One of last year’s best publicized openings was Sense Appeal with coverage in all the major newspapers and blogs. The major angle that was taken for publicity was to push the idea of coffee pairing and the incorporation of coffee into the culinary world. One of the owners and the roaster, Peter Adamo, is a wine sommelier and foodie. So it was probably a very natural extension from the wine world to apply the same concepts to specialty coffee, as many are continuously trying. A year later this continues as I see Facebook posts regarding the creation of butternut squash lattes. I have trouble understanding if this is sarcasm or the real thing. Anyhow, the real reason to write this post is not to go into the reasons that this extension is flawed in my opinion, but to let you know about the espresso that I have drank at Sense Appeal, particularly during my visit a few weeks ago.
Along with the downtown café location, Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters has roasting facilities off site in King City. When Peter got into roasting, he first apprenticed with John Rufino here in Toronto and then roasters abroad including Australia and South Africa, I believe. When I spoke to Peter about roasting, he always speaks with great respect for the Italian traditions and process while also paying attention to new Third Wave roasting concepts, in particular to the transparency of origin. All the different available coffees are denoted by letters that represent the farm or locale of origin, blends by two letters. Peter also believes in experimentation, and this has always been evident through the bean that is changing, as well as in discussions about roasting technique experimentation.
Whenever I have visited which isn’t often, the coffee line up has been different, and from other espresso drinkers I hear that the line up changes at a good pace. I’ve also had the opportunity to taste Sense Appeal at home twice and though I have pulled some acceptable enough shots, but I have never had any luck pulling any shots that make me go out and want to buy more Sense Appeal coffee.
Sense Appeal usually has two Mahlkonig K30 Twins loaded with various offerings, usually having 3 different espressos to choose from. I love seeing variety and selection like this, but I have never visited the café when the selection was solid across the board, and sometimes some of the offerings have not been dialed in. Along with these grinders, two three group Della Corte machines are set up in a Lyonnaise kitchen design pattern that inspired Peter. One is the Evolutione and the other a DC Pro. The setup creates work stations for serving during a rush, which apparently there is lots in the morning. There is also a food preparation and serving area on the other side that gets a lot of attention within the operation.
Over the last year, I’ve seen some changes as the café has come along. The first time I came, I was hosted by Sameer, who was the Director of the Coffee Program when the shop first opened, before he opened and is now relocating Fahrenheit. He pulled some pretty nice shots, and I was wowed by his knowledge of the coffee we were tasting and the details that he was able to relate about preparation of the coffee. I was even more impressed by the shots as I was very hard pressed to come near to the same level with the coffee on my own.
During these initial days, many readers remarked on the attention to quality preparation from the staff. On my more recent visits, I’ve had the chance to watch the preparation and discuss coffee with the newly trained baristas. Clearly, the level that was set at the beginning is vastly different from the current knowledge and experience which definitely appears in the shots.
For example, on my last visit I was contemplating my coffee selection for my espresso when I asked the young barista for his description about the “D – El Duarte”. The response was that it was fruity and sweet and it was a personal favorite. I ended up choosing it and was commended for my choice. The dosing of the shot was not dialed in and the barista made a manual adjustment on the Malkonig. The shot was not timed, looked fast, and it looked to blonde about 10 seconds before the end. The shot was thin and had a harsh bitter astringency with a light caramel one-notedness. When I was asked for feedback, you know I wasn’t shy. I was then informed that the coffee had been roasted in the morning. Clearly something that I should have been warned about and probably not served.
The second shot I was offered was of a mix of Brazilians, the “AJ”. It’s preparation looked better, and the shot was a bit better. The nose had a bit of a medicinal smell with chocolate, and the shot was a single noted chocolate shot, also with some bitter astringency that ended in an earthy aftertaste.
These shots were among the worst ones I’ve had at their shop, but given the other shots that I’ve had in the last 6 months in the shop and the few times I’ve had Sense Appeal coffee at home, I would expect something a little better, but nothing which would put them in the first tier of coffee shops.
Conclusions: In a Pinch (Ratings Guide)
Making consistently great espresso is no small endeavor, let alone the art of sourcing and roasting coffee. Combine this with developing a food menu and you see that it is a very large task to do all with great competency. From the espresso side of things, I think both the quality of the beans and the preparation technique need improvement before I would consider any higher rating for Sense Appeal. Next time when I am down on Spadina, I will probably head over to the newest Crema which should be more promising, given the shots I’ve had at other locations.
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