“a” Coffee House Review – 4-Cake Coffee Matching Challenge, a Wedding and other Important Miscellaneous

Hey there,

Happy New Year 2015!🙂 It’s already over, the first month of a brand new year. How have things been for you? I hope all is well.

So, here is the story… Sharing the same goal with any Saigonese, the pleasure is mine to play lost and found in little oases here and there, to hide well away from all the intertwined of a never-sleep city like Ho Chi Minh. This is truly an challenging quest because some places have very nice atmosphere and everything but the drinks are just so so, some feels like an after-war battlefield, revoking one too many memories… and someday like the day I stepped into the “a” Coffee House(Wed 28/01/2015 to be exact. Me and Wednesday *sign*), when Life seemed to go all its way to challenge how much I want to have a good day… it felt almost like coming home. And a bit weird as well.🙂

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Yellowish lighting swings lazily across white walls and brick columns, together with unlacquered wood works, ceiling-tall glass windows framed by black matte-painted metal, and seemingly random placement of Champa statues give “a” Coffee House a clean, industrial yet warm and welcoming first look.

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There were a couple of creative works going on on a big meeting-style table near the door when I came in, so as in my new coffee-place-testing process to always order a plain hot latte,  I quietly sit down on the edge of the next table near the coffee roasting quarter, a quite comfy spot for observing others and having a quality time with yourself indeed. Funny things about my perception of hot latte… with something as powerful in aroma and richness as hot milk, the coffee has to be truly special in order to standout. Well, it was just me enjoying the bliss of quality testing my own way.

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It was subtly pleasant to see that “a” Coffee House didn’t fail my expectation. Upon all the hot latte I tried in the city (and man, did I test just one too many of them), only one place have such creamy, silky, smooth milk foam and the coffee temperature is just right, not too hot it burns your tongue on first sip, not to cool you’ll have the luxury of at least 20 minutes to enjoy its goodness… it’s Haagen-Dazs Han Thuyen Ice Cream Cafe’s, and “a” is the second in town.

One tiny thing though, the langue de chat cookie that goes with it was just a tad too buttery… I was craving for something that carries a bit of contrast in texture and richness, like a mixed nut coffee biscotti.

It was a pretty bad tendency of me that once I got interested in things, some poor experts will get the taste of my endless questions. And this time, when it comes to coffee (after my spending months working and obsessing with Starbucks Vietnam promotion material), Khoa the manager of “a” Coffee House suffers. After a while, we finally got a chance to talk, more like I captured him alive and started interrogating without his consent, for almost an hour, ouch. Being thankful for fascinating new knowledge of coffee, I ordered a siphon recommended by the manager “But since it is nighttime now, I want something that will not keep me wide awake, yet it must be warmly aromatic, almost like Christmas” – a demanding customer indeed.

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The siphon coffee making process is a pleasure to watch – truly like witnessing magic in action, over the top excitement for a cup of coffee!

A Siphon (vacuum coffee maker) brews coffee using two chambers where vapor pressure and vacuum produce coffee.Water sits in a bottom container, with grounds in a top container. There is a siphon tube and filter between the top and bottom containers. As the water heats the vapor it creates forces it to rise up through the tube into the top chamber. The water mixes with the coffee grounds and extracts their flavor. It just so happens that the temperature at which enough water becomes vapor is the same temperature that makes for maximum and perfect coffee extraction. Then the heat source is removed, and as the water and vapor cool, gravity sucks them both back down into the lower chamber. The grounds up top are completely sucked dry and all of your coffee is in the bottom chamber.

Siphon is best for delicate blend such as my request… it produce a much gentler and less bitter flavour to your cup. So, though the blend Khoa provided was very warmly aromatic, its taste was very light-bodied, herbal and clean with a tangy finishing note.

