Sunday, June 10, 2007

Intelligentsia Coffee: As Overrated as Chicago

With Los Angeles blogdom all agog about the imminent arrival in Silverlake of Intelligentsia Coffee*, the pretentiously named Chicago café-cum-roaster, a weekend sojourn to the Second City was the perfect time to preview its espresso. After walking around Lincoln Park, a section of Chicago that only P.W. Botha could appreciate, it was time to return to a semblance of civilization and caffeinate.

Intelligentsia is a nice café, and for north Chicago probably the most similar in personality to the old Coventry and Shaker Square Arabica locations (Arafreaka and Arachica, respectively) which, with their brown clunky mugs, remain the ne plus ultra of Midwestern coffee houses. On a Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed and spacious with comfortable, but not sloth-inducing chairs, and tables with diameters sufficient to pour over the Gray Lady. People were reading, discussing, and catching up. The café, for the half hour we were there, was spared the nuisance of excess laptop-wielding solipsists.

The espresso was good and while I would return if in the neighborhood, it did have a harshness that undermined my overall enjoyment. This harshness is too common in U.S. espresso with high aspirations and good publicity. Alphabet City's Ninth Street Espresso, which was lauded in the New York Times last September, has the same problem. Intellgentsia's affable baraistas drew good looking and tasty shots with nice crema, but they inartfully suppressed espresso's intrinic sweetness. In my estimation, the Italophilic Euro Caffé remains the standard bearer for espresso in Los Angeles, and Intelligentsia's arrival will not dissuade me from continuing to redline Silverlake.

Intelligentsia Coffee
3123 N. Braodway St.
(773) 348-8058

opening at Sunset Junction (3922 Sunset Blvd.) at some point this summer

* “We are absolutely stoked beyond exuberance to report that the Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee is slated to initiate what EaterLA is calling their "West Coast domination" at an outpost in the Sunset Junction part of Silverlake in April.” Lindsay William-Ross of


Anonymous said...

I have to somewhat agree that inteligentsia's coffee is harsh, although I have warmed up a bit to the black cat,it seems as if it is somewhat harsh much like an apple pie with too much tart or cinnamon, ninth street which started uses them is overrated, the milk is textured well but coffee too weak or harsh in the case of lower volumes,they have a great name going for them though which is why they get press .

I wonder why they are in chicago, I have no problem with a roaster from the midwest, but it seems they picked the location to hype it, as folks try to save and hype underdog chicago on par with ny.

Steve said...

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous -

The Black Cat, in skilled or at least lucky hands, can be very good. Intelligentsia, with its utterly pretentious name, happens to be a good fit for no-nonsense Chicago. For all of NYC's supposed greatness, much like Paris, it suffers from bad coffee and is forced to bring in quality operators from the West Coast.

Anonymous said...

NYC now has a reputation for coffee
for quite a while now, think the past decade or so, with many new high end coffee bars, the fact that you did not know that, and still call chicago no-nonsense proves less credibility, many folks want to upgrade chicago and knock nyc, much like david v. goliath, and fail to see chicago's hidden higher costs of living, taxes,parking, crime, location,cold,etc, which would be fine if it were not overrated/hype

The black cat is overrated, although it tries to be good, it takes more like a coffee designed for a mix or blend, I agree though that many italian coffee bars are not up to bar due to poor beans many italians don't take coffee seriously as americans do, this is given because cheap coffee norm was italy for a while, given the comparison to that inteligentsia wins, but it suffers from competition with other brands and has more of name bran.

Steve said...

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous -

I'm well aware NYC has seen an influx of high-end coffee bars and the like in recent years. That's the point--premium coffee is very new to New York, and barista quality is pathetic compared to the West Coast. In my experience, none of the new places are any great shakes. But I'm sure things have improved, and my experience is dated insomuch as I don't live there and cannot witness things firsthand.

