Mother Fool’s was one of the first cappuccinos I reviewed back in 2009. They made a great cappuccino then, so this was certainly a shop that I wanted to get back to for this round of cappuccino reviews. I had a pretty busy end to my summer, but in late July I stopped in to try out their cappuccino again.
Some things haven’t changed at all. It is still a classic Madison “hippie” coffee shop, and one of the few with live music. For a long time they have featured a good selection of vegan baked goods, but the big change since the pandemic is that their espresso drinks are now vegan only as well. It’s a pretty radical move that puts them in a small club nationally. Certainly, I don’t know of any other vegan only coffee shop in Madison (though I’m not vegan, so I might just be unaware).
The lack of whole cow milk left me in a bit of a quandary as far as a review goes. Oat milk was the recommended dairy replacement for a cappuccino, but I can’t say I have ever had it before. And it is also hard to compare the cappuccino at Mother Fool’s with other shops, because whole milk is a central component to a traditional cappuccino’s flavor and texture profile. With all that in mind I’m putting a “*” next to this rating, because it seems a little strange to compare a vegan cappuccino directly to a milk-based cappuccino. But my rating just reflects how much I liked the drink itself, so just take this all at face value.
I had an oat-milk cappuccino and a vegan donut (which I have had before and are great). I was a bit surprised at how good the oat milk tasted in a cappuccino. When integrated with the espresso the oat milk gave the drink a nice “baked-good” taste of caramel and brown sugar. It had a surprisingly neutral creaminess, though the flavor profile certainly was different from any cow milk cappuccino that I’ve ever had. The consistency of the oat milk seemed a bit thinner than whole milk, though not nearly as much as I had expected, and so I’m guessing this hurt the definition of the latte art. That said, the steamed milk still had a good amount of microfoam and a nice consistency.
I still like whole milk more than oat milk, but Mother Fool’s makes a great cappuccino regardless of the type of milk. It should certainly be a destination for any vegan, and also one for non-vegans to check out.
As this is the first coffee shop I’ve reviewed from my 2009 list it is worth noting that the drink they are serving now is likely better than the one I liked so much more than a decade ago. However, the ’10s were a period of pretty dramatic improvement in the Madison coffee culture. Mother Fool’s has certainly kept up, and it will be interesting to see if others have too.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the pandemic has not been kind to cappuccino lovers in Madison. Many coffee shops were completely or partially closed for much of 2020. Good baristas are talented people, but found that talent worthless in the labor market as it was, and so many of the best moved on to other careers. Even when coffee shops opened again, they typically only served drinks to go. The very vertical paper cup is not a great way to enjoy a cappuccino, a drink that needs some horizontal space to express the nuanced flavors of espresso and milk together.
I say all this, because Johnson Public House served one of the best cappuccinos in Madison before the pandemic. They were also one of the coffee shops making an early comeback with online ordering and to-go cups. I always found them to be disappointing for some reason after the pandemic began. I chalked it up the stresses of making to-go orders during a pandemic, and the inferiority of paper cups. But they have long since brought back in cafe orders, and I’ve encountered similar issues with their cappuccinos.
A “proper” cappuccino is 1/3 froth, 1/3 milk, 1/3 espresso. The standard “third wave” interpretation of “froth” is microfoam rather than the pile of course foam of traditional Italian cappuccinos; it should have the consistency similar to paint. Because foam takes up more volume than milk, too little foam will lead a drink that is overly milky, drowning the flavors of the espresso. Microfoam on the other hand has a tendency to accentuate espresso flavors, adding a richness and sweetness to the espresso without taking over.
On a recent trip to Johnson Public House my cappuccino had far too little foam, forming a thin layer on top of the drink. The foam that was there was a bit too course, which was obvious from the blobby latte art. You really can’t do good latte art without good microfoam, and so well defined latte art is a good indication that the milk was steamed correctly. The cappuccino I had was too milky tasting. I couldn’t tell the quality of the espresso, because most of what I tasted was the unfrothed milk.
