Smell the Coffee

Daniel Corrigan

Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant
2431 Riverside Ave., Mpls.; (612) 337-0262
Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.

Everybody makes such a big stinking deal about curare. Oooh, it's such a deadly poisonous root, but people in South America figured out that they could eat it if they boiled it, pounded it, buried it, and then boiled it some more. Wow, that's so crazy--I mean, who were the recipe testers on the first versions! Haw-haw.

But get this: There's another tropical plant, an evergreen that grows high up in the mountains of Africa, and this evergreen makes a little berry that takes seven months to ripen, and there's barely any berry to it at all, it's mostly just two seeds that fit together into a ball, and around that there's a parchment membrane and some sticky pulp and then a tough outer skin. It's not an attractive fruit--as twigs are to zucchini, so are these meager nubs to peaches, passion fruit, papayas.

Still, people figured out that if they collected enough of these things and let them dry in the sun, and then worked them over with rocks and pulled the double-thick skins off, and finally collected about fifty of those seeds, and roasted them till they spilled smoke all over the place, and then they took the charred things, ground them up into a fine powder, and boiled that powder with water, it would yield a non-nutritive beverage, and everyone would want it. Go figure.

Now, somehow, I've managed to go to a bunch of coffee tastings, or "cuppings," as they're known in the trade, but I never managed to absorb what an amazing discovery coffee really is. For one thing, that tortuous route from wild thing to food makes you realize how much of our diet began as a quixotic experiment--I mean, I can't think of the last time I looked at something and said, 'You know, I'm going to take that little tiny thing there and dry it, and really break my back trying to husk it, and then roast it, and then grind it up, boil it, and see if it's any good then.' (For all I know, this would make the cassette tapes and paperbacks that line my shelves delicious.)

For another, remember the environmentalist refrain that we can't afford to destroy the rain forest because we don't know what treasures lurk within it: Thinking about coffee's origins, the only response can be: Jumping jahoozefats, yes! Get in there and taste it all! And finally, examining the twisty tale of coffee has an unnerving way of knitting together all of human history, from prehistoric nibbling in the mountains of Ethiopia to the double latte spilled on your mouse pad.

Ethiopian coffee is particularly close to those prehistoric origins: It grows on the same line of trees, in the same soil and much the same climate as it did tens of thousands of years ago. Most important, it is also processed the same way--the ripe fruit picked by hand, dried in the sun, and then painstakingly stripped down to the bean. In contrast, most South American coffees are processed by soaking the ripe fruits in water, which allows the outer layers to ferment off. This is a big deal in coffee circles, with some arguing that "wet processing" removes subtle flavor while others maintain that a dry process can allow the fruit to overripen and the beans to sour.

Nessim Bohbot, president of Alakef Coffee, a local roaster, says it's not simply a matter of which method is better or whether Ethiopian coffee is really superior to any other: "It is true that most of the time Ethiopian coffee has a very rich body," he explains. "But coffee is like wine--you like one for one reason, another for another reason. People like Ethiopian coffee for its profile and complexity, but even people who love a certain Costa Rican coffee might like an Ethiopian sometimes for a change."

That change is easy to come by: A quick run around Loring Park recently scared up three varieties of Ethiopian coffee. Dunn Bros. was selling a batch of big, whole, beautiful, and freshly roasted beans imported from the highlands near the Ethiopian city of Sidamo, for $9.15 a pound. Across the park, Starbucks offered another, darker-roasted Sidamo at $9.95 a pound. They also had a water-processed Lekempti, which despite the steep $13.65-a-pound price tag looked dismayingly bashed up and broken.

Back home I cupped all three coffees--a goofy process whereby you douse fresh-ground beans with boiling water, let them cool for a minute or two, break the crust of grounds that forms on top with a spoon, and slurp up the liquid making a lot of noise and endeavoring to spray the coffee over all the regions of your mouth at once. My first discovery was that all my finds made beautiful brews. The Dunn Bros. Sidamo was one of the fullest coffees I've ever had, the grassy, herbal top notes and bright acidity rounding out essential, strong bass notes. The Lekempti from Starbucks was a delicate, beautiful thing smelling faintly of lavender and finishing with a chocolatey fullness. The Starbucks Sidamo basically didn't stand up to the other two, though it might have done fine had I tested it against less noble beans.  

