Thursday, December 18, 2008

So...How Are You Doing?

"Oh. That's right -- you're not from around here. How are you handling the cold?" This, followed by the kind of worried look people give to someone who has received a diagnosis of cancer. 

Sure, we're from SoCal, and it's true that Mrs Elliott dresses like someone suiting up for an Apollo orbiter EVA when she has to go into the garage, but me likee this weather. I find it bracing. Haven't needed to don my big puffy jacket nor break out the merino wool underdrawers -- yet.  Just a beanie for my baldy head, an undershirt, a light wool sweater and a windbreaker (or occasionally my slightly warmer Mountain Equipment Co-op pullover) have been perfectly sufficient. I got some bulbous Sorel boots on sale from Fred Meyers for snow shoveling & firewood hauling, and have some nice warm Smartwool sockies. 

Mellow Yellow (my 1984 VW Vanagon Westfalia camper) got new Nokian Hakkapeliitta snow tires and they are working quite well. 

It's been fine. Really. But thank you for asking. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sampling Espresso

I'm not much of a coffee drinker anymore. There's something in coffee that triggers an anxiety response in me. It's not caffeine, I can drink plenty of caffeine in other types of drinks without anxiety kicking in, and since I get the same anxious feeling after drinking decaf, it's pretty clear that whatever it is, it's only in coffee. 

I used to be a total coffee freak and lived with the side effect until I quit all caffeine drinks for a few months and noticed how much mellower I felt. It was only through clinical trials (adding coffee back) that I determined that coffee was the culprit.

Once in a while, though, maybe once a week, I get a hankering for some espresso. But finding good espresso is not always so easy, despite the proliferation of chains like Starbucks and Peets, as well as smaller, local coffee roasters and houses here in the PNW. 

How many people even drink espresso, and why does it matter? In Italy, it's mother's milk. Even truck stops are packed with burly men ordering and downing espresso. 

Which brings me to Issue #1: speed. Espresso means "fast" in Italian. You order an espresso, you get an espresso, usually within 60 seconds or less. But here I find myself standing line behind some tense soccer mom wearing a ball cap ordering a venti half decaf frappuccino, then waiting for the barrista to make that coffee-flavored milkshake. Frankly, that's anathema to the concept of speed. Coffee houses need to have two lines: a slow one for folks who order coffee with issues; and a fast one for the person who wants a shot of espresso or a cup of joe. 

Issue #2 is, of course, grown men ordering anything fancier than an espresso or a cup of coffee. Men, stop ordering sugary drinks with whipped cream on top and a straw. You're embarrassing yourself and you're an embarrassment to all men. Stop waxing your chest, tweezing your eyebrows, and grow a pair. Sugary drinks are fine for women and children, totally pussy for a man. 

So. Back to the matter at hand. 

If you don't like espresso, then what's so important about it? 

Simple: it's the backbone for nearly all the wussier drinks. 

If a pizza shop can't make a decent Pizza Margherita, which consists of only flour, salt, water, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil, then heaping more crap on the dough just hides that fact. Likewise, I know several Japanese men who order tamago (egg) when they visit a new sushi shop because you really can't get any simpler than that: if the chef can't get it right, there's some doubt about the rest of his offerings. By the same token, if a coffee house can't make a delicious cup of espresso, then adding other stuff to the drink is just window dressing, like putting perfume on a turd. 

That's what's so important about espresso.

So herewith, I begin my review of straight espresso sampled in downtown Bend. 

[Addition, 15 December 2008: a roaster for one of Bend's coffee shops emailed me to discuss the realities of meeting customer expectations. It turns out that Americans like their drinks so milky and so sweet that traditional Italian ristretto espresso -- the kind that I like, the kind that Italians like, the kind God, presumably, likes, my personal Gold Standard of espresso -- doesn't work so well. It never occurred to me that coffee shops have tuned their espresso to work best with girly drinks (another reason for me to despise the men who order them. Cut it out).  So is it even fair to review standalone espresso knowing that most shops have to address the larger market? I think so if only for the few, the heroic, the purists who like their espresso straight.]