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I like this piece a lot. Enjoying it while sipping from freshly grounded and brewed coffee is simply the best. So, mission accomplished, I had a great night. And guess brilliant ideas just simply popped out of boredom, the next day I return to “a” Coffee House with slices of my Last-Minute Fruitcake as token, and a mouthful of challenge. “I will bake 4 types of cake, all very distinct in aroma and taste. I will request you to make coffee that those cakes can complement, and then write a review about your coffee house on my blog. How does that sound?”. “Challenge accepted”, the manager reply, with unhidden enthusiasm in his voice.

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So last Sunday the 1st Feb, after 2 almost-sleepless nights trying to fit preparation and baking into the hell-like schedule, I returned to “a” for the 3rd time in one week, with 4 cakes on hands (behold the Mighty, the Naughty, the Sweety, and the Tricky, from up left to down right):

  • The Beastly: Clementine Ginger Quick Bread
  • The Mighty: Flambe Banana and Caramelized Pecan Quick Bread
  • The Sweety: Very Coconutty Quick Bread
  • The Tricky: Rosemary Apple Cake

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Challenge lover as Khoa the manager is, he chose the Tricky – Rosemary Apple Cake right on his first go. This was very buttery and on first bite, you couldn’t distinct the rosemary in the cake. But as bit by bit you chew into it, the aroma bloomed… The sweetness of apple complimented it just right, brought down the normally bright sense of rosemary down just a forth of an octave, to match perfectly with the butter’s.

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Credited to Khoa

This is the cake that is well, tricky, because it is just too fragile, too strong coffee will drown it, and rosemary is quite picky in its choice of companion as well.

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Credited to Khoa

“Don’t know but a pure coincidence it may have been… I brought dried rosemary for one of your coffee blends today” He exclaimed happily. And he made me my first pot of coffee to go with The Tricky, Bourbon with pinches of dried rosemary added in multiple stages, using  a Chemex, or we usually call it, filtered coffee.

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How does filtered coffee differ from normal coffee? Filtered coffee is well, filtered, from all the bitterness of the burned and unpurified, leaving behind a liquid so clean and smooth, imagine drinking tap and distilled water and you can sense what I tasted. Bourbon coffee has a light body, a bit of sweet and tanginess, so it bear the aroma of dried rosemary very well, almost like a strong herbal tea. It went perfectly with The Tricky as a sip of it amplified the subtle rosemary note of the cake and clear the buttery that usually lingers at end of your tongue, getting you ready for the next tides. My grading: 8/10 (As the coffee and the cake went amazingly together, but com’on, rosemary cake and rosemary coffee? It is kinda destined to be a smooth sail.🙂 )

Grading: 8/10

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Extra tip (complimentary by the manager): Bourbon + lightly roasted (Cinnamon Roast) + Moka Pot = Total sweetness

One second go, he insisted on conquering The Beastly. As the name suggested, this is the one who possess pretty strong personality. It is extremely aromatic with distinct clementine edge and a sharp ginger after-taste. Sum-up: Citrus and Spice mixed up in the most turbulent yet dynamic way. “Beware, anh Khoa!”, I warned.

On his first try with the Beastly, Khoa attempt to repeat his success with Chemex filter and a rather daring blend of Typica and dashes of black pepper. Major mistake! Long story short, his effort to overpower the ginger and clementine ended quite badly. Hot temperature of the coffee provoked the ginger part of the cake, plus pepper spiciness, make it hard for him and I to hang on to their ride. Typica’s flavor is traditionally tangy and when brewed in such delicate way as Chemex’s, become even more so, but its edginess just couldn’t match with clementine’s. Clashing in both flavor and aroma is the not-so-good combination in this case as both of them are too independently strong from one another. Grading: 3/10

“How about we go off-the-known a bit here, anh Khoa?” , I suggested. “Try ice-dripped coffee, on the blend that you have been working on, the last time we talked about.”

Now, ice-dripping (or cold dripping), it is interesting. It usually takes about 3-5 hours to complete a ice-dripping water cycle. And though it may require a bit (or a whole lot) more patience, the product is quite remarkable.

