Editor’s note: “Enough is enough”. That’s the spirit in which this post was published. The last contact I had with this post was all the way back in December of last year. I think I started writing it months before that. I can’t be sure. You should see my “drafts” post folder: cobwebs and forgotten inspiration and lots of both.
I have a perfectionist’s streak in me when it comes to some things. Writing is one of those things. Every word has to be perfect. Every sentence needs to be planed, honed and buffed to a majestic sheen before I feel comfortable releasing the mess out into the world.
I also have, just to balance things out a bit, a streak of impulsivity. I have a long rope but that rope has an end and when I simply can’t stand how perfectionist me is obsessively attending to every last grammatical detail of a piece of writing in the vain hope of achieving blog post perfection, impulsive me rips the keyboard out from under perfectionist me’s little fingers and recklessly presses the publish button.
Sometimes I think that without impulsive me I would never publish anything. And so, I give you the most belated article in Daniel of Arabica’s history…
I’ve been noticing something lately: with increasing frequency, I’m hearing good things about places to eat and grab a cup of coffee in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. I don’t know if I can say “you heard it here first” but mark my words: if you are talking about hip-factor, an urban frontier-like atmosphere and a food driven street culture then SOMA is setting itself up to be the new Mission.
I say give it another year and I think that anyone who is interested in finding a plentiful supply of places to have a high-quality, forward-thinking, sometimes cutting-edge (my, but isn’t that a lot of hyphens!) but still casual culinary experience in San Francisco is going to be putting SOMA on their short-list. The Mission seems like it has reached a saturation point, that it has reached the pinnacle of its hipster caché, plateued, that its “over-exposed”. I think SOMA is ready to take its place. And here I thought it was all but over for the poor place.
SOMA is, in a way, a kind of land that time forgot; a product and victim of the internet bubble of the 90s, of loft development gone amok, of a massive wave — a tsunami, really — of newly money-laden internet entrepaneurs that quickly welled up and then receded with similar speed. But it’s back — or at least its on its way — but in a slightly altered and less frenetic form.
Possibly, it’s the new Mission Bay development’s presence just south of the Giants ball park that’s spurring activity again in an area of San Francisco that, until recently was better known for it’s stifling rush-hour traffic congestion than for fine living, eating and drinking. SOMA’s big four lane one-way traffic arteries stop up like a clogged drain during rush hour, as everyone tries to make their way home via the Bay Bridge or the 101. In recent years there has also been some development pressure from SOMA’s northern border in the form of the new Westfield shopping center on Market Street and all the “clean up” the city of San Francisco is trying do on the stretch of Market directly northwest of it. So possibly it is a sort of “sandwhich effect” (my own term, thank you very much). As two sides that roughly fringe the SOMA neighborhood transform into places people might want to spend some time in, a sort of slow pressure is being placed on the area.
Sightglass Coffee Bar & Roastery is one enterprising new-kid-on-the-block in this reemerging neighborhood in San Francisco. Sightglass has a limited but, roughly, weekly rotation of beans that they source from Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz. A note on Verve: Verve is another roaster – like Barefoot Coffee in San Jose – that is relatively local but still, for the small circle I regularly travel in, geographically remote for me. I’ve been aware of them through the grapevine for some time but, again, much like Barefoot, an opportunity to sample their “wares” has, until recently, never presented itself to me. That is until Sightglass opened their doors (or should I say “door” – roll-up, no less – but more on that in a second). The deal is, apparently, that Sightglass has been graced with special access to Verve’s inventory of roasted beans. The Sightglass brothers (more on this as well) make a weekly trip to Santa Cruz (poor guys) and pick out three coffees they wish to present to the public via their, as yet, tiny – but beautiful – storefront. Sightglass even goes so far as to put together a select mélange of Verve’s stock of beans to use as their espresso blend.
Sightglass occupies an invitingly compact corner of what is an incredibly voluminous warehouse space on 7th St. between Howard and Folsom. This immense space will, in time, become the official Sightglass café and roastery but while we are all waiting for that to happen, the people of Sightglass have not allowed the space from which they currently serve to appear anything but first-rate. The intimate little piece of real estate out of which Sightglass is currently running is handsomely decorated in a warm but still post-industrial pallet of wood, rust, canvas and concrete. Think Four Barrel but instead of FB’s aesthetic that resembles a kitschy homage to a Canadian hunting lodge, imagine the warmth of natural wood along with a more conspicuous nod to the Sightglass space’s industrial past. You enter, on 7th St., through an open roll-up door, probably around 12 feet tall, that presents to you, in a somewhat dramatic fashion, an espresso cart gorgeous with rust. Yes, gorgeous. Those of you who patronized San Francisco’s Four Barrel Coffee Roasters while it was still serving espresso on Caledonia Street (an alley, really, and the back side of what is now its current location) will remember it because, well, it’s the same one. I’ve no idea how they got it. The cart has the handsome and evocatively weathered look of an unrestored artifact that was dug out of the wreckage of an abandoned early 20th century building site – a reception desk in the art-deco lobby of a 1930s office tower, maybe, or the conductor’s perch for an opulent big-band jazz hall? – and it is the centerpiece of the current space it calls home. That space is flanked by the raw concrete wall of the building on one side and a near floor to – extremely tall – ceiling length sheet of white canvas on the other. In front of the canvas sheet is a simple wood bench. On the concrete wall, a wood shelf. On the shelf – and it has been this way on every visit – a small but tasteful arrangement of flowers in a Chemex pot. Peer behind the canvas wall – and it seems that, by how easy it is to do so, they are encouraging you to – and you will see a large roaster seemingly dwarfed by the immensity of the unfinished space around it. It seems to sit patiently, waiting to come to life when the final form of the café finally takes shape. The space is the sort of empty warehouse environement that shouts “potential” even on a cursory glance: a tall, square and empty expanse with multiple mezzanine levels surrounding it. It’s like a blank canvas. The style evident in those myriad tiny details doesn’t end there, either. No, no. The espresso machine on which they were working from on my first visit was a paddle machine graced by naturally finished wood details. The paddles were wood. The two ends of the machine were wood. The steam wand knobs were, yeah, you guessed it…wood. I’d never seen anything like it. Their newer espresso machine (a “Slayer” brand machine…mmmm-hmmm, “Slayer”) is just as beautiful. It is still a paddle machine and the details are of the quality of gourmet kitchenware. The construction of each paddle resembles nothing less than the riveted handle of a chef’s knife. Dark wood this time. Really exquisite. Once again, no aesthetic detail seems to get past the owners, nothing remains untouched. All of this rigorous attention to aesthetic detail can be a good sign. An owner’s attention to detail in the design of culinary spaces can sometimes indicate an equally stringent attitude towards the preparation of their product.