Chocolat et Gâteaux: Tasted December 5, 2008. Lively and rich, with good balance between acid and body. The best I've tasted in Bend so far.  Owner Armand Speidel is an espresso purist and doesn't cater to the milk and sugar coffee crowd.
Bellatazza: Tasted December 10 (ish), 2008. Quite acidic, even sour. Not much richness. Not at all lively. 
Balay: Tasted December 14, 2008. Also pretty sour, but some mild bitterness and richness promote it a couple notches better than Bellatazza.
Thump: Tasted December 16, 2008. Yikes -- very sour. Like battery acid. 
Backporch Coffee Roasters: Tasted December 18, 2008. Tasted like the beans had been burnt in the roasting process, and with an overall sour taste. Second tasting, Feb 5, 2009: Yikes. Really really sour and bitter. 
Cafe Sintra: Tasted December 19, 2008. Pretty okay! Not quite Chocolat et Gâteaux, but not sour, either. 
Starbucks: To be fair I have to review it. 
Di Lusso Coffee Bakery (downtown): Tasted December 30, 2008. Like Cafe Sintra's, Di Lusso's espresso is quite drinkable. 
McKay Cottage: Tasted Jan 1, 2009. Feh. Remarkably bad. A flat, dull shot which suggested a cup of my mother's Maxwell House Instant more than it did espresso. 
Sarayu's: Tasted Jan 13, 2009. One sample was quite good, the second pretty bitter. repeatability is probably a challenge at some of these shops. 
Jackson's Corner: Tasted Jan 25, 2009. The nice fellow working the espresso machine did his best. He tried twice to pull a shot that he liked, and had no luck. He served me his second attempt but wasn't proud of it. The machine, he said, was old and sometimes it did a good job, sometimes not. Same for the grinder. Or it could have been the mass of onions they were chopping in the kitchen, maybe. Didn't charge me for the shot. It was sour, like Thump and Bellatazza. 
The Human Bean Drive-Thru: Tasted Jan 26, 2009. I asked for a short pull of espresso. What I got was 3oz of a dark brown liquid that tasted like strong instant coffee. McKay Cottage and The Human Bean both have quite a lot to answer for.
Sisters Coffee Company (Bond Street in bend): Tasted  Jan 31, 2009. Owner David was pretty proud of his new Faema espesso machine. His first pull was very acidic, so he tried again using a shorter pull and switching from a heavy stainless tamper to a ligher aluminum one and thereby not tamping the grounds as tightly. This one was much tastier. 

I plan to add to this page as circumstances bring me near commercial espresso machines. The establishments are listed pretty much in chronological order, as I visit them, and the comments reflect my purely subjective taste in matters espresso: I can't claim to be an expert, although I have been lucky to have had amazing coffee in Tokyo, Vienna, Milan, Rome, and Paris. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Central Services! Troubles with your ducts?"

I've written earlier about the poor heating this house has. Read all about that here, here, and here

The basic problem is that the original heating for the living room, dining room, and kitchen is broken. These rooms were built with radiant heat ceilings which no longer work and which are unrepairable, since the break(s) in the heating wire(s) could be anywhere in the hundreds of square feet of ceiling. 

There are little wallmounted Cadet  electric heaters in the walls, but they are glorified hair dryers and nearly as noisy. 

So I'm stealing hot air from the downstairs wood stove fireplace insert using an elegant ducting arrangement, as shown in the photo. 

The air coming through that duct is aided by a duct blower, mounted near the ceiling, and it runs about 150F when the wood insert is burning well. 

Still and even so, there's a lot of square footage upstairs and about all we can get is 68F in the living room. That's with outside temps above freezing. This week we're seeing teens and single digits temps, so I'm spending a lot of time hauling wood from the stack beside the house. 

Gives a man something to do when it "looks like we're living inside a snow globe," as Mrs Elliott exclaimed this morning. That, and shoveling snow. 

And we're getting quotes on installing a small forced air furnace in the garage to service the kitchen, dining and living rooms. Fortunately, the ceiling heaters work fine in the bedrooms though I must say that it is totally weird to feel the heat "shining" onto the top of ones head when one walks into a room with those things on. 

Tea with Mrs Claus

Mrs Elliott held a fundraising event for kids at Balay Coffee, Espresso, and Bubble T on Sunday. Called  "Tea With Mrs Claus," it was an opportunity for some of Bend's little ones to sing songs, sip hot cocoa or cider, snack on Christmas cookies, have their pictures taken with Mrs Claus and tell her what they would like Santa to bring them, and take home some little gifts. 

A lot less freaky than sitting on the fearsome old man's lap. 

Even so, one little lad totally forgot what he wanted for Christmas when his turn came to be  seated next to Mrs Claus, a la Ralphie in A Christmas Story

Parents donated $20 per child and all the proceeds went to the Boys and Girls Club of Bend, and CASA of Central Oregon. 

The event was supported by Balay, KPOV, Center for Car Donations, Goody's, Leapin' Lizards Toy Co., FedEx Kinko's, and Powell's Sweet Shoppe. 

Mr Elliott played helper and did the photography. 

The little ones had a swell time. 
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