Good coffee arrives in Paris at last

The most astonishing thing about how bad the coffee has always been in Paris is how few Parisians — fanatically discerning in every other area of gastronomy — have felt suitably ashamed about the thin, bitter, metallic espresso served almost everywhere.  One French friend explained, only partly in jest, that there was a kind of national solidarity to be found in this state of affairs: every Frenchman, rich or poor, knows that his neighbor is sharing the same unsatisfying experience but at least they can take comfort that no one is bettering them.

A couple years ago, Oliver Strand, who writes the Ristretto blog for the New York Times, took another approach to this same question:

Maybe it’s because Paris cafes do all the little things wrong: old beans, over-roasted beans, second-rate machines. Coffee is ground in batches, not to order. Ask for a café crème or noisette and out comes a box of U.H.T. milk, a shelf-stable dairy product. Even the venerable Cafés Verlet (256 rue Saint-Honoré, 011-33-01-42-606-739) ignores a basic rule and keeps roasted beans sitting around in open barrels.

The composition of most espresso blends doesn’t help things. James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee often points out that the French have a taste for robusta, a low-cost, low-quality bean that gives good crema but can taste thin and harsh. Or, to paraphrase a conversation I had with Corby Kummer, drinking robusta is like putting balsa wood in your mouth.

It’s a vivid image. No wonder some feel that the best coffee in Paris is Italian.

Though there’s another side to the argument. I spoke to Michael McCauley, the master roaster and bean buyer for the French coffee giant Cafés Richard, and yes, robusta is big: he told me that many espresso blends are about 25 percent robusta, down from about 35 percent a few decades ago. Cafés Richard’s leading blend is about 20 percent robusta, though some all-Arabica espressos are gaining in popularity.

Dismayed visitors from Oslo or Melbourne or San Francisco have long traded theories as to where this inexplicable robusta fondness came from. The most persuasive is that (from a coffee perspective) France had the wrong colonies: mostly robusta growers in West Africa rather than Arabica growers in East Africa or Latin America.  I have another theory: Paris has a café culture rather than a coffee culture.  The Flore, the Rostand, the Cafe de la Mairie, these are all great places to gather and converse but the coffee is treated as little more than rent — or, if taken at the bar, as an injection of caffeine, in which case the robusta-laden blends do the job and then some.  Parisians will try to contend that the coffee is generally better in restaurants; this is true — marginally — but calls into question what trade the cafés believe they are in.

What I kept waiting for was the arrival of the heavily tattooed skateboarder and former Intelligentsia barista; appalled that this situation could go on a decade or two after the new wave of serious coffee began everywhere else, he would take matters into his own hands.  That isn’t quite how it happened, but the process has begun.  You can see it in the machines from La Marzocco and the Mazzer grinders, from the roasting equipment in the back and the poured designs in the foam. There still aren’t many places that take coffee seriously and even the best of them are not yet great, but it is changing fast and at some point Parisians will recognize that terroir and blending matter in coffee as they do in wine. Soon enough, they will have the same heated, partisan debates about coffee that they have about the relative merits of the macarons from Pierre Hermé or Ladurée.

It will be fashionable then to have a favorite, so here are a few places to start.  I use a macchiato — called a ‘noisette’ in Paris, where the Italian terms are not yet in wide currency — as my standard test and, for coffee blends, the Torrefazione Giamaica in Verona as my personal 10 on a 1 to 10 scale, with the Intelligentsia Black Cat of a couple years ago being a 9.  By that measure, if I am being honest, everything below has a 1 or 2-point bonus built into it just to encourage them.

Merce and the Muse: 1bis, rue Dupuis, 3e

A relaxed, bohemian sort of place in the upper Marais that feels about right on entering and gets more promising when the word ‘Brooklyn’ emerges from the murmur of conversation.  Disappointment awaits.  There’s a La Marzocco behind the counter, but a smaller model not operating at industrial strength, and the noisette pulled from it is thin and the mouthfeel is all wrong.  I give it a 5 out of 10, with the average Parisian café being a 2 or 3.

La Caféothèque: 52, rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, 4e

This was the one place Oliver Strand of the Ristretto blog thought worth visiting, but that was two years ago.  He tells a nice story about it and there is something cozy about the atmosphere but, in fact, La Caféothèque looks like the sort of café that emerged in American college towns about thirty years ago: lots of beans from all over the world stored without much regard for freshness or exposure.  They roast in the café, which adds to the coziness, and the noisette, when it comes, looks good, with the small square of Michel Cluizel chocolate a nice touch.  But the taste lacks intensity: I give it a 6, which is good enough if you happen to be visiting the nearby Shoah Memorial or the Jewish quarter in the Marais.

