of 3 miles, all down-hill, to meet C and catch up on what’s happened in our lives over the last month or so.  It’s the perfect spot to meet M and S for a latte to-go and head down to the Potomac River with our cups for an active walk along Georgetown’s waterfront and up to the Lincoln Memorial and across Memorial Bridge, and then back.

When I head to the Saturday farmer’s market at Courthouse Plaza in Arlington, I’m first visiting Java Shack , which is my ultimate laid-back latte experience.  I heard the strains of Hotel California playing behind the coffee bar this morning.  Java Shack is unpretentious in the extreme; it’s been a fixture in the neighborhood for decades.  It doesn’t intend to change, and that’s been honored by Virginia’s Commonwealth Joe, who took over in 2015.  This is why I love it.  It’s reliably shack-like and the baristas are easily warm and friendly.  Even when there’s a line in front of the coffee bar, it moves.  No one feels like they’re in a rush.  There’s no sense of pushiness here.  And while there are plugged in folks leaning over their ipads, it feels like they’re a part of the background.  The outdoor patio is a known hang out for dog owners and their dogs, older and younger and all sizes.  Get the Java Shack card if you’re a regular and with 10 stamps your 11th drink is free.

I walk in and each time there is a very different soundtrack playing in the background at Compass Coffee.  Diagonally across from the Farragut West metro, Compass is fresh-faced, young and efficient.  The Farragut Compass is in the environs of George Washington University and its baristas seem like college or graduate students, or just-out-of-college and just-out-of-graduate school students. They always make sure they spell your name correctly on your to-go cup.  The space is bright and clean in orange and blue and white.  The coffee bar is low and the coffee-making visible.  The baristas stand four-across and work an assembly line from espresso machine, down to milk frothing, to cold brew.  Leaning on the slice of natural wood bar in the middle of the space, I check my email and ready my podcast selection for the satisfying 20-minute walk to work, latte and comfort in hand.

I alternate Compass Coffee with Swing’s Coffee Roasters on 14th and G streets.  My shoulders relax when I enter this soothing place where the latte is one of the smoothest.  The baristas are confident and unhurried.  The coffee is serious but not pretentious.  The small space with high ceilings reflects its more than a century-old DC origins and downtown office location.  This is where suits and heavy wood mingle in a coolly serene place.  This is where coffees carefully spiced for the holidays are announced quietly on a card in an unobtrusive lucite block placed by the register.  I not only gain an espresso here, but a reflective start to the workday.