Whipped McGrath Farms Tahitian squash soup with coffee-chile crème fraîche and whole-wheat croutons? Hand-chopped arctic char tartare turned out like a terrine with quatre épices? Spicy chocolate-chipotle mousse with avocado purée and crushed sweetened tortilla chips? The past few months have seen a lot of fascinating new restaurants open in Los Angeles, but the most interesting of them all may be a coffee shop in the restaurant-starved heart of Silver Lake, a place whose menu is designed by Providence’s Michael Cimarusti and Adrian Vasquez, and whose owners are devoted to the cult of coffee in the same way that a chapel might be dedicated to its saint. The cinnamon French toast is pretty good too, as are the salmon-pink slices of cured Tasmanian sea trout sprinkled with crème fraîche, tiny rice crackers and crushed wasabi peas; the Asian BLTs constructed from spiced pork belly; and the drink called Coffee and a Doughnut, which tastes exactly like a jelly doughnut dunked in joe.
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Coffee savant Eton Tsuno at work
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Snap, crackle and trout
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Unzipped: Hot Eva Solo
It’s hard, in fact, to figure out exactly what La Mill might be — a lunchroom, a tearoom, a café, or a wine bar serving aged Sumatran peaberry instead of Bordeaux. What is clear is that no brew-pub impresario, no sushi master is more serious about his product than La Mill’s self-styled “Coffee Savant” Eton Tsuno, its equivalent of a rock-star sommelier. When he crouches alongside your table, discussing the fine points of coffee terroir or explaining why one bean expresses itself better in a siphon pot, one in the Clover machine and another in the supercharged carafe called Eva Solo, and why you could have your coffee prepared in a Chemex pot or a French press but probably shouldn’t, you know you’re not at Starbucks anymore.
La Mill, a sleek dining room done up in a sort of pomo Hollywood Regency extreme enough to give Cecil Beaton pause, may not really be set up for the appetizer-entrée thing. What would seem to be the main courses are basically the same size and price as the apparent starters; the panini, served with olives, pickled cippolini onions and a metal cup of freshly fried potato chips, are filling on their own, and even the sandwich made with peanut butter, bananas and melted dark chocolate could be a meal.
The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.
The new face of coffee is neither Juan Valdez nor a gum-snapping waitress named Madge, or even Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, but a postmodern barista like Tsuno, spiked hair and a gauzy shirt, stirring a siphon of Sumatran peaberry with the pouty insouciance of Jimmy Page executing a guitar solo, while awestruck customers study every flick of his long fingers. The first few days La Mill was open, the restaurant was filled with the coffeehouse equivalent of the dudes who work behind the counters of indie record stores, the ones who sneer at you when you come up to the cash register with Amy Winehouse instead of Olivia Tremor Control, except talking about Ethiopian beans and Clover settings and atmospheres of pressure instead of pawnshop amplifiers and Epiphone guitars, and the dude behind the espresso machine was drawing tawny, lead-dense doubles that didn’t quite film the bottom of the cup.
Tsuno is an artist devoted to a sort of ascetic perfectionism that only rarely considers the actual consumer. His famous Coffee and Cigarettes, which has temporarily been taken off the menu, is a shot of espresso fortified with tobacco-infused cream, which is lovely to behold perched on a clear acrylic plinth, but which packs the nervous wallop of a dozen nonfilter Camels. (If you’ve been searching for an alternative use for the packet of Drum you haven’t managed to throw away since you quit smoking, you’ve come to the right place.) One of the special Kenyan coffees has a mellow but distinct back note of hot tomato soup — lovely, even a summit of the roaster’s art, but perhaps not what you have in mind for your morning cup of joe.
Tsuno is working with pastry chef Vazquez to produce coffee pearls, dime-size spheres of lightly jelled coffee that will explode into liquid when you take them into your mouth. If there were a way to transform coffee into a test tube full of gas, or an ointment, or a spectrum of light, Tsuno would probably be on that too. The other day, he presented my table with his newest creation, a perfected version of the café con leche he would have enjoyed in Miami if the old Cuban guys behind the bar didn’t overextract the coffee. Tsuno’s version involves brown sugar sprinkled over the ground coffee that caramelizes into a host of sweet, smoky flavors when he runs it through the machine, and although it is almost certainly the best café con leche I have ever tasted, his version includes four extra-strength shots of espresso, which is basically enough caffeine to induce a cardiac event.
It isn’t easy to adjust ambitious food to make it go with the extreme flavor profile of this sort of coffee, but Cimarusti is doing his best. The frisée aux lardons, a chicory salad with plenty of Niman Ranch bacon and a runny poached egg, is dressed in a coffee-scented vinaigrette, and the delicious pressed sandwich of piquillo peppers, Spanish chorizo and cheese is made with Farcell, a Catalan cow’s-milk cheese whose rind is traditionally washed with coffee, which gives it a tangy, smoky quality that does in fact go with the bean. The potato-leek soup with clams, a simplified facsimile of Providence’s famous chowder, is spiked with enough bacon to make the coffee pairing work.
But even Cimarusti’s cooking is upstaged by the coffee here. When you order that aged Sumatran peaberry in the Eva Solo, a waitress sets down a willowy carafe encased in tight, zippered neoprene, like a fitted wetsuit on a supermodel, and starts the seconds ticking on an electronic egg timer. When the alarm buzzes, she is already back at the table, undoing the heavy zipper with her long fingers, breaking the thick crust that has formed on the surface of the coffee. She stirs until the grounds settle to the bottom. She flourishes a thin metal-mesh cone that looks like something Jean-Paul Gaultier might have affixed to a bustier a decade ago, and plunges it deep into the murky liquid. A second later, there is clear, limpid coffee in your cup, light-roasted, tart, smelling rather more of fruits and flowers than of whatever it is Starbucks peaberry smells like. It has been explained to you that the Eva Solo method reproduces the experience of cupping, the way that professional roasters taste coffee. All I know is that I have never tasted coffee quite like this before coming to La Mill, winy zippiness accentuated instead of chocolate thunder, and I used to consider myself pretty serious about what I put into my French press. I must be stuck in the second wave. La Mill Coffee Boutique, 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 663-4441. Tues.-Sun. 7 a.m.–7 p.m. (Extended dinner hours, including late weekend hours, begin March 18.) No alcohol. Takeout. AE, MC, V. Pastries run $3-$4; savory dishes $12-$16; desserts $8-$9. Recommended dishes: Yukon gold/leek soup; ABLT; cured Tasmanian sea trout.