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Ethiopian coffee service - all fresh roasted and everything

Thi N. Oct 21, 2008 11:28 AM

Alright. So, I was at Merkato, with my buddy Jeff, doing a working lunch. Since we're both actual semi-professional philosophers (this means graduate student and TA), and both work sort of in the space of political philosophy, this means that we can spend two hours bitching about politics and then call it a working lunch.

Anyway, TANGENT #1: I have previously written about Merkato for excellent kitfo sandwiches - raw beef. Jeff introduced me to their fried trout. Smokin'.

Since we're "working", we go for coffee. Ethiopian coffee, $10. Order it early, because they ACTUALLY ROAST THE COFFEE right then and there. (This used to impress me more, before I started roasting coffee myself and realized it takes about 5 minutes, but still: it's pretty freakin' cool.) If you have one of the Nice Ladies, she'll bring out the ladle of freshly roasted, smoking coffee and wave it around in front of you to tantalize you. She'll then wander around the restaurant, with a mysterious smile on her face, tantalizing other customers with the smoke.

Five minutes later, you get the Coffee Service Tray: it's a wooden box, with a VERY LARGE jug, two teeny little white-and-blue china cups, and a brazier of frankincense, smoking away.

The coffee is damn fine. It's grounds-in - like turkish coffee. And spiced. It's definitely ethiopian beans - it has that High Mountain Zing (kind of like the high-lonesome sound, but in citrusy, coffee) - that high, almost red-wine-like-but-an-octave-up note. When I make good ethiopian beans at home, it tends to be pure zing - winey and citrusy. Here, with the grounds in the jug, and all the spices, it's meatier - dark and intense and syrupy and spiced.

I normally don't sugar my coffee, but this stuff benefits from a little sugar.

It's intense. It's intense in flavor. It's intense in density. If regular coffee is like wine, this stuff is like brandy. There's a lot of it. It's easy to drink cup after cup, because they're very small, and you have, like, a liter jug of the stuff next to you. And there you are, caffeinating yourself, sugaring yourself, with this frankincense brazier blaring away next to you, all smokey and stuff, and, frankly, you start to feel seriously, seriously drugged.

That night, I was up until about 5 AM.

We didn't even drink all of it.

I have, in fact, never drunk all of the jug.

The next time I went, I went with two other people. We got the same jug, had about 10 little cups each of coffee, and on the way back were so shakey and wired that we actually had to go home and fire up my little home gym and work out for an hour before dinner, to get some of the screaming lightning jazz out of our system.

So: it is excellent. It is a cultural and spiritual experience. Be careful, though - the little cups are deceptive, it's delicious, and, whiling away a pleasant hour talking about politics - I mean, "work" - or whatever, and you may accidentally caffeinate yourself into another dimension.

I have had ethiopian coffee at two other places - the old Red Sea, and the market just up the street. Both are good, neither is fresh-roasted. Other places for the service? I think I've smelled fresh-roasting coffee elsewhere in Little Ethiopia, so it's got to be around. Ideas? Comparisons?

  1. r
    risottoman Oct 28, 2008 05:06 PM

    Very interesting, I just read about such a thing on Coffeegeek.com, one of the best sources for information about coffee.

    2 Replies
    1. re: risottoman
      r
      risottoman Oct 28, 2008 05:09 PM

      actually nvm, coffeegeek was just going through ethiopian coffees, but I must try this method of brewing/tasting. thanks for the post.

      1. re: risottoman
        Mr Taster Oct 28, 2008 07:34 PM

        Who is NVM? Or is this a case for the following superthread:

        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/555190

        Mr Taster

    2. c
      chipman Oct 22, 2008 06:32 PM

      I'm confused. As a home roaster, you know the coffee is basically undrinkable until it degases. At the very minimum of six hours, but better for a full day or sometimes more. And a five minute roast in a pan? And please tell me how just roasted coffee beans that smell like burning grass is anything but unappetizing.

      3 Replies
      1. re: chipman
        Thi N. Oct 28, 2008 09:46 AM

        As a home roaster, I know that the "degasing" rule is highly variable depending on the type of bean, the type of roasting method, and the ineffable mood of the beans. Most beans are slightly better on the second day, a few are better on the first day, and very few are plain undrinkable on the first day. I'm not sure where the degasing stuff started - my suspicion is that it's very *very* notable for espresso-type preparations, but much less notable for the preps I use (aeropress and vacuum pot). Some of my best friends have are fresh-roasted brews.

        But any way - this is all theory. Theory means nothing. Taste the coffee at this place. Coffee is an ingredient, there are different ways to use coffee, and they make it a different way here. And it's good. Doesn't taste like burning grass to me - there's a distinct roast note, but it's modulated against a pretty intense array of spicing. Maybe it's back there, but the prep doesn't bring it out.

