A Stylish Statement

The Spyhouse Espresso Bar and Gallery
2451 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 871-3177
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-midnight Monday-Friday; 8:00 a.m.-midnight Saturday and Sunday.


Talking about taste and style isn't much in vogue these days, probably because taste and style were in Vogue for too long. Then they became the provenance of InStyle, and the words became synonymous with Buy New Things Now. But the more I think of it, the more I think that people thirst profoundly for taste and style, and their delivery mechanism, design. Please know, I don't mean taste and style in the sense of the best taste, the best style, or any kind of hierarchy that leads up to a new white futon in an empty glass house. I mean any comprehensive taste, any deeply felt style, from the moneyed-contemporary-Italy of a restaurant like Zelo to the potpourri-cozy-Americana of the Nicollet Island Inn.

Or maybe I just think taste and style are so important because I've been spending time lately in the coffee shop Spyhouse, which radiates London/art-school/1962. Now, Spyhouse is the sage-and-seafoam coffee shop that opened last summer on the corner of 25th Street and Nicollet Avenue South in Minneapolis, and anyone who has noticed the transformation that occurred there can't help but give a low whistle in appreciation of design: Once that corner held a convenience store with papered windows, and the overall impression the address gave was one of unpleasantness. Then Christian Johnson took it over, gutted it, added bathrooms, had a sculptor design a central coffee area and seating bar, and set about giving the MIA and MCAD's artsy neighborhood the comprehensively designed environment it had obviously been craving. Within a few weeks of opening, the coffee shop--which is actually in something of a counterintuitively down-at-the-heels spot--was bustling. Nowadays it's a hub of activity morning, noon, and night.

My first insight into the taste-and-style priorities of Spyhouse came when I interviewed Johnson for this story. I was trying to quiz him on what made Spyhouse so successful, so quickly. A good staff, a good staff, he kept telling me. At first, I glossed over the statement, thinking he meant the usual Boy Scout things: loyal, trustworthy, on time, friendly, kind. Of course that, he said when pressed, but they also need to know people in the neighborhood and have good taste in music. A self-evident thing to him, but a completely novel thing to my ear: No one in restaurants has ever, ever talked to me about that kind of taste.

Yet, obviously, without good taste in music, the whole aesthetic of Spyhouse would be thrown off. So when you're here, keep an ear cocked for Built to Spill, the Runaways, and the Jam, because the music is as important as the vintage Sixties furniture and jet-set knickknacks that decorate the place. And what qualities does Johnson figure a coffee-shop owner such as himself needs to make a Spyhouse fly? Mostly taste in furniture and an interest in thrifting and antiquing, of course. Also, an interest in working 24-hour days, an understanding of how to take a vast space and divide it up into a dozen discrete conversation pockets so it doesn't feel like a high school study hall, and did he mention a passion for antiquing? Please note the Lincoln Del tea trays and amber-and-red light fixtures, the bark-cloth curtains in the ladies' loo, and the marvelous collection of sad-eyed-child art. I particularly like the painting of sad-eyed Mary Quant-types doing the monkey while they play vinyl on the phonograph.

Of course, Spyhouse plays all the other coffeehouse suits well, too: Coffee (from $1.30) is particularly fresh and aromatic, provided by local roaster MorningStar; pastries and other bakery treats come fresh every day from neighborhood treasure French Meadow; and the teas are literally the best available, coming from Highland Park's beloved TeaSource.

The tea seems particularly well appreciated. On some of my visits fully a third of all patrons sat with spherical $2 pots of fancy silver-tip oolong, flinty green dragonwell, and a dozen others. More evidence of the British vibe, or just proof that good tea draws fans the way bad tea bags never will? Johnson has nothing but disdain for coffee shops that would rather serve the worst possible tea and earn an extra nickel in the process, and he tells me with disgust about a certain coffee shop he knows of where they sell muffins from Sam's Club. "Come on!" Johnson exclaims, nearly slapping himself in the forehead. "Treat your customers right. Don't worry about your profit margin that much--some pennies aren't worth saving."

Johnson could also do without corporate coffee shops, and he pointed out to me something I never noticed before, namely, how few corporate coffee shops have in-house coffee cups: "They don't want you hanging around taking up space--and that's why they're not open at night."

