Crema Contendere

When one tastes wine critically, one starts with the lesser and proceeds to the greater; so it is with coffee. I set the small cup on the table with a sharp cardboard rap, made a mental note of the low viscosity of the remains, and hurried out the door.

The young man at the door said, “Have a nice day” with such force his O’Donald’s hat fell off. I hurried out of the Fallen Arches and faced the Ave, a full three minutes after entering. I shuddered at the thought — the world’s leader in fast food serving espresso — and quickly walked away, for there was much work to do tonight. My name is Beano Muddino. I am an espresso critic.

There was a full Seattle docket, and many stops to make. The next spot on my list was, thankfully, only a block away, and a dependable, solid performer. I waited in line at the Hardluck’s and pondered the new black glazed Italian interior. The decor is Retro Ferrari Negro. I’m a professional; you can’t taste ambience. I ordered a doppio machiato.

They hadn’t recognized me yet. One of the banes of my profession is celebrity. If a cafe recognizes a critic, they try to do things differently than their normal fare. They bring out their freshest beans, reset the grinder and so forth. This is hardly honesty.

Over the years I have evolved my appearance so well that, while everyone has seen me, none recognize me. You’ve seen me before. Short and wiry, beret, beard the depth of crema, eyes the color of Full City Roast.

I seated myself in the back and studied the drink. Chocolate brown at the edges, giving way to the peaked white foam. Punchy yet feminine aroma. Round but with a bite, like old Armagnac. Again, as with wine, I swallowed mainly to confirm the impressions from the nose.

Clinical breathing practice allows the classic Italian three-part swallow, and the results were as expected: a heady rush of flavor. Wagnerian drama and enthusiasm compared to O’Donald’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is light enough for everybody. But one wasn’t enough to clear the taste of the previous debacle, so I had four in a row. A group of tourists arrived and started ordering banana lattes and melon mint. It was time to go.

My mind thus cleared from the fog of mediocrity, it was time to gather strength and climb a rung of quality. The best way to do this is to visit the ironically named Bland Delusion, a large closet serving very good espresso just down the street. Inside, to my amusement, were four or five persons who looked just like me, although two were of indeterminate gender. It was time to downshift, so I ordered three double-shots of espresso, in three glasses. The taciturn young lady lifted one eyebrow slightly, and focused her full attention to the task at hand.

Each barista has a different style. This one threw her whole being into measurement, pack, pull and repeat, eyes glued to the thick syrup I sought. She was proof that artistry requires no levity, no outward emotion, only the single-minded passion of purpose. The three shots were presented without flourish or fanfare. I handed her the money and searched her eyes for a clue, and saw only the diamond hardness of determination. I took a seat in the corner.

The shots were each perfect; proud and handsome crema at attention. I downed the first. Time now was of the essence, so the Portuguese two-part swallow was called for. Now the second. Swish it about with gusto. The foam hat of the third was soon to fall so blam! down it went. The espresso shots raced each other down the plumbing system, bringing that chemical stirring that is both warming and chilling.

The back of my neck hummed, and my left ear turned red. The stream of exiting moviegoers began to blur. But I am a professional, and needed only to gaze briefly at the few grains in the bottom of the espresso cup to steady myself.

Some suggest that the mind works best in its most clean and pure form. Those who have plumbed the depths of our thinking apparatus, however, agree that a judicious application of lubrication not only speeds the processing of mundane functions, but also lifts the brain’s ability to look beyond limits. The lubrication to which I refer, of course, is coffee.

The Delusion produces the best they can, but try as they may, there is a lack of depth in the espresso. Partway through, the foretaste dwindles before the midthrust can fire its bolt. The aftertaste is then on a steed without stirrups, and the race is nearly over. Give credit for skill, but this is no substitute for substance. With brittle knees I shambled towards the door, pushing a few more bills into her tip glass.

The cool Seattle night air hit my nostrils with a snap, and jarred me to open my notebook to see the next stop. Ah, good. Back at the car, I switched shoes — part of my disguise to help blend in. The Birkenstocks slipped on easily, and my Alfa streaked towards Hollingford. We must leave the urbane behind, and embrace the bucolic at the Funny Bear. But this is no sacrifice; there are bakers at the Bear.

