Caffe d'Bolla [Salt Lake City, UT]
Here's the scenario: For whatever reason (new job, vacation, work trip, acid trip) you find yourself in Salt Lake City, Utah. Yes, that Salt Lake City. Put aside the stereotypes or the general fears about being accosted by polygamists in long skirts and braided hair (that's only on the news and in remote pockets of Arizona and Utah). And fret not about finding a drink, especially a caffeinated one.
Whatever people might think, Salt Lake City loves its coffee. We have virtually every type of java you can think of. Drive-through kiosks. Corporate brands. The scenester lounges. Lately, a new breed coffee house can be found in this city. These are the dens of micro roasts, boutique beans and coffee talk that's more Robert Parker than Linda Richman.
Enter: Caffe d'Bolla. John Piquet and his wife Yiching are the owners, enthusiasts and energy behind d'Bolla. As the name suggets, there's certianly coffee ("caffe" for the actual bean and drink). The D'Bolla alludes to a surprisingly good Bubble Tea (boba tea) selection complete with the namesake tapioca pearls that add some texture to fruit and milk-base flavors. Extra-wide straws tunnel the intense liquid and pearls into your mouth for a sensation that I believe only Asians could have invented and extolled around the world.
John was the one who pointed out that even though the Japanese didn't invent siphon brewing (the Germans did), they definitely refined it to its art form today. Leave it to the Japanese to combine form and function for something to tasteful.
He sat me down at his coffee bar and showed off the hardware. Looking much like a science kit, the siphon brewing involves a hot plate glowing electric orange and a pot that has two components: a bottom chamber that resembles what we think of as a coffee pot and an upper chamber with a neck that extends into the bottom chamber. Together, they're suspended above the heat source, the delicate glass never touching the hell fire.
John saddled up with a timer. Beep, beep, beep. Go. The heat was turned on and he carefully watched the water as he spoke the language of a coffee connoiseur. I'm only somewhat fluent in it, but like other languages, I got from the inflection in his voice and the pantomiming that he was passionate.
He fired up all three burners to brew up the daily beans which he selects from one of the batches he recently roasted. And when I say roasted, it's usually several trial runs dictated by John's intuition, temperature and coaxing the terroir out of an Ethiopian, Indonesian or Central American bean. Yes, I said "terroir." Wine grapes, cacao beans, milk to make cheese and coffee -- you can't get away from the nature that nurtured it.
Once the water reached boiling point, John re-arranged the upper chamber. Up until this moment, it stood at an angle so that the neck wasn't flush with the bottom of the pot. Once it was placed upright and the heat did its thing, the pressure dropped in the upper chamber (where the just-ground coffee waited above a fine metal filter), sucked up the water from the bottom like magic.
John minded the timer again Beep, beep, beep. Go. Timing as precise a tea master's. In fact, the siphon process reminded me more of a steeping than a brew. When the timer went off, John immediately turned off the heat, re-positioned the upper chamber so that the neck was free to flow with coffee into the bottom.
The delicate filter kept every micron of coffee ground in the upper chamber. The perfectly brewed coffee silently flowed down. He poured it into a cup and advised me to wait a minute or two before I dared sip, unless I enjoyed sipping magma.
The result: Incredibly fragrant, remarkably smooth and clean in flavor. You taste what you smell in that there's no bitter or burned notes in the aftertaste. The flavors are amplified and the texture/mouthfeel is gentle. Of course, each bean yields a different kaleidoscope of flavors that John lovingly describes being the coffee savant that he is.
If people drank coffee like this more often, there would be a lot less creamer in the world.
Yiching had set up a shot of perfectly pulled espresso, a tall glass of cool water and a shot glass of sparkling water. One to start off my caffeine kick, one to replenish and hydrate and the last to scrub my palate between each brewed coffee. It was more thoughtful tha many wine tastings I've been to and the novelty of it made it even more precious.
There are a few sandwiches at Caffe d'Bolla. But mostly, I come for the sweet and caffeinated things. The edible things are usually an afterthought in places where coffee is spoken of like gospel, but I have to hand to John and Yiching for spinning exceptional gelato from their little machine.
Daily flavors number an average of 6 and lucky you if pistachio is in the case. I wax poetic because gelato is somewhat abused. We call it gelato, but if often really isn't. Rarely does it have the right dense, intense texture of cold velvet and even more rarely do vendors hold it correctly in cold cases. Grainy crystals and smooth gelato are mortal enemies. Remember that the next time someone charges you $4 for mini scoop.
Here's the ritual I recommend if you happen to find yourself face-to-face John, Yiching or the gelato case: Sit at the bar, down a punchy espresso, swig some water, sip the smooth siphon brew, nod as John shares his genius with you, scrub your palate from the shot glass of sparkling water and when it's all over, finish with a gelato chaser.
This is one of the things you do when you are in Salt Lake City.