Iced water has a different extraction process than hot water. It reacts differently comparing traditional hot water brewing. Some elements including caffeine and acidity are much more resistant to extraction with cold water than they are with hot. Because of the differences, ice drip brewers tend to produce a brew that is almost acid free (in terms of taste), with a very pleasing creaminess and good viscous body. But it can go to the other extreme of very fruity brew depends on the dripping speed you set at the beginning of the cycle.

Thumb rule: the faster the dripping (e.g. 15 drops/10 second), the more fruity and light flavor this method extract (almost filter-like).

So this blend Khoa has been working on: Robusta, Typica & Bourbon, without any heat applied, this method successfully extracts a sweet liquory product from it. It highlighted the deepest of chocolates, caramels and spices from the Robusta yet a light touch of fruitiness from Typica, and sweetness of Bourbon, a texture unlike any other brewing method. How I describe it? Hmm, very mellow, very muted acids (pretty much undetectable), and a nice rounded body taste. That implied, you kinda have to try your best obtaining a very good quality roasted coffee with this method, because what you invest is what you get, no hiding behind walls or corners.

Another funny thing about cold-dripping. (Gosh, I do like this brew, don’t I?).  When compared with other style associating with hot water, it is rather reserved and sometimes to the extend of timid, it is cold and not very aromatic and all (in short, not right on your face). But trust me, it is definitely not. 5 hours of brewing for the same quantity of coffee and water, it is as powerful as it gets. A ticking nuclear bomb… I like to call it. Only when you make enough effort to go pass its intimidating impression, will it uncover the well-concealed-within flavor and aroma… If other brews give you 1 round of pleasure (you smell it, you taste it, you swallow it, and that’s it), cold-dripping gives you twice as much… Meaning the enjoyment didn’t stop when you swallow it. Its sweetness lingers at the back of your throat and the aroma surprisingly makes its comeback to your nostril. Something you just couldn’t expect.

To his surprise (well, not mine, I suggested this cup, remember?), the cold-dripped coffee harmonize my naughty clementine ginger quick bread like no other. No temperamental attempt to dominate one another, so they accept their differences as is and choose instead to compromise. The deep, chocolatey, thick body of the coffee complement the high string of clementine… Hmm, thinking of a movie that can possibly describe this combination, it would be Mommy by Xavier Dolan. Though it haven’t shown here in Vietnam yet and I doubted it ever will be the case because the movie is R rated, dark, violent, and, well, unusual… Definitely on my watch-list. Stumbled upon its trailer on Youtube while listening to my favorite piece of music these days… “The composer strikes gold once more with a haunting combination of dreamlike piano tunes and busy orchestral soundscapes.” – or so they said about his newest studio album.

Grading: 9/10

Making ice-dripped coffee at home: 12-15g of your fav. blend + 120ml cool water, all in a big-enough clean glass jar, let brew in the fridge for 26 hours and enjoy! 

Didn’t manage to take any photo of this as we were a bit too busy brainstorming and enjoying this match from heaven. So, I give to you my readers, a sneak peak to my kitchen on Saturday morning when I’m baking all the cake, recipes will follow.

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A bit overwhelmed by the Clementine combo, we toned the coffee tasting down a notch by going for the Sweety (a.k.a. Very Coconutty Quick Bread). Having been always a bit into coconut and never quite satisfied with normal coconut cakes that carry only hints of it, this time I attempted to push the limit with with toasted coconut flakes, homemade coconut oil instead of butter, coconut cream instead of milk, and coconut protein residuals of the oil extracting process. And the result? This is as sweet as the name suggested, warm, clear as the sun, and welcoming coconuttiness with a slightest trace of cinnamon (only noticeable when warmed :D)

                                                                                             Credited to Khoa

Credited to Khoa

It blended very well with Khoa’s condensed Americano of city roasted blend of Bourbon and Arabica mix. “I just couldn’t find a better match for a coffee breakfast than this”, I was pleased. And the manager couldn’t agree more.