The cheddar scone I had was quite good, and they also have a rather complete breakfast and lunch menu. That’s a nice change from some coffee shops (I’m looking at you Ledger!) that basically only have packaged cookies if you get there past 10am. I’ll certainly be back to Johnson Public House – I hope that sometime soon they will starting serving up top-notch cappuccinos like they did in the good old days.
Back in 2008 and 2009, I set out to review as many cappuccinos in Madison as I could. Back then the “third wave” had most decidedly not hit Madison, and the only place that had a first rate cappuccino (by today’s standards) was the newly opened (and still excellent) Bradbury’s. (You can go back and see those reviews by using the “Madison Cappuccino Reviews” category in this blog.)
My standards were also much different back then. I had yet to move to the east coast where I learned a lot about cappuccinos and coffee in general, and had the privilege to try drinks from some of the wold’s best espresso shops in New York City, LA, and Europe. I also undertook to review some of DC’s coffee shops on this blog when I was living there (“DC Cappuccino Reviews” category). DC is no New York or LA, but they have a thriving coffee scene. So I learned quite a bit.
A lot has changed in Madison’s coffee scene since then, and I feel the need to take a look around town again. The pandemic also did a number on local coffee shops. Whether it was the flight of experienced baristas from food service or those paper to-go cups, it seems that cappuccino quality really deteriorated during the pandemic. I’m hoping this trend has reversed a bit.
I’m going to be a bit more holistic this time. Rather than breaking down ratings by each aspect of the cappuccino, I’ll just give single rating from 1 to 5 stars. Also ratings will only reflect the cappuccino itself, not the coffee shop in general or other items there. But I’ll describe what is great (and not so great) about each cappuccino. I’m only going to try one location for the chains, and there will be some I avoid (like that chain with all of the health-code violations….). I’ll start with a go-to coffee shop near my house, in a formerly abandoned feed mill and beet processing plant.
Located in the redeveloped Garver Feed Mill, Ledger is the only first-rate espresso shop within walking distance to my house. So I find myself there quite a bit. Up until a few years ago I just knew this building as a decaying former beet processing plant behind Olbrich Gardens that I would pass along the bike trail. Now it contains an Ian’s pizza, a fish co-op, kombucha producer, yoga studio, and a number of other interesting businesses.
Ledger roasts their own beans on site, and is a pretty small operation. They only have a few baked goods from outside bakeries, and they often sell out of the best stuff pretty early in the morning. They only do to-go orders (sad paper cups). Although the Garver site has lots of seating outside, so you can linger. This means that if you want them to make your drink in a real cup, you need to bring it yourself. So I brought along a 6 oz cup from home, and they happily made me a cappuccino in it.
The milk and foam were top notch, with some nice latte art. Of course, latte art itself doesn’t matter, but its presence is a good indication that the milk is of the right consistency (with micro-foam instead of course foam) and the barista is skilled. The foam was sweet and smooth – perfect actually.
The only reason why Ledger’s cappuccino isn’t top-tier is the “flatness” of the espresso. I don’t know whether this is a problem with how the shot was pulled or the beans, but the espresso seems to lack much depth of flavor. There is simply a slight bitterness and standard espresso flavor, but not much in the way of interesting fruit, caramel, or chocolate notes. I know that their single origin coffees are very good (and interesting) when I’ve prepared them at home (either pour-over or espresso), but I haven’t been as impressed with their prepared espresso. That being said I have not tried their espresso blend beans, so perhaps that is the issue.
Even given the lackluster espresso Ledger makes a very good cappuccino. After all, I keep coming back for it! I also highly recommend their seasonal lattes, including the really impressive rose latte that they have been serving lately. They also have very good vegan donuts on weekends (they are really good…trust me!). But come early, because they sell out fast.
Baltimore is quite similar to many other cities in the US. It has a city core that has seen some successful development, where any yuppy can walk around feeling safe and content, there are some bastions of blue collar urbanity, and some areas where no one with other options would live (or even visit). The last aspect of the city was featured in the HBO crime drama
The Wire (which is pretty amazing). But I won’t talk about the last group of places, because I typically try to stay away from them (and anyway, they usually have disappointing espresso offerings). However, on a recent trip to Baltimore, Taryn and I checked out a few parts of Baltimore, and I learned a few things about the place. The most important being, that communists make pretty bad coffee (but I’ll get to that part soon).
