A turtle is staring me down out of a picture frame a couple yards away. It seems, perhaps, judgmental in its unblinking, watercolor gawking,


Monday Gossip: Lake City's Kaffeeklatsch

A turtle is staring me down out of a picture frame a couple yards away. It seems, perhaps, judgmental in its unblinking, watercolor gawking, and is making me feel, I can only assume, a little like I must be making the trio of Chihuahuas outside the window feel with my own amused and confused staring. Then again, the Chihuahuas appear thoroughly distracted by their own confusion as to why they've been left in the sidecar of a parked motorcycle on Lake City Way, and probably haven't noticed me watching. Whatever the case, these fascinating little visuals are giving my brain something not work-related to consider on its coffee break.

It is Saturday afternoon, and Kaffeeklatsch owners Brian Hensley and Annette Heide-Jessen are occupied in the kitchen of their 6-month-old cafe, creating the homemade pastries that accompany their coffee. Kaffeeklatsch doesn't smell like any other coffee shop in Seattle. It smells like fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, sugar cookies, and other such delightfully tempting items; the air is thick with traditional German breads and sweets in a way that almost makes you concerned you might gain weight if you breathe too deeply. Frankly, rather than smelling like a coffee shop, it smells suspiciously like a bakery. It appears I may have been duped into another Urbanspoon-style coffee-shop-that-isn't . . . but it is called Kaffeeklatsch, and that can't be without a good reason, so I've stayed and ordered coffee.

According to the sign on the door, the word "Kaffeeklatsch" means "a social gathering around coffee." A glance at a German/English dictionary offers the insight that the German word klatsch means "gossip," and that "kaffeeklatsch" therefore literally translates to "coffee gossip." I can't think of a more apt name for a coffee shop. As any historical scholar, or anyone who spends much time eavesdropping on an average day, can tell you, coffee shops and gossip go hand-in-hand. In many ways, "klatsch" was a foundational premise for the early coffeehouse model, where men could meet to informally discuss everything from art to politics. Nowadays this tradition continues, with some of the most absurd and uncensored conversations I have ever overheard having taken place in spots like Starbucks.

Kaffeeklatsch, surprisingly, is quiet. The room is open, bright, and welcoming, but at least on a Saturday afternoon, few of the people wandering in from the street stay longer than to grab a cup of coffee to go. Energy from those behind the counter is running high with hospitality, but the people at the one or two occupied tables are either engrossed in books or so soft in their conversations that they cannot be heard over the barely audible background music.

As previously mentioned, I'm staring at a watercolor painting of a turtle (one of the watercolor collection on display from local artist Anne-Marie Leon), and on my third doppio of the visit. It has always been my preference, when blogging, not to ask a barista to remake any beverage unless absolutely necessary. But the Kaffeeklatch espresso machine is a refurbished Rio, which is more than a little bit intriguing. It is clear that the barista, Paul, knows his way around a cup o' joe. The coffee is Seattle Coffee Works' Space Blend, which Seattleites are becoming increasingly familiar with. The first doppio I was handed looked great, if a little more in volume than most cafes are currently serving them, and had been pulled with every appearance of technical precision.

The first sip, however, presented it as a little burnt, extremely hot, and a bit watery. I'm startled by this, and since the barista has been so extremely friendly and conversational, and since there is nobody in line, I decide to step out of character, take it back, and try requesting a bit shorter shot.

Doppio #2 is handed over with less volume and the same rich, striped color. My first sip reveals a small improvement in flavor, but it still has a sharp and shallow profile. Since it, like the other, was pulled at an "ideal" time, and with many key markers for "ideal" appearance and texture, it is pretty clear that the barista isn't the one causing the problem. And since the barista seems to be completely open to discussion of the coffee he is serving, and since the temperature of both shots has been surprisingly hot, I hand back doppio #2 with the simple feedback that the coffee is too hot.

Paul Stambough, a barista with a number of years' experience in coffee, immediately recognizes this complaint. "Ah," he says casually, "It's because the Rio has no brain." Which initially just sounds like a rude insult, but turns out to be an accurate explanation of the circumstance: the Rio espresso machine actually has no way, he tells me, to monitor its own internal temperature. He lets the steam wand run for a minute, lowering the pressure and temperature in the machine, and then pulls the shots again.

Doppio #3, the one I am now sitting and sipping, looks almost identical to the first two. But upon tasting, I am greeted with elements of fruitiness and spice that were completely lacking before; there is no wateriness, no sharp finish. It is still stark, compared to many renderings of the Space Blend, leaning toward fall flavors like cranberries and allspice, but it is quite nice (and goes perfectly with the scent of sugar cookies, if not as perfectly with the month of June).

The short experimental journey has left me with two important reminders. First, every cup of coffee is different, even when it is the "same" coffee. And second, the technical limits of equipment are an inevitably strong factor in quality, but are not the only factor (i.e., even the best espresso machine can make bad espresso, just as the worst machine is capable of making better espresso than it might typically make).

Even with the handicap of a "brainless" espresso machine, Kaffeeklatsch, located in Lake City, is a bright up-and-comer. The expertise and enthusiasm of the owners and their small, specialized staff is inspiring, and will no doubt leave glitches in the dust as the business grows and gains traction. Furthermore, the name isn't just a gimmick, as shown by the sign on the counter reading, Sprechen sie Deutsch? So if you're looking for a place to practice your conversational German, or your "Lesson 3: Visiting the Cafe" skills, this is an excellent resource.

Kaffeeklatsch is located at 12513 Lake City Way N.E. (Suite H), and is open Monday-Friday 6:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday 8:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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