Kooka Boora: 62 Rue des Martyrs, 9e

This doesn’t just look like a cafe in an American college town, it basically is one to judge from the laptops open on every available surface and the languages spoken by the clientele  The furnishings have a DIY unstained wood aesthetic — this, too, seems an American touch but the café is named for an Australian bird and there’s ‘flat white’ on the menu so maybe the two countries are too similar to be differentiated when displaced to France.  The small room is so tightly packed that an awkward shifting around takes place as soon as anyone leaves a coveted seat, as about twelve jigsaw puzzle pieces get rearranged.  The food is limited, mostly cakes and sandwiches, and the barista charming; the noisette is pretty good, too, but seemed a little over-roasted and, as everywhere, didn’t have the intensity I want it in a short drink.  I give it a 6.5, maybe a 7.

Coutume: 47 rue de Babylone, 7e

A light, airy space with a biologique vibe and a brunch to make an American (or Australian) feel at home, this is the first place in Paris that really feels like it knows what it is doing with coffee.  The staff are coffee enthusiasts, despite the distractions of the food.  At least among my circle of friends, Coutume is more talked about than visited — owing, no doubt, to its location in the 7e, past the Bon Marché — but the noisette rewards the effort.  I’d give it a 7, maybe a 7.5, but I am going to guess that on a day in and day out basis they are likely to be the most consistent.

Le Bal: 6, Impasse de la Défense, 18e

I don’t know that even the people who run this place would try to lay claim to serving the best coffee in Paris — though Oliver Strand at Ristretto claimed they were a year ago — but I can say it was the best I had.  The blend was Jailbreak from the English roaster Has Bean — I have a strong aversion to puns where gastronomy is involved — and the noisette had an almost spicy something going on under the taste that made for a welcome change and reminded me (OK, with some exaggeration) of Sant’Eustachio in Rome.  That might not be what I’d want every day, but I give it an 8.  No doubt, some of my enthusiasm owes to the spirited coffee evangelism of the people who work there and the fact that it is part of a very cool new photography exhibition space that is one of the best additions to the Paris cultural scene in years.

I should add that at most of these cafés I asked the baristas for their recommendations of other places that were serious about coffee, which generally led up the hierarchy to Coutume rather than Le Bal.  But the place they were all excited about is Télescope, which was opened by Nicolas Clerc and the American Dave Flynn (ex- of Le Bal) just a couple weeks ago near the Palais Royal at 5 rue Villedo in the 1e.  I haven’t been yet, so go and let me know how it is.

[Update: I made it to Téléscope eventually but by then Dave Flynn had moved on to set up his Belleville Brulerie venture and the noisette was not appreciably better than Coutume or Le Bal.  So now I have to get to Belleville: the website is wicked, though if you want to know what is actually going on at the space their Facebook page is more informative.]

Also: if you want to read about the friendly jousting that goes on in the Parisian coffee scene, check out Frog Fight.

Update (19 Apr): ten days or so after writing this I was still thinking about why, for all the progress being made, none of the coffee I had in Paris was really outstanding.  By process of elimination, I think it comes down to the roasting.  Many of these places roast their own, which is a commendable declaration of serious intent that expands geometrically the number of variables a start-up coffee scene needs to get right before its good.  Roasting is a fiddly art and it can hardly be chance that the best coffee served comes from Le Bal, which is one of the only ones to source from a dedicated roaster outside Paris.  Almost everyone else serves a coffee lacking intensity of flavor, one that is weak and without structure.  That will change: it takes time to get the roasting right; when it does, then we’re in business.  I don’t expect it will take too long.  One of the coolest things about the Paris coffee scene right now is the tremendous esprit de corps among the few who are trying to be serious about it.  They are happy to talk up their rivals and are quite humble about acknowledging who is doing something interesting (and maybe even better) than they are.  Everyone I talked to seemed to realize they were on one side of a larger battle, which is to persuade Parisians that the bitter energy-shot they are accustomed to paying 1.20€ for at the bar is a disgrace in a city that prides itself on its distinguished taste and appreciation of excellence.  In that sense, they are fighting the good fight and they know it.

~

Click here to read all my posts about Paris or France, coffee or food — or here to see my photographs of food.

Apparently, a lot of people are trying find good coffee in Paris because this post has gotten huge traffic.  A number of readers have sent me emails agreeing (or sometimes disagreeing) with my judgment of the cafés above and I love to hear your thoughts — especially when you find one I didn’t mention that you think is especially good — but please consider leaving a message in the comments below so other readers can see it too.  Thanks.

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