I am no fan of Chicago or its hype and regard the city as hopelessly conservative and mediocre. But there tends to be less tolerance of bullshit in Chicago compared to the big coastal cities, here with the Hollywood crap and in NY with all the Wall Street morons.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that the generalization about west coast baristas applies anymore, many folks have are native to ny and its coffee scene is no longer lackluster, this is not recent it has been going on for quite a time now, in comparison to west coast, you must be referring to seattle, many californian cities do not have great coffee,a few do, you don't need to have as many shops,
to have a great coffee scene given that many folks don't drink it, I wouldn't generalize quality as being pathetic, if you stick to 40 shops, out of say 1,000 or so in which 5% of coffee drinks prefer it, most folks in seattle probably don't care about espresso, but its the 5-10% that do care in such as number compared to say 1-2%.

As for wall street, its stereotypical to generalize ny has being all about wall street or la about hollywood, although the latter has more sense, when you consider a lot of la is based on the arts and its culture, in contrast wall street is not a culture, while many work in finance, its an office job, and most folks are not wealthy,wall street is located elsewhere, and insurance , and even media , I am not sure chicago is less tolerant of the bull you describe as no-nonsense, in many cases chicago is nonsense, its overrated not only by itself but by others who want to elevate its standing, instead of asking folks who enjoy its downtown, why not ask south siders, civic folks, folks who have to endure the cold winters, high taxes, crime, segregation, etc, chicago seems to try to be like ny or la, that's the problem, advertising is high, its location,
prices are high for the midwest, transportation is not so good, although better than most us cities, lack of funding, and fights with the capital, as well as folks moving to the suburbs.

If you read the news you will find that many are trying to see what the future of it is ,20% less folk
now live in chicago and less black
folks, many criticized folks for removing vast public housing projects and not refilling all or rather staying put and trying to improve it in part like nyc which now is facing money problems in it

An honest discussion is warranted,

Steve said...

I'm well aware of Chicago's travails. It suffers from many of the same problems that afflict other industrial Rust Belt cities, and its large geographical size exacerbates the problems stemming from segregation and poverty which is why people are leaving. The destruction and relocation of Cabrini-Green and other like it is case in point. But to dismiss Chicago's sense of itself simply because of unjustified hype seems wrong.

On the subject at hand, coffee, it's not enough for a few people to have deep interests in it, buy a Slayer, and sign a lease. It takes a long time to develop a great coffee culture, raise awareness and quality, etc. San Francisco has had a great cafe culture for decades now and it should be no surprise that a Blue Bottle flourishes there and now elsewhere.

Lastly I take exception to your comment on "Wall Street" which is very much a culture, and one that is most self-destructive (see 2004-2008), even if many of its jobs have moved to Midtown, Greenwich and Stamford and most of its employees are not wealthy.

An honest discussion is always warranted, and you make some most valid points. But it's tough to discuss with someone who prefers to remain anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Wall street is less of a hollywood as you associate with LA, when folks talk about la the arts and music and pop culture seem to pop up, finance is an industry like hollywood but it is less of a culture, if I say I am going to ny it probably does not usually mean meeting the federal bank
although it can.

Chicago does suffer from its rust belt neighbors, maybe not as much but it does spend a lot to hype itself, many midwestern folks agree that chicago does hype itself compared to other midwestern cities, it seems chicago is a place that had prior greatness with folks coming/leaving a place where folks stay for a few years then leave, nothing wrong , but to point it, chicago never had a coffee culture like the west either, its true that the new york city does have great coffee bars but less of a skill, however many cities in the west do the same, in my original comment I never mentioned new york at all,except a shop uses them.

There is nothing wrong with debating an anonymous comment, but I can sign in,browser issues,
having said that many natives such as j rubenstein train employees, knowledge is key, one no longer need to bring in west coast operators, but further research perhaps we might be able to agree that in seattle its more the norm, don't dismiss the population though.

I wouldn't say inteligentsia coffee is worse than many italian bars in a skilled operator which is usually lacking at those locations, its just not as great as many of the other roasters/hype
its just that the company seems to part of a media blitz chicago.