I don’t normally talk about the people that work at a café. Not that there aren’t people worthy of attention at every place I visit, mind you. It’s just that, well, I don’t do that. I don’t do profiles of people. For one thing, I don’t think anyone would be interested in a profile of them penned by me. That sort of responsibility, too; accurately representing the true nature of an individual using the written word. Challenging. Very challenging. It’s enough, for me, getting out something in text that I feel portrays the feel and physical details of a place or the flavors in a cup. Someday I might feel up to the challenge but not right now. So, this isn’t going to be about a person. Not exactly. Not on an individual level. I felt I had to say something, though, about the contribution of those people behind the bar I have come across at Sightglass. Something about the vibe – for lack of a better word – of the place and the contribution that their presence gives to the overall feel. I’ve mentioned, earlier in this piece, the bustling nature of San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood; the cars and the congestion, the light industry that pervades the area. As I walk through the area, there are sections of SOMA that can make you feel as if you have accidently stumbled onto a freeway. Cars and trucks rush by on four lane streets. Always, it seems, they are on their way somewhere else. SOMA is simply on their way to getting there. If it sounds hectic it’s because, quite frankly, it is. It can be a noisy frantic sort of place. One thing that has marked my visits to Sightglass is that, despite all of the activity around, I have always left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. “Well, of course you have”, I can hear you saying. “It’s a café, for cryin’ out loud. That’s what caffeine is supposed to do”. I hear you, really I do but that’s not it. It’s not simply a function of the design either. The wood and concrete and the canvas and the rust. All of that is nice. Classy. The wood especially. Calming. Elemental. All of this adds to the feel of the place. But it’s the people that have most notably contributed to the sense of ease and comfort on all of my visits. The graciousness and generosity of the staff as a whole, not just that of a single person, has been refreshing. The lack of ego at this place is amazing. From the two fraternal owners on down, you’re not likely to come across a nicer bunch of people behind an espresso machine in San Francisco than you will here.
But what about the coffee?
Lest I become overly wrapped up in the feel-good Sightglass vibe I had better get on to the business at hand, namely the “Arabica” in “Daniel of Arabica”. Sightglass serves up their store of Verve coffee beans in two ways: brewed on the “Slayer” espresso machine I mentioned before or as a Chemex pour-over.
On the “Slayer” is their custom espresso blend made up of a selection of Verve beans. It’s a wonderful shot: sweet, buttery, earthy with a “black cherry” fruit acidity that comes on quickly and leaves just as fast. Wonderful in milk – where the sweetness and acidity peeks through – and great on its own. One of my favorite shots.
In the Chemex one can choose from their roughly, weekly rotating selection of beans. On my various visits I have had the pleasure of trying two Chemex cups. One, the Burundi Kenyovu was a wonderfully clean and juicy cup that exhibited just what the short and simple description promised: nectarine and honeydew. It promised “walnut” as well but I didn’t believe the “walnut” until after it cooled and then, bam, there it was. Very impressive. The second cup of Chemex was what Verve calls their “1950s Blend”. Unfortunately, for the time being, the name remains a mystery. Asked what the name referred to, not even one of the owners of Sightglass could come up with an answer. Regardless, it was also an exceptional coffee exceptionally prepared. A chocolate bomb, actually.
As I put the finishing touches on this post the pace of construction at Sightglass seems to picking up. The concrete is pouring, the glulam is going up, the welders are lighting their torches, and plans are being approved. This version of Sightglass is destined to cease existence very soon. In it’s place, I trust, will be an even grander version of the small and intimate café
… and a coda to the coda
Since writing the previous coda (see the editor’s note up top) Sightglass has been truckin’ along. The roaster – that beautiful, lonely beast that sat, conspicuously, in the middle of Sightglass’s cavernous space – is now up and running. Yep, Sightglass is roasting its own now. Kudos to them.