The folks hanging around and taking up space at Spyhouse tend to be art students, students, and artists. Are they responding to Spyhouse's dual role as a gallery? Perhaps. Johnson tours local galleries and studios searching out emerging artists, and Spyhouse is already booked up with art shows a year out. Whatever the reason, those artists are there in force: One night when I was hanging around taking up space I watched a serious girl work and work and work on a charcoal sketch until her pad was black as soot. Then I watched a scowling young man highlight an entire page in a textbook with yellow highlighter, think better of it, and highlight some yellow sections in pink, and then, still unsatisfied, he boxed and scored passages in ink. Then I watched a pretty blond woman navigate between three sculpture books and a legal pad, taking notes, her hand absently patting the top of her head in an interesting, self-soothing sort of way. The top of her head was a work of taste and style in itself, dozens of tiny aqua and platinum braids tied with ribbons and beads and set with pins, feeding into bigger turquoise-streaked braids which were bound up by more ribbons. It looked like half a day's work, and more sculpture than most people would make in a lifetime. It reminded me that there are oases in the world, as small as a hairdo or as big as the neighborhood around a museum, where aesthetics aren't mere themes, but the end to themselves.

 

TABLEHOPPING:

TEA SOMMELIER TO THE NATION: If you're anything like me, you've got a flock of Austrian sheep stowed illegally in the garage. Wait, did I say that aloud? What I meant to say was: If you're anything like me, you've noticed the spate of articles in foodie magazines lately about fancy-pants restaurants with fulltime tea sommeliers. When I'm not trying to convince the neighbors that that bleating noise is just a garbage truck two blocks over, I'm forced to consider the efficiency with which the Twin Cities has done an end-run around this quandary: More and more places are using the Highland Park tea shop Tea Source as their off-site sommelier.

In addition to Spyhouse, I was recently in W.A. Frost's and was delighted to find their newish tea menu, a list of a dozen Tea Source teas, including traditional fermented teas like Grand Keemun and Flower Dragon Pouchong, green teas like pure Gunpowder Temple of Heaven, teas for milk and sugar like Strong Assam, decaffeinated Ceylon, and even a trio of herbal teas. The brews are described in detail on the menu, arrive in individual 14-ounce glass pots with strainer baskets in the middle, are accompanied by an egg-timer hourglass for perfect tea timing, and even inspire knowledgeable comment from the server. Classy, classy. Better yet, the teas are available in the bar at Frost's until all hours, and will be available on the patio if summer ever comes. And merely $3 a pot--why, with an on-site tea sommelier, I'd expect to pay at least one million times more.

Turns out that Frost's chef, Lenny Russo, contacted TeaSource proprietor Bill Waddington some months ago with an eye toward developing a food-friendly tea menu, and even went into the shop one day to spend a morning cupping teas. "We looked at 20, 25 teas," says Waddington, "and we tried to customize the teas to complement what Frost's does with food. Then I went over there and spent three hours working with their waitstaff and prep staff, explaining how different teas need different temperatures of water, what the correct preparation was, how to explain teas to customers. I give them a world of credit; they did it the way it's supposed to be done." Waddington says he regularly gets calls from restaurants that want a tea list but balk at the idea of spending an hour tasting the teas. "The key is, [Frost's] took it seriously as a fine food."

And what about the whole tea-sommelier thing? Asking, I could hear Waddington sort of shuddering over the phone: "I was at the Hotel W in New York and got a look at that. That gets a little pretentious. You don't need to intimidate people to have some knock-your-socks-off tea." Yeah. That's just what I was thinking. That, and ixnay on the eepshay. Tea Source, 752 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; (651) 690-9822; W.A. Frost & Company, 374 Selby Ave., St. Paul; (651) 224-5715.

STEVEN BROWN SIGHTING: Fans of chef Steven Brown, the force behind the now-vanished fancy dining at the Local, will be happy to know he's back, having taken over bread and pastry at Auriga. "I feel like I have a lot to learn," says Brown, in one of those moments of chefly introspection that make him an interviewer's dream. "I'm not that confident about my execution. I want to really be able to do texture, to do minimalism." And, it seems, to meet some kind of higher expectation of himself. The fruits of this pursuit have been seen lately, says Brown, in an olive-oil chocolate mousse. The goal: to combine the flavor of chocolate with the peppery burn of Tuscan olive oil. Another project? The snowball. Yes, that snowball. Brown says he quizzed the Auriga staff on their favorite richly textured desserts, and thus, the snowball. His version will be a coconut bombe, Kahlua and coconut ice cream wrapped with sponge cake and coated in freshly grated and toasted coconut. After that? Maybe a star-anise-basil flan. "I want," muses Brown, searching for words, "mellifluous textures. Mellifluous textures." If you've got some suggestions for mellifluous textures and bold, minimalist flavors, send a note back to the kitchen. Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 871-0777.

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