Sunday, August 24, 2008
LA Mill Coffee
Brewing a vac pot of Hacienda Esmeralda.
As much as part of my ego hates to write this:
LA Mill is the best coffee experience in America and perhaps the world.
Yes, there are other good and great coffee shops out there, but so far, no experience in coffee matches the care, thoughtfulness and approach as LA Mill.
And it's not necessarily to my taste.
From the moment that we walked into the place, I was impressed. Impressed by the approach, if not the execution. The decor is well done. It's chic, it's gaudy, it's kinda 70's French renaissance retro with an L.A. twist. Toss in some Chanel, some baby blue hues and all that's bad about Los Angeles culture and design and that should give you an idea how LA Mill looks. It's everything about L.A. that I dislike but gosh, they executed it well.
Coffee and a Jelly Donut - strawberry essence layered with donut-infused milk and topped with espresso.
Like a lot of Hollywood and L.A., LA Mill is a place to see and be seen. The servers are good looking, they're dressed sharply but unlike what you'd expect from a "Third Wave" coffee experience, they're actually friendly and helpful. Only one of the owners seemed a bit stiff and standoff-ish. And it started the moment we walked through the door.
Quickly a young lad came up to welcome us and ask the number in our party. I asked him to be seated at the open banquette four top and he was quick to accommodate and rushed off to clear and reset the table. In the three or four minutes that we stood waiting by the door, no less than three other servers (who happened to walk past us on their way doing something else) each paused and asked us if we had been helped yet. Gone were the apathetic and can't be bothered attitudes so prevalent in coffee shops across America.
Once seated, our server Kristen (a stunning blonde apparition reminiscent of Maria Bello) appeared and quickly welcomed us and brought water.
Blanco y Negro - coffee granita, Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream, vanilla scented chilled.
LA Mill offers both a coffee and a food menu. The food menu isn't overtly large or extensive, but remains focused on just a few items. In some ways, it seems limiting, but as long as it's good and thoughtful, I can live with it. The menu is broken down into dayparts, with each daypart offering four or five items. The All-Day menu offers a variety of simple fare that kind of fills in the holes, so to speak.
The coffee menu offers the usual triumvirate of espresso, cappuccino, latte drinks plus a selection of Signature Beverages like "Mojito" - limes muddled with fresh mint, organic green tea and topped with a splash of soda, or Liquid Tiramisu - chocolate and Grand Marnier creme anglais topped with espresso then garnished with house-made whipped cream. It's different and appealing and most coffee shops just can't bother themselves with creating and offering anything more than the usual triumvirate and the typical commercial syrup-laden latte drinks. Ugh.
Since I'm a proponent of offering a retinue of Signature Drinks, I'm excited to see LA Mill doing so. However, the presence of "Coffee and a Jelly Donut" leaves me a bit torn. Probably more than any other barista on the planet, I'm guilty of riffing on the works of Thomas Keller. In a discussion with 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffmann, I stated something to the effect that no idea is truly original and that each of us builds upon our experiences. The discussion back then was centered around places like LA Mill lifting drink recipes without asking "permission" of the barista who created it.
Orange Infused Cappuccino with Cacao
Since I tend to publish my recipes and approaches, I'm rather open to people using the ideas and creating something of their own with it, but actually seeing Coffee and a Jelly Donut on the menu sat uneasily with me. It seemed too much of a riff on Keller. Too close to what he had created - even though the actual drink was nothing like Kellers' version. Maybe in the end, James and I are more in agreement than we thought.
The problem with coffee is that it's an absolutely terrible ingredient to work with. Sure, the flavors can be spectacular but the color is so unfortunate. Dark brown. God, it's absolutely an ugly ingredient. Want to use ingredients with colors? It becomes a muddle of brown. Milk? Brown. Red? Brown. Crickey, anything you add to coffee turns brown. It's absolutely horrific and never looks truly appetizing in a clear glass.