In DC most of the large “classic” markets are dominated by yuppies and other upper-middle/upper class types. This is not the case in Baltimore. So if you are in Baltimore, go to Lexington Market (Open since 1782! – as their sign proclaims) to see what a non-yuppified market looks like. It is especially worth going to Faidleys fish market inside of Lexington. Their crab cakes are quite good, and if you order a fish sandwich they give you an entire fish on two pieces Wonder bread – good stuff.
But that all sounded like a plug for a tourist trap. We first checked out a communist coffee
shop located in the Mt. Vernon area. Red Emma’s features all of your favorite leftist books and pamphlets, including a rather impressive section of books extolling the virtues of Fidel Castro, Mao, Lenin and other communist revolutionaries. Strangely, Stalin was less well
represented; given that he was at least as good at executing capitalists and other enemies of the state as Mao, I think he deserved some more attention. Maybe I should send them a note. Anyway, I suppose history can be rather cruel to perfectly effective leaders. Oh well.
Although Red Emma’s certainly has an interesting book selection (and I’m being honest here), this socialist experiment fails in the way that matters…their coffee isn’t good at all. Being a socialist (or so I’m told), this fact frightens me a bit. I guess I had always assumed that the alienation of a barista from what she produced was behind the terrible coffee at capitalist coffee shops like Starbucks, and that the elimination of this alienation would bring about a superior drink. My experience at Red Emma’s seems to disconfirm this. Perhaps Red Emma’s needs a bit of the fascism that other socialist states have used for “quality control” purposes. Who knows; well at least they are nice enough to have several computers that just about anyone case use, whether customer or not. So, as with any socialist state, it is probably best if you don’t contribute anything but use the goods the state provides.
We then hopped on the trolly to check out the Hampden neighborhood, which is adjacent to John’s Hopkins University. The neighborhood is well known for people saying “hon” to each other (as well as the certain type of people who are called “hons” – they have really tall blue hair apparently), and they even have a Honfest every June. But hipsters have also invaded. As you walk from the trolly stop, you will walk past modest homes with (at this time of year)
awesome Christmas decorations out front. It has a definite blue-collar feel that is terribly lacking in many cities. But as you walk east, you eventually reach a decidedly hipper part of town. The stores sell expensive home-goods and clothing, and cafes sell $3 coffee. However, we had heard about a coffee shop here that many think serves the best coffee in Baltimore, and we eventually stumbled upon the little pretentious coffee house that we were seeking.
Spro coffee boasts the most impressive selection of coffee types and brew methods that I have ever seen. You can have your cup made by Aeropress, Chemex, Clever, Eva solo, french press, pour over, Vac Pot, or espresso. However, it is quite expensive; a cup of one o f the more exotic roasts can range anywhere from $3-$7. We passed on the fancy brews this time; I ordered a cappuccino and Taryn ordered a spiced chai latte. The place is tiny, but we luckily were able to get a table.
Our drinks took a while, and the baristas seemed rather disorganized, without an efficient system for making drinks. I found this rather odd, given that people seemed to be mostly ordering espresso and pour over, and there were three people working behind the counter. My cappuccino came eventually and looked beautiful, but Taryn was given a normal latte instead of a chai latte. Although the latte was good, for a latte, she told them about the mix-up and they seemed quite confused.
Eventually Taryn’s chai latte came out, and it was quite good, with an interesting spice combination. The cappuccino had excellent art, and the foam consistency was very good. This foam added a good body and sweetness to the drink that any good foam should. However, the espresso itself seemed a bit flat, without any interesting characteristics of its own. It simply had some basic chocolate elements, but even those were not very vibrant. So the cappuccino was ok, but I expected more from a place as pretentious as Spro. However, because I didn’t try a non-espresso drink (which seems to be their specialty), I’ll not pass judgment for now. I’ll certainly be back next time I’m in Baltimore. And I will be back; this is a cool town.
I discovered Peregrine Espresso shortly after moving to DC, and I have been going there pretty frequently since. As I wondered around the DC espresso scene, I soon realized that they likely have the best cappuccino in the district, but I haven’t had a chance to do a review. But last week, I took my camera with me to 14th street location to drink a cappuccino and get some work done. It was as good as always.
