by Hanna Neuschwander
Hanna Neuschwander is the author of Left Coast Roast, a guidebook to coffee roasters on the west coast. Her writing about coffee and food has appeared in publications including Travel + Leisure, Edible Seattle, Portland Monthly, the Oregonian, and Roast Magazine, among others. She has presented about coffee-related topics at events and conferences from San Francisco to Boston. She lives in Portland, Ore.
Two weeks ago, I spent a whirlwind 36 hours drinking coffee in Los Angeles. Coffee touring is well-matched to a sprawling place like LA, an excuse to ramble around a strange city with purpose. Part of being enamored with LA’s coffee scene, I know, was just having a “way in” to a place that otherwise feels mostly incomprehensible to me (strip malls? everywhere?). The longer I’m attached to it, the more I’m forced to concede that coffee is a club, with it’s own coded language and markers of belonging. But in a foreign place, it’s wonderful to have symbols to lean against.
The Angelenos have been gunning for the mantle of “hottest coffee city” for a while now. Perhaps it was all the sunshine, but I may be ready to concede them the title. With only a day and half, I didn’t get to a fraction of the places on my list (there are so many!). Those I did visit charmed me immensely. My undisputed favorite was G+B.
It took me almost half hour to unlock the mysteries of the food menu at G+B’s patron-partner, the inspired SQIRL, and get down to the task of ordering coffee. I couldn’t do it on my own. Instead, Charles Babinski (he of the “B”), gently escorted me out of my helplessness to an order of brussels sprouts with egg and toast with “blubarb” jam. (I’ll get back to those in a minute.) I asked him to recommend something special in the drinks department, something I would be unlikely to find elsewhere. He was gracious in his reply: “We pride ourselves on doing the regular things really well.”
So nothing fizzing or foaming, or called “Geisha.” At G+B, there are scales and refractometers, but they’re refreshingly out of sight.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not above gimmicks. But Babinski and his partner, Kyle Glanville, achieve magic without them. They manage to be pure without being puritanical. Ferreting out the best coffee, from a predictably small list of roasters around the country, they take time with each to find exactly where it sings. Each coffee they serve is served only one way—the way they can make it maximally delicious. Heart‘s Ethiopia Yukro was the best cold brew I’ve ever had (“Really?” asked Babinski, as if sad for me). It’s a bright coffee to start, and the refreshing citrus came through loud as a bell on ice, but then it resolved into a syrupy caramel that ran to the end of the block and back.
In the “different” department, Babinksi did acquiesce a bit and steer me to their almond milk cappuccino (the nut milk is made in-house). I loved it, but to really do the drink justice you’d have to rename it. Call it amandine, or anything to keep people from dismissing it as an ersatz substitute, when really it’s a whole new thing. Almonds are an especially oily nut; when soaked in water before being ground, the oils pass easily into the water to make “milk”. It went together with espresso in a masculine way, emphasizing its heavier, folksier qualities. If a regular cappuccino is dreamily looking up at clouds, the almond-milk version is hands-stuffed-in-your-pants-staring-at-a-country-road. The nut milk had an earthy sweetness, thinner than cow’s milk but heavier on the tongue, with just a touch of grit. Unusual for a coffee drink, it was actually thirst-quenching—like horchata, but without the teeth-numbing sweetness. (The espresso was Epic, from 49th Parallel.)
In conversation, Glanville mentions that they are toying with the idea of pre-sweetening lattes for those who
want them that way. Think Dunkin’ Donuts: “Two milks, one sugar.” Despite the protestations of coffee purists, 95% of people that buy a latte put sugar in it. “So why don’t we determine the optimal sweetness of a drink and do it for you?” asks Glanville. It’s a fine question.
Perhaps I loved G+B so much because coffee isn’t even the main attraction. That honor goes to Jessica Kaslow’s SQIRL—a sort of magic workshop where small bites are transfigured into big flavors. Toasts, jams, “two-faced” sandwiches, and bowls of veggies. I have never had a better bowl of Brussels sprouts. The blubarb (blueberry rhubarb) jam was sweet for my taste, but still made a fine duvet for a thick, pillowy slice of bread.
Kaslow lends space to G+B (it’s kind of a “pop up”) but their contract is up in April. The tenuousness of the project is unquestionably part of its charm—the whole thing feels of a particular moment. Even the space has the feel of serendipity and impermanence. Pure, but not puritanical. It doesn’t look like a typical cafe—if anything, it reads more like a New York lunch counter. It’s narrow and cobbled together. The geometrical blue paint is chipping, the metal shelves behind the bar are cluttered. There are no tables, anywhere. Inside are two small counters where you can take a stool and assume the position of a regular. Outside, on a shaded patio, it feels otherwordly. Svelte birds preen, perching their plates and drinks and bangles on too few, too small stools. Eating in the sun? Makeup for breakfast? Bracelets? I’m not from a sunny, sophisticated place—it’s all too romantic. I love it.
Babinski and his partner, Kyle Glanville, were stoic about what might come next. Possibly, an extension of the lease. They are looking for permanent cafe space, but G+B has proven more successful than they envisioned. Whatever it is, I’m in.
Hanna Neuschwander is director of communications for World Coffee Research. She has been communicating about coffee and science since 2004. Her writing has appeared in publications including Travel + Leisure, The Art of Eating, Portland Monthly, and Modern Farmer. Based in Portland, Oregon, she is the author of Left Coast Roast, a guidebook to artisan and influential coffee roasters on the West Coast.