Ristretto | Is Coffee in Paris Improving?
Last year, I wrote a column that wondered why Paris doesn’t have better coffee. Or, to quote Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, “Why does the coffee in Paris suck so bad?”
The flurry of comments that followed was split between agreement and outrage. (“Is this article a bit of cultural imperialism?” asked one. “A better question is why America sucks so bad,” wrote another.) Since then, I’ve been back to Paris and I can report that the coffee is improving. Little by little.
To be clear, most of the coffee in Paris is still rote. The beans are still old and over-roasted, the machines are still second-rate and poorly maintained, and the person behind the bar is still more concerned with continuing his or her conversation than pulling a good shot. Robusta is still popular, as is ultra-pasteurized milk.
But there are some new developments changing things for the better.
Last spring, Café Lomi, a small-batch roaster, opened in the 17th Arrondissement. Then in August it hosted the first Frog Fight, a throwdown that, in its own words, is “organisé par des baristas pour des baristas.” The winner competes for the right to baby-sit the trophy, pictured above, until the following Frog Fight. (The next one will be held at Café Lomi on Thursday, Jan. 13.) The throwdowns are lively, good-natured, a breath of indie air in a city where massive corporations dominate the coffee industry.
Frog Fight is organized by Thomas Lehoux and David Flynn, who met when working at le Cafeotheque (52, rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, 011-33-1-53-01-83-84), an artisanal roaster and cafe in the Cité des Arts. Lehoux is currently training for the French Barista Championship, to be held in Lyon later this month, while Flynn works at Le Bal (6 Impasse de la Défense, 011-33-1-44-70-75-51; www.le-bal.fr), a casual, spare restaurant in the front of a converted 1920s dance hall just off the Place de Clichy. After going on a few coffee crawls in Paris, it became clear that le Bal stands apart. In fact, in my opinion, Le Bal has the best coffee in Paris.
Le Bal is actually an arts institute. There are cavernous exhibition spaces and an excellent bookstore, with a cinema right around the corner. The building is tucked away on a dead-end cobblestone street in what was once a working-class area.
The restaurant opened in the fall with Alice Quillet and Anna Trattles in the kitchen. The two chefs spent time at Rose Bakery (on the nearby rue des Martyrs) and St. John (in London), and the food they cook is confident, flavorful — whole lamb kidneys with toast, meaty hunks of oxtail in rich broth. Lunch and dinner are popular, while weekend brunches are a madhouse. Go early, or prepare to stand in line.
The restaurant doesn’t open until 10 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday (it’s closed Monday and Tuesday), which is a little late for the morning’s first coffee. But it’s worth the wait. Flynn once worked at Murky Coffee, the almost-legendary Washington, D.C. coffee shop that closed in 2009, and he has the poise and authority of an expert barista. The espresso, made with Café Lomi coffee, is tight and bright; the cappuccino is rich and satisfying. In what might be a first for Paris, Chemex coffee is brewed to order.
Le Bal is just the most exceptional of a new crop of Paris cafes. Recently,the stalwart Le Cafeotheque was joined by Merce and the Muse (1 bis rue Dupuis; 011-33-9-53-14-53-04), which opened in the fashionable northern end of the Marais. Soon Coutume Café (47 rue de Babylone) will be roasting beans in a storefront a short, brisk walk from the Bon Marché. Until construction is completed, there’s a la Marzocco FB-80 set up on a cart in front of a tarp next to the sidewalk.
For the most part, coffee in Paris still sucks so bad, but it’s getting better, and the scene forming around the monthly Frog Fight is a peek into what might be the city’s future. Now, a handful of Paris cafes have good coffee. Depending on who’s behind the bar, the coffee can be great.