Peregrine has two locations; one in the lovely Eastern Market neighborhood of SE DC, and one on 14th St NW in the Midcity neighborhood. It was started by an ex-barista of Murky Coffee, which was at the Eastern Market location before its owner Nick Cho was banished from DC. The Eastern Market shop is Peregrine’s original location, and is a little larger than the 14th street location (though they are both small), but both have the same sunny interior.
This time I checked out the 14th St. location, because it is on the green line of the Metro (and I wanted to head to College Park afterward), but I usually prefer the Eastern Market location because its neighborhood is one of the nicest in DC. The large market there is open every day and carries many meats, fishes, and vegetables; there is also farmers market and flea market on Saturdays and Sundays. It is all worth checking out. That said, 14th street is a pretty interesting area as well, close to the U st corridor, featuring several music venues, bars, restaurants, galleries, and furniture stores (actually, a ton of furniture for some reason).
Ok, now to the consumables. Peregrine has really good muffins and other baked goods, but the real show is the espresso. They serve Counter Culture Coffee, which is phenomenal stuff. I almost always order the cappuccino, though their espresso and
pour-over coffee are also great. I’ll give my tasting notes from this week’s visit, but it was entirely consistent with my other visits there. The latte art was exceptional, and the microfoam was perfect. The underlying espresso was a bit nutty and sweet, with the microfoam and milk mixing in to yield some nice milk chocolate notes. Exceptional all around. Ok, the numbers (all out of 5):
If you are in DC, you should head to one of Peregrine’s locations; it will be worth the trip. I’m going to predict that this will be the best cappuccino that I find in DC, though there are several others that might come close. In the next few weeks, I’m going to try to hit some of the places that I think are top contenders to match Peregrine’s cappuccino. So we shall see.
Today I checked out Pound Coffee (621 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003), which recently moved to Capitol Hill from NOMA. I hadn’t yet tried Pound at its previous location, but my interest perked once I heard that they are now serving Kickapoo Coffee from Viroqua, WI. My favorite cafe in Madison, WI (and by extension, the world…) serves coffee from this roaster, so I had high hopes for a shop that serves it. It was also apparently the best microroaster in 2010 (by Roast Magazine), so I’m not the only one who loves this stuff.
So Taryn and I stopped by Pound coffee to give it a try. Luckily, I overheard a conversation between some of the baristas and a manager about the introduction of new size tomorrow….the classic cappuccino, which is 6ozs. Their normal
cappuccino has apparently been 12 oz. So I inquired as to whether I could obtain one of these new fangled cappuccinos, and the manager seemed pretty excited that I was interested (he was complaining how Starbucks has made many customers expect every espresso drink to be at least 12 oz). So I might have gotten the first “proper” cappuccino produced by Pound Coffee (that’s going to be my last snobbish sentence in this post, I promise). It was pretty good. The foam was near perfect, and the taste was quite nice. I didn’t take a picture until it was half gone, but the cappuccino had some decent latte art when it was first made. It didn’t quite match Peregrine, which is just down the street, but it gave me some faith that they will be making excellent cappuccinos in short order. I also had an espresso, which was ok, but a bit awkward. I imagine that any failings in their cappuccinos are coming from the underlying espresso. It is possible that they haven’t quite adjusted for the change in coffees.
But can they seriously compete with Peregrine? Well, if you really just want the best espresso in the city, then head on over to Peregrine; but Pound also has a full food menu (which looked pretty tasty), and Peregrine only has baked goods. So if you want very good coffee and are a bit hungry then Pound should prob
ably be your destination.
I also headed over to the White House area today for the first time since the “occupation” started. I have to say, McPherson Square
is a mess.
I think I’m going to try to do some more dc cappuccino reviews this week; I have a lot of grading to do….
Although much of the recent development in DC has occurred along the green line of the Metro in NW, these are not the only areas that have been changing. One of these neighborhoods is Bloomingdale, and is composed mostly of rowhouses and some small commercial areas (especially along North Capitol St.); consequently,
the area is quieter than the more densely populated neighborhoods to its east and west. In fact, many consider Bloomingdale to be one of the best areas to find a deal on a home in an otherwise overpriced DC housing market.