Grading: 7.5/10

Credited to Khoa

Credited to Khoa

After this, the owner came back so I managed to have a chat with him as well, about the specialty coffee movement in Vietnam, and why he decided to transform this place from an extended living room for just friends and acquaintances to enjoy goodness of life to a more open coffee house like it is today… “I want more people to be engaged in this exciting trend, you know? Vietnam is the second biggest coffee exporters in the world, but why none of our coffee brand makes its way to the world’s acknowledgement?”, he spoke, his eyes sparkled.

Now that is some question to give thoughts to…

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To sum up my review, here are the top 4 things I love about the “a” Coffee House:

  • Its name – “a” Coffee House. Do you get it?😉 Unusually usual, extraordinarily ordinary – a paradox, hehe.
  • Its location – well tucked in the small, less-wandered street of Huynh Khuong Ninh, no fancy promotion, no flashy lighting, no nothing… a hidden treasure that only rewards the daring and the brave.

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  • Its constant improvement – My first experience with “a” was when it was still an extended living room of the shop owner. And now 6 months later, everything changed, in the most surprising and pleasant way.  If you are very fixed and result-oriented, you might not like this place. Here they have very high tolerance for “mistakes” (but they do make a perfect latte though), development and new experiences … “Transformation and growth is the key theme of this place. We try a lot of things, blend our own coffee, and self-roast them as well…” , said Khoa. Give the baristas a chance to impress you with their special coffee blends tailored to your mood.

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  • Its size – not as big and spacious as the Workshop (another famous specialty coffee house in the city), which make every coffee experience I had here quite intimate. In one short morning, I got to talk with a lot of new faces: the manager, the owner, all of the staff, and some of their customers as well simply by extend invitation to our little unofficial cake/coffee tasting… No better setting for socializing than their open tables on the 1st floor. And when as the dust settling down at night, enjoy their comfy sofas on the 2nd floor, seeking comfort of your own solitude and listen to drops of piano falling like rain from the ceiling (intentional stereo setting, very clever, I must say).

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First floor setting

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Second floor setting

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We never get to try the last one of my cakes (the Mighty), but somehow it is OK (managed to take pretty shots so…).

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Credited to Khoa

And I got spoiled (yet again) by Khoa with his signature Lemon Coffee. Weirdest combination isn’t it? But it works. So ask for it immediately if you spot him in store.😀

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Credited to Khoa

It is quite rare and much valuable to meet people who are not only knowledgeable and but also passionate about what they do and to be inside of such exciting movement. So, do pay a visit to “a” Coffee House if you are either coffee enthusiasts, city wanderers, looking for a place to hang with friends or having a heart-to-heart conversations, or just like me, a helpless addict to new experience and growth.

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Credited to Khoa

There are little pots of happiness for everyone here.

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OK, sorry I was little held back. There is another thing that I love about this place. It is literally 50m away from my current apartment. Ha, not a milligram of exaggeration. What are the odds of having something this wonderful brewing right under your nose all this time! I must have been so blind, or in this case, “anosmic” would suit better. That’s why, to make up it, these days, If I manage to squeeze out some free time off work chaos for myself, I would spend them here, working on my artworks, and taking informal lessons about coffee in exchange for cakes (the many perks of knowing the coffee shop manager personally). So, another fair warning, the chance that you bump into me here are quite accountable.😉

If you are somehow lost in the neighborhood and want to hang, do drop me a call and order me a hot plain latte, I will be there in five. (supposedly I’m home. :D)

Address

“a” Coffee House

15 Huynh Khuong Ninh street, DaKao ward, District 1

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Until next time,

Rose.

Lâm Cafe – Hanoi – 07/02/2015

Many photos of the cakes here are of credit to Khoa the manager, marked as “Khoa’s”. His photos just bathed in lights, didn’t them?

P/S: You are the most beautiful bride today, my dear. I wish you happiness.

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