        It's like - can you imagine how horrified an espresso purist would be by Turkish coffee - sludge of grounds actually *in* the coffee? Frickin' cardamon? But Turkish coffee is *good*. It's definitely not the way to experience finest single-estate beans - it's a different thing - but it's good. Ethiopian coffee sercive is sort of like Turkish coffee with a PhD in whoah.

        I can see how, to a sushi purist, whose life was oriented around the quest for perfect otoro, the thought of a tuna melt would be like being dredged in a cesspit. But... tuna melts are good. Especially if you can keep yourself from thinking of it as ruined sashimi. A single estate, low-roast, no sugar/no spices coffee purist would be horrified by the Ethiopian stuff, I'm sure. And at home, I roast single estate, typically low roast, and add nothing. But the Ethiopian coffee is a different beast. Different switch in the brain.

        1. re: Thi N.
          Mr Taster Oct 28, 2008 11:02 AM

          Thi, I need to bookmark this and read it every couple of weeks or so. It's so easy to become dogmatic about how we eat and prepare certain foods, and you've really just nailed the essence of it all down. While countless others have said "if it tastes good to you, eat it" but this really puts a point to that statement. Tuna melt as ruined sashime... well said!

          Mr Taster

          1. re: Mr Taster
            a_and_w Oct 29, 2008 01:55 PM

            I agree, Mr. Taster -- well said, Thi!

      2. t
        torty Oct 22, 2008 01:58 PM

        Just curious- did you eat anything in particular with this wonderful sounding coffee like a sweet?

        1. n
          nomarin Oct 22, 2008 01:50 PM

          Indeed, you should order it as you are ordering your food. I used to order it after the meal at Merkato and at Messob, and it was not a problem, but once at Merkato they reluctantly took the order and then, as we were waiting, the waitress, as she walked past our table every few minutes, kept telling us that they had not started on our coffee yet. We left, coffeeless :(. And at Rosalinda's they refused to serve us coffee without a meal.

          1. sku Oct 22, 2008 09:49 AM

            Fassica, in Culver City, has the fresh roasted service (along with the best Ethiopian food around in my opinion) though I've never had the coffee as I can't handle the caff.

            1 Reply
            1. re: sku
              Thi N. Oct 22, 2008 10:05 AM

              That's in the spot Red Sea used to be, right? I loved Red Sea... any idea if Fassica is by the same owners?

            2. b
              bsquared2 Oct 21, 2008 07:41 PM

              Wow. I love Ethiopian food and I drive down Fairfax Ave. all the time. I am totally going to this place. What a great post.

              1. m
                mikester Oct 21, 2008 04:56 PM

                Great stuff as always !

                I've never had the ethiopian coffee service, so this is really interesting. Speaking of roasting at home, I've only done it once in the house, because I made the mistake of roasting an hour or two before bed, and I swear the aromas/fumes kept me up half the night. It was like a contact high :-)

                3 Replies
                1. re: mikester
                  Thi N. Oct 21, 2008 05:03 PM

                  I wrote an article about home coffee roasting a while ago for Chow.com: http://www.chow.com/stories/10621. I roast in the morning. I use a popcorn popper.

                  Here, they use this awesome thing - it's like a cast iron ladle. My early experiments with coffee roasting involved a cast-iron pan - let me tell you, it's a pain in the ass. The coffee you get from cast-iron is a little more direct and primitive and... well, roasty, then stuff done in a commercial rotating drum/Jiffy air popper.

                  Luckily, Merkato lets you taste cast-iron roasted beans without freaking destroying your wrist by freaking tossing freaking beans in a freaking heavy cast iron pan for 12 freaking minutes.

                  1. re: Thi N.
                    a_and_w Oct 22, 2008 08:37 AM

                    Thi, your link doesn't seem to work.

                    I don't usually prefer ethiopian beans (I like the more mellow taste of pacific coffees) but I'm intrigued by your description of ethiopian coffee. Do they offer any milk or cream, or is that frowned upon, as with turkish coffee?

                    1. re: a_and_w
                      Thi N. Oct 22, 2008 10:07 AM

                      No milk, no cream... but I don't think you'd want it. For some reason, the thought instinctively fills me with horror. Not for any cultural-purity reason. Just... I don't think it would work. The first thought that pops to mind is "like rolling sashimi in heavy cream."

                      It's not mellow, but it's not high and zingy like ethiopian - it's more balanced. Spicing fills out the flavor profile. Closest flavor relative would be, say, a Peet's Major Dickinson's - intense-but-balanced.

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