Having sealed my flavor adventures, the next thing I discovered was that I remain a lousy cupper: You're supposed to swish and spit, not swallow the coffee grounds and all, but, of course, I did, so I had to spend the rest of the night running circles round the chandelier and gibbering to the tune of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."

Later in the week, mostly recovered, I made a pilgrimage to Addis Ababa, the bright little storefront of an Ethiopian restaurant situated across from Fairview-Riverside hospital. This little place, which dishes up fresh, lively versions of Ethiopian stews for around $7 a meal, also serves an Ethiopian coffee that is truly a revelation. (The menu says the coffee service is only done weekdays, but the staff assures me it can be had anytime; one $5.95 order is enough for one or two people.)

The adventure begins with your server roasting a handful of beans in a small pot with a long handle and a screen bottom; at one point the server brings them to your table, shaking the pot so the beans make a skittering noise like maracas and gray smoke spills out like a waterfall. The server then disappears into the kitchen, giving you time to contemplate that people around the world prepared coffee in a similar contraption until the early 20th Century: If Wild Bill Hickock or Charles Dickens drank coffee, it was roasted like this.

The coffee eventually returns to your table on a tray that holds two small espresso-sized cups, a pitcher of sugar, a beautiful, black, round-bottomed earthenware pot resting in a straw base, and, most dramatic, an hourglass-shaped stand of glowing incense. It's a terribly impressive display: In the billowing cloud of smoke, coffee seems magical the way it must have been back when the first cups were brewed and people dreamed up the story of the dancing goats. (Legend has it that the effect of caffeine was discovered when a goatherd found his charges hippity-hopping around a particular tree. He figured out they had munched the berries, soon he did the same, and a few millennia later there I was, circling the chandelier.)

The Addis Ababa coffee tastes mainly big and smoky, and a few herbal notes may or may not be detectable--it's hard to taste anything when your nose is full of incense. I tried filling my cup up with sugar, and the doubly potent brew made me feel awfully exotic, even more so since Xena, Warrior Princess was playing on the TV in the corner. After a lot of sipping and sniffing, I emerged back on the streets quick-hearted and bright-eyed, a little goatlike, and maybe a little less attractive to bugs.

See, it turns out that one of science's best guesses as to the role of caffeine is that it's nature's own Deep Woods Off!, keeping insects from devouring the otherwise tasty beans. But nature's best-laid plans went awry: What bugs found distasteful commuters found highly desirable, and the rest is history.


BENVENUTA, ALMA: Minneapolis could desperately use a couple of great Italian restaurants, and I'm crossing my fingers that southeast's new Restaurant Alma will be one of them. Alma, which means "soul," has been three years in the making by Jim Reininger, who used to own Lowry's, the restaurant that occupied the spot where Auriga is now. I remember Reininger's hand most in that restaurant's excellent breads, but it turns out he's also a wine aficionado who most recently worked as a wine consultant at Surdyk's. He says one of his favorite pastimes at the store was to spot people standing slack-jawed and glassy-eyed in front of a bottle: "I'd walk up to them and say: 'Okay, what was the name of the restaurant and how much did you pay for it?'" An avowed enemy of the 300-percent markup, Reininger vows that his mostly European list will be both well-chosen and well-priced, with most wines costing $20 to $40 and extraordinary vintages from his own collection rounding out the top.

The chef at the dinner-only, 50-seat Alma will be Alex Roberts, a French Culinary Institute-trained chef who returns to Minneapolis after a stint behind the lines in such New York hot spots as Bouley, the Union Square Café, and the Gramercy Tavern. Reininger says the menu will initially focus on braised, long-cooked entrées priced between $12 and $18, and there will also be a three- or four-course tasting menu every night.  

Reininger says he hasn't set an exact opening date (though he acknowledges it will probably come next week), and he actively discourages any fanfare: "We really want a quiet open," he explains. "There are a lot of people who are very interested in new restaurants and can overwhelm a new restaurant that's finding its legs. We don't want to be knocked off course first thing.

"Though why I'm talking to you," he muses, laughing in a pained sort of way, "isn't exactly clear to me." (Restaurant Alma will open at 528 University Ave., Minneapolis., (612) 379-4909

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