Prosciutto Cotto/Reblochon de Savoie - on French baguette, hand cut Yukon Gold chips, preserved cippolinis & olives.
LA Mill's Coffee and a Jelly Donut is served in a bulbous glass atop a tall acrylic cylinder. It's a handsome presentation with a demitasse spoon balanced precariously on the cylinder - though it would have been nice if they had actually polished the spoon instead of sending it out spotted (I have pics). There's a layer of strawberry jam (essence?) on the bottom that's topped with donut infused milk and espresso poured in a heart pattern on top of the frothed milk. It's about as nice a presentation as you can do with a macchiato-style drink.
It's nice. It's sweet. Unfortunately, it's not revolutionary. The flavors blend well but the donut infusion gets lost in the battle between strawberry sweetness and espresso bitterness. More donut and more creaminess would make it better. In the end, it turned out to be more a novelty - just one and that's enough. What I want is a signature drink that captures the mind and begs you to order another and another.
Polly went with the Orange Infused Cappuccino for six dollars. It was okay. Again, nothing revelatory. Just orange-infused milk that's two dollars more than the standard capp. Not bad, just not amazing.
Al ordered the Blanco y Negro - coffee granita, ice cream and espresso. How could you go wrong? I only took a sip and it was pretty good. A bit sweet but tasty. Once the ingredients start to blend I'm sure it was even better.
But LA Mill isn't just a coffeeshop, it's also a restaurant - table service and all. In that reign, our server was good. She was there when needed, kept our water pitcher full and was friendly. And like everyone in L.A., she turned out to be an aspiring actress who has done a couple of roles on tv. Personally, I thought she looked like Katherine Heigl, but Polly turned out with the better likening to Maria Bello - a younger Maria Bello. Hailing from the Midwest, she was here to get her career going.
Huevos "Blanchet" - soft scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, chives, beurre blanc, asaparagus.
We ordered a couple of items from the food menu. Al ordered the prosciutto on French baguette which turned out really nicely. And I went with the Huevos "Blanchet." While not scrambled the way I would do it at home, the eggs were good but the dish as a whole was fantastic. Soft scrambled eggs matched perfectly with the salmon and the grilled asparagus tips - and the toasted brioche gave the whole thing a crunchy counterpoint. Me likey.
The interesting thing about LA Mill is that they offer coffees brewed in a variety of methods. You can order your coffee as a French Press, a Vac Pot, Drip Filtered and more. Each coffee lists the brew methods available to it and the differing price points. I suspect that the differing prices reflects the different sizes of each brew method.
For a treat, I decided that we would order the Panama Esmeralda in a vac pot for twenty dollars. Twenty dollars sounds like a lot, and it is, but why not? We're here to get the full experience and we're gonna go for it.
The nice thing about the vac pot is that they prepare your coffee tableside. An Asian lady (who later said she was one of the owners) came out and prepared our coffee. Using a butane burner, the lady stood there heating the water then stirring the slush and brewed our coffee. They use a bit of a different approach at LA Mill than I prefer (they have a longer brew cycle) which I think muddles the flavor a bit, but we're rolling with it. The girl is a bit stiff and not as warm and friendly as her staff, which is a bit disappointing since you'd like to have someone with a modicum of enthusiasm about what they're doing serving you.
The Esmeralda was basically as you'd expect. Sweet, floral, nice. I thought the flavor was a bit muddled because of the longer brew time than I prefer, but could that be just my own mind telling me so? You be the judge. The coffee was good but it wasn't great. It wasn't the mind-blowing experience I was hoping it to be. But it was good and I think Al and Polly enjoyed it enough. Though they probably still wonder why I would rave about such an expensive coffee - if only they could have a sample of some of the Esmeralda I've tasted.
In the end, going to LA Mill was a good experience. They've raised the bar for coffee houses across America. Currently, there is nothing that rivals their approach anywhere in the world that I've visited.
But, with any luck, they won't be the only place like that for long...
LA Mill Coffee
1636 Silver Lake Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026