Years of experience have taught me the value of pastry. When a serious night of espresso criticism lies before you, plan to fortify yourself at regular intervals with pastry rich in butter, sugar, nuts and magic. The baker’s art provides both counterpoint to the coffee, and basis for the body. I messed up my hair in studied disarray, and pressed forward to the pastry case.

In staccato barks I ordered a torte, a Boston cream pie, and two pieces of chocolate decadence. Next I ordered two double lattes — each to different specifications — and then a single shot, and an Americano. The place was crowded, so I stared down an unemployed actor trying to make the only available table.

The torte was selected as the appetizer course, and for this the Americano was the mate. The crust was balanced between butter and ground almonds, the rhythm section for the coffee’s melody. The puree of raspberry tooted woodwind embellishments. The Americano is the beginner’s espresso, a bridge from the thin vapidity of American coffee to the textured drama of Italian espresso. It should have verve, but not so much so as to discourage further exploration.

Work was just getting serious; my heart was beating like the Alfa’s polished alloy cylinders. I gulped air, and saw many faces in unabashed stare. But I am a professional, and rely on inner strength to shut out unwanted distractions. Wow what great legs. Oops.

The Boston cream pie was nearly too good-looking to eat. I brushed aside such immature thoughts and lifted one half of the slice in a single forkful. It quivered like prey aware of its fate. Perfect texture, lightness, flavor; rich in vitamin A, B, C and riboflavin. This could be the ideal food. The double latte with the lowest coffee to milk ratio was the designated drink for the cream pie. In this case, the coffee’s role is more like a member of the string quartet rather than embellishment. The music is more delicate, but with its well-crafted harmonies, it has more staying power.

Strength began to pulse and vibrate through my bony body. The mystic flows that come from the caffeine are the reasons I became a professional. Not the glamour, the money or the girls; the enlightenment is all. When you drink coffee, you are in the company of Voltaire and Beethoven. The chocolate in front of me began to pulsate and glow. I ignored propriety and downed the other double latte with the British single swallow. I consumed the first decadence with the “Cleveland Cram.”

Chocolate requires the fullest attention. And for at least two seconds the second decadence had mine. My tongue wallowed and swam through the delicious reward. In a blink the last of the confection was gone, and it was time to put it all to rest with the single shot. Boom. Not bad, but not up the level of the pastries, which were extraordinary. It was time to go.

On the way out, all I could see were women with bad haircuts, so I lowered my gaze and sidestepped out, using elbows to slice through the crowd. No one argues with a man who has flaming eyeballs bugged out and eyebrows dancing a Cajun jig. After the rustic overload, it was time to get back downtown, where skyscrapers lead our eyes up to our dreams.

In the middle of Bestlake Center there is a little cafe like a space-age diner where the young and trendy go in the evening. The beans are roasted by S.O.C., Seattle’s Only Coffee (sic). This product, like that of Fillstone, is intended to be underfoot, a stepping-stone to finer ingredients such as Hardluck’s or Summoro. There was such a long line of stallions and peacocks — they were there to be seen, not to drink — that I pulled a one-eighty. Padding back to the Alfa in the Birkenstocks, I cursed at forgetting to change back into my Ballys. This is the city.

I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that now my right ear was also bright red. A professional must monitor his physical condition carefully.

Where the water meets land, and the blessed meets blue collar, there is an oasis called the Rue de Genesee. Truly European in flavor, the espresso is complex and deep, like the cafe’s demographics. Black dentists, white carpenters, Hungarian sign makers and Vietnamese city councilmen all come to this neighborhood cafe, powered by one of Seattle’s best coffees, Ferrotaziano. Here, too, are bakers, blending the skill of prestigious restaurants with the love of your grandmother.

Smiling women behind the counter prepare your beverage with skill and zest. The counter beckons with unimagined goodies. Why resist? I never do. Two double espressos accompanied two rum balls. Rum and chocolate and coffee… could it be that I had died and gone to heaven?

No, that was simply the gurgling and buzz of my body, taking in the night’s accumulation of caffeine. As on a typical night of espresso criticism, there were strange noises and rhythmic pulses that made me twitch and yelp. But this is all quite normal, and, actually, I like it.

