Monday, December 10, 2018

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs

     Philip Johnson's 190 South LaSalle is one of my favorite buildings in Chicago, from its funky, post-modern summit to the vast, gold barrel-vaulted lobby.  It's a whimsical shrine to mammon.
     So when I walk by, I can't help glancing inside. And on Friday, I was rewarded by a view of this oddly-named coffee shop: "Department of Coffee and Social Affairs" For one confused second, I thought it was some kind of Kafkaesque goverment bureau, so perfectly is its quasi-official name suited to the vastness of the building. Though actually it's part of a chain started in London in 2010.
     I had time, and a need for caffeine, so sauntered in. I've been trying to get a good cup of espresso lately—prodded by memories of tiny cups of steaming perfection in Italy—and ordered a cup, just to see what they could do. Not much, I'm afraid. With all the money and creativity expended on the location, the decor and the name, they just couldn't get the ball those last few yards and score on the product itself. The espresso had that familiar wrong note—maybe try a finer grind and longer pull; just a suggestion. Not a complete waste: the clerks were friendly, the room grand enough, a pleasant place to stand and ponder why something the humblest snack bar in Florence can manage to serve up for $1.50 eludes the fanciest American coffee shops charging twice as much. It can't be that hard. Can it? Does anyone know anywhere in Chicago to get a decent cup of espresso? Tell me, please.


  1. This isn't going to be of much help, but the Harlem Ave strip of Elmwood Park should definitely be a start. Look for the small non-dsscript little shops in one of the small complexes with a few old men sitting around. It's been years, but i too was once on a quest - and found it more than once.

  2. The last time I had espresso that I enjoyed was when I was young, possibly pre-teen. A neighbor, of Italian heritage, had an open house party every Christmas Eve. He always made espresso laced with sambuca and I'd gulp down as much as was offered. I suspect that it was the sambuca that I was enjoying.

  3. Can someone describe what good espresso is supposed to taste like? I've never even tried it -- I'm perfectly satisfied with ordinary coffee and rarely disappointed. Occasionally I find my own efforts watery when I try to eke out an extra cup from grounds that have already delivered 2 or 3 decent cups, while vending machine coffee and Starbucks seem bitter or too strong, but otherwise most any coffee will do for me. Why should I even try espresso?


  4. On a closely related culinary subject, when a newly opened Dominic's nearby offered a selection of gelatos, I hoped to replicate the taste of that ambrosial substance as found on offer from a thousand and one vendors encountered on a summer night's saunter around the piazzas of Rome, Florence or (a favorite) Montalcino. Maybe it's the ingredients. But I suppose the unduplicatable ambiance has something to do with it.


  5. Attempting to consider the issue as logically and scientifically as possible, the factors involved are water taste, water temperature, bean freshness, bean grind, and the ability of the barista. Given the number of awards they have received, I would think Intelligentsia would be your best bet for getting as many factors "correct" as possible here. If they don't do it for you, then there's either some x-factor that I'm leaving out, or Tom's correct that ambience has something to do with it. For what it's worth, the cappuccinos in Florence were always better than Chicago, although that's probably due to a combination of ambience and the milk they use as well.

  6. It was during the "working on LaSalle Street" phase of my life when that edifice was built, and I never liked it. Too big. Too grandiose. Give me Art Deco any day of the week. I used to wish I worked at the LaSalle Bank Building, at 135 South LaSalle, with its block-long walk-through lobby and its pedestrian bridges. Work there, hell, I wanted to live there. Haven't been through there in at least twenty years...probably longer. Loved it.

    As for espresso, all I can offer is a shrug, since I've been a tea drinker for most of my adult life, and seldom drink coffee. But when I do, "ordinary coffee" works just fine for me---black with sugar, please. Coffeemaker, vending machine, whatever...the origin matters not.

    And I won't even go into a Starbucks. I'd feel stupid trying to order there, and if they laughed at me when I hesitated or became confused, or just asked for "coffee", I would probably get pissed, and cause trouble. I'm past the age where I willingly go into places where I feel uncomfortable.

    I've had espresso in some good Italian restaurants, but can't tell you whether it was excellent or lousy. Maybe that would be the place to start. But probably not in Little'd have to go further south. There were some classy joints around 24th and Western in my younger days, but that was decades ago.


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