We Portlanders are coffee people. In our admiration and appreciation of coffee, we rank with the world's most serious drinkers: the Swedes, the Japanese, the Frisco kids. But for all our genuine adoration of coffee and cafes, we can't match bona fide coffee towns in sheer variety of high-quality coffees on offer.
But with the opening of Ristretto Roasters' second location, in "The Hub" foodie complex on North Williams Avenue, things just got a little more interesting. Owner Din Johnson has been roasting coffee commercially out of the original cafe on Northeast 42nd Avenue for three years. He has more or less paved the way for other small specialty roasters like Cherry, Courier, Cellar Door and Spella. And for that, we owe him.
Ristretto the Younger, however, takes coffee a little more seriously than its parent operation and is raising the bar. For one, the cafe is planning to offer regular, free coffee tastings ("cuppings," in the parlance of the trade) to the public. They've even imported granite cupping tables from Brazil to prove they're serious. (What's a "cupping table," you ask? A very expensive lazy Susan.)
They also take atmosphere seriously. With the help of Holst Architecture, the Ristretto team (including Johnson's wife, Nancy Rommelmann, who has written for WW in the past) has built a beautiful space in which to appreciate coffee. The building's soaring ceilings create dimensionality and, blissfully, dissipate some of the noise that comes stock-in-trade with a coffee operation. The cafe itself is lifted, too—drinkers enter and climb a half-staircase to the raised floor. The effect is theatrical: the midmorning pick-me-up made manifest. The room's focal point, a veering, striated half-wall, separates the cupping room, which has space enough for an afternoon mommy klatsch. And the cafe offers different arrangements for different needs: built-in benches for laptop users; leather couches in a faux, but not fake, living-room space; and a massive, covered seating area out front.
Solid food in this liquid den is appropriately limited to assorted pastries and sweets. The only thing prepared on the spot is thick toast with butter and jam, but the toast was on the dry side and the jam didn't sing ($1.75). Other pastries and breads come from old hands like Grand Central and Tonali and are predictably good. The gem of the lot is a new chocolate espresso bread ($2.25) by baker Amy Nuesch. It's a study in contracts: airy but thick with flavor, coal black against a snowy cappuccino (it must be drunk with milk).
When it comes to the coffee itself, Ristretto hasn't quite overcome past limitations. It is still far superior to most retail coffee (think Starbucks, Tully's), but lacks the precision and polish to rival the best-roasted coffees in town (Stumptown gets points for purchasing power—they consistently buy some of the highest-quality beans in the world). A double espresso ($2.10) on one recent visit had a decent balance of sweetness and acidity but a grim metallic finish. On another visit, the espresso was woody and too bitter. An immensely pleasurable Panamanian coffee ($1.75), on the other hand, was simplicity itself: full, crisp, balanced. Despite the coffee's sometimes flawed expressions, it is joyfully prepared, and the baristas aren't smarmy, snotty or stuck up. That in itself is refreshing. And with the new cafe's detailed attention to the taste and experience of coffee, there is hope for sustained improvement.
In the meantime, there is real value in what Ristretto is offering: fresh, locally roasted coffee that can, and should, compete for our attention.
Ristretto Roasters, 3808 N Williams Ave., #125, 288-8667. 6:30 am-7 pm daily. Original location at 3520 NE 42nd Ave., 284-6767. 6 am-6 pm Monday-Saturday, Sunday 6:30 am-6 pm. $ Inexpensive.