In my business, it is important to avoid making enemies, although they are part of the territory. A prudent person would not want to face the wrath of vindictive restaurateurs, a group better known as passionate than self-controlled. This thought entered my brain terrain as I opened the door to the Railroad on Capitol Hill. It is generally agreed among professionals that this establishment makes one of the best, if not the best latte in the city. This is why I saved it for my last stop.

It was here some years ago that quality was Job #15 or 16, and I had pointed this out to the staff. It’s often hard to tell who is going to take criticism worse, the owners or the employees.

It’s for this reason that I donned my most effective disguise: investment banker. Saville Row suit, Perry Ellis shirt & tie, Church shoes polished like jewels. For this disguise to work, one must hide by drawing attention to oneself. Immediately I complained loudly about the service, and sniffed a lot while arching an eyebrow. This caused everyone in the place to gawk, which was what I was looking for. Those behind the counter turned and stared too.

The exposure behind, the world continued to whirl and everybody went back to what they were doing. Then the man on the espresso machine gave me a penetrating look. I quaked a little, because there was venom in his eyes, and because he looked familiar. Was that the Persian-looking fellow that vowed to kill me? That gentleman swore revenge when I published the review calling his barista style similar to Hussein’s assault of Kuwait.

The fears abated when he brought my drinks, because he looked as peaceful as a baby. Still, I felt a trace of nervousness, perhaps from the river of coffee flowing through my corporeal reality. The first drink, a house specialty, was an anisette latte. It was delicious. On the bottom were what? Two anise stars?!? Uh oh.

The number, an even one, was what hit me. In Italy, when one is served Sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur, it is traditional to float roasted coffee beans on top, and ignite them. It is widely known that an odd number of beans is a good sign, both of luck and of hospitality. An even number was an omen of bad luck, or a sign that your host didn’t like you. In the Middle East, anise stars of odd or even number were more than a matter of good luck or bad; an even number was the darkest sign possible: imminent death.

With a half-hearted argument I convinced myself that such a conclusion was specious, and so I concentrated on the remaining drink, a double espresso of the finest appearance. This was the result of great talent: color and texture of the crema was the stuff of legends. The strength, thickness and flavor were in perfect balance: this was the best espresso I had ever had!

Suddenly my vision became blurred, and strange chanting sounded in the distance. My forehead poured sweat, and my collar felt exceedingly tight. I scribbled some notes on my shirt cuff, and shuffled out into the street. Vaguely behind me I thought I heard the sound of raucous laughter. My Alfa roared alive and the tires lit as I sped towards my apartment near the Seattle Center, anxious to write my review of the perfect espresso.

I knew the streets and sights of downtown Seattle as well as anybody, but my eyes were filled with images quite different. The familiar skyline changed into a Peter Max Toontown. I drove by the Pike Place Market as Roger Rabbit slung a salmon. Over on that corner, David Sabey was juggling lemons. Then there I was at Safeco Field, watching with awe as the Mariners won the World Series! Now, what’s that? The Bestlake Commons had been turned into an oasis of palm trees, exotic birds and marimba bands. A Japanese chorus in brightly colored polyester suits sang Beethoven’s Ninth. Emmett Watson twirled in a tutu atop the Darth Vader building. He was smiling!?

Suddenly I heard a whooshing sound as from milk being steamed, and then all went black.

He was a professional critic,
the wine of the bean his life.
The unending search for perfection,
was his one and only wife.

One day he made a big mistake:
a barista was criticized.
Laid off from the Boeing Corp,
t’was a chemist ostracized.

He was furthermore an ex-logger,
whose chainsaw had been silenced.
He became like a beast of the forest,
speaking the language of violence.

The fight with the species protected,
was an income-draining dud.
Into the hot brown caffeinous fluid,
he had spooned fresh owl’s blood.

And further, to this heinous mix,
this measure of vile hot gruel,
He grinned, he laughed, and he did a dance,
he poured purloined jet fuel.

The reviewer’s gangly charred body,
on the Space Needle’s top was found.
In his brain, after lengthy testing,
was a mysterious, toxic compound:

T’was a derivative, they said, now that he’s dead,
of the Italian fluid caffein-o,
He was an espresso professional;
to the end he was Beano Muddino.



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