Big Bear Cafe opened up in a building that was previously a liquor store on a pretty crappy corner, and has managed to make the area a pleasant reflection of the best elements of the neighborhood that surrounds it. It is a very relaxed place compared to other coffee shops in DC, and that adds to its charm. They have an often-changing menu with normal cafe fare, and they often use local ingredients. I didn’t have anything fancy while I was there (they had a number of sandwiches and breakfast items made with ingredients from local farmers), though I did have a bagel topped with apple butter, which was delicious. The cafe inside has quite pleasant, with high ceilings and a decent amount of seating (for DC at least). There was also ample seating outside.
I ordered the cappuccino, and I was pleasantly surprised by the decent art; this is usually a good sign, as good art is only possible with well prepared foam. Big Bear uses Counter Culture Coffee and Trickling Springs Creamery milk (from PA), both of which are popular among top coffee shops in the DC area, so I expected a good showing. The foam was excellent, with the sweetness of the milk adding quite a bit to the overall taste of the drink. The espresso was somewhat nutty, which was interesting, though the flavor overall was a bit “hazy,” with a slight bitter element. This made me wonder whether the milk to espresso ratio was a bit too high. Ok, here are the scores, all out of 5:
Mean Score: 4.6
SD = .36
Overall I was impressed, and I’ll certainly be back to try more of their food. Going here is certainly a good excuse to see the Bloomingdale neighborhood, one of the (pleasantly) quieter corners of DC.
Taryn and I take a yearly trip back to Wisconsin from DC, and this year we decided to spend a few hours in Chicago before heading up to Milwaukee. Neither of us have spent any significant time in the city, so we thought this would be a good chance to do some exploring. The original idea was to visit one of Chicago’s northern neighborhoods (Lakeview), where Intelligentsia Coffee has its original coffee shop (at 3123 N. Broadway St.), via the L. Intelligentsia is one of the best coffee roasters in the country, and some of the best coffee shops all around the country use their beans, so their shop seemed like a good excuse to travel out of the Loop. So that was the plan. Plans don’t always work out, and we found ourselves at the downtown location instead (apparently L stations require exact change…my fault! Though I have to say that my short experience with the L made me long for the New York Subway, or even DC Metro).
But everything turned out ok, because Intelligentsia’s coffee shop at 53 E. Randolph St.is beautiful and spacious. It is really quite shocking, for someone used to the cramped coffee shops of DC, to see what reasonable rents can allow. So there was no trouble finding a seat. We both ordered cappuccinos, and the
latte art was beautiful (and unique) on both of them. The foam texture itself was nearly perfect. The espresso was quite complex, with hints of both berries and cocoa, though there was a slight bitterness that was slightly off-putting. We both speculated that a sweeter milk may have helped this a bit. I won’t give a rating but I think this cappuccino fell just short of some of the best coffee shops in DC (Peregrine) and Madison (Bradbury’s), though daily variability likely places Intelligentsia in the same league as those other places. However, from what I tasted, I certainly don’t think that Intelligentsia is significantly better than these other places (many claim that they serve some of the best espresso in the country), and it doesn’t match the phenomenal cappuccino that I had at 9th Street Espresso in New York last summer (although the latte art was exceptional, I don’t give this a great deal of weight – cappuccinos are primarily for drinking, not looking). But if you are in Chicago, go to one of Intelligentsia’s locations; you won’t be disappointed.
I finally got a chance to check out the new second location of Peregrine Espresso, which opened up a few weeks ago at 1718 14th st. NW (a few blocks south of the U st. metro stop). The shop is a little smaller and a bit more urban industrial (exposed brick abounds) than the Capitol Hill location, but the coffee and baked goods are just as good. I have yet to formally review Peregrine (I’ll get back to some more reviews next week), but in my opinion they serve some of the best cappuccinos DC. Some of the baristas who have created such wonderful espresso drinks on Capitol Hill have moved to this location, so you can expect the same artful deliciousness. Outdoor seating should be set up in the next few months. Happy (coffee) drinking!