By Michael Nagrant
I hate coffee houses. It’s true, they are a fascinating study in anthropology, what with Bugaboo stroller-toting moms standing shoulder to shoulder with patchouli-scented Birkenstock-clad granola girls and guys clutching soy lattes copping free air conditioning and laptop zombies milking a three-dollar cappuccino for eight hours of free power to get their Internet start-up off the ground. But in the end, that mix is a volatile powderkeg, where people flash you death stares if you think about sharing their power outlet or stealing the other half of that table for ten they commandeered for themselves and their silicon army of Apple products.
As a freelance writer who works mostly from my couch, err, office, you’d think I’d like to get out and mingle with humanity. And I would, were the spirit of the original European salons still in effect, where rivals and the likeminded gathered for debate and to get a little drunk. But I find it’s really tough to compete with the constant turbo-whine of the milk frother or carry on a conversation with dudes who have $300 Grado can-style headphones strapped to their ears so they can listen to their compressed audio files.
Still, I love coffee, which means I need to set foot in a coffeehouse once in a while. Sure I could make it at home, and I do, but I’m also a purist, which means since I can’t afford $700 dollars of quality espresso equipment (get a Rancilio Rocky grinder and Silvia espresso machine at a minimum if you want good crema on your espresso, if you have the cash), I French press it. And French pressing means grinding fresh beans, usually from freshly roasted Intelligentsia (La Perla de Oaxaca is my favorite bean when it’s in season), filtering cold water, heating that water to about 205 degrees Fahrenheit—do not boil or you’ll have burnt beans—steeping ground beans for four minutes in that hot water, pressing the entire mixture and then pouring.
Lest you think I’m crazy for not rocking the Mr. Coffee, try it. It’ll cost you about $20 of initial capital and ten minutes of your time everyday, but it’ll blow the doors off even Starbucks, which kicked barista craft to the curb years ago in favor of automatic machines. Even my wife, who thinks I’m the John Wayne Gacy of foodie freaks, stopped drinking the coffee at her work, because she says it pales in comparison to the French-pressed stuff at home.
Still, this man can not live on French press alone, and despite its retro Marty McFly-era “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance-design scheme, I keep finding myself among other places stopping in at Swim Café (1357 West Chicago) pretty regularly for an espresso. At first, it wasn’t by choice. Rather, a cosmic cabal of unrelated chefs and food entrepreneurs kept asking me to meet them there for story interviews. After a while, I just kept stopping in of my own volition.
I should have figured out the reason quality-conscious and price-sensitive food-biz folks always want to meet there is because Swim serves fair-trade coffee, fresh-brewed ice tea (great ginger hibiscus) and baked goods, grilled panini, soups and salads all made with farm-fresh ingredients at a reasonable price.
As another degree of obliviousness, even though I’d probably been there about ten times in the last year, I’d never written about it. When you start writing about food, it’s hard not to get caught up in the cycle of reviewing the newest and hottest thing, or only looking at haute cuisine. Swim had fallen into the black hole of places I took for granted. Until last week when I found myself chowing down on their Cuban panino, a mélange of zingy pickles, tender roast pork and rich ham on crunchy brioche accented with perfect parallel food-porn-style grill marks.
As I inhaled their mixed green salad accented with a splash of balsamic vinegar and smoky roasted red pepper strips, I remembered that I’d been pretty hard on Vella Café’s panini in a review I wrote this summer. I realized that’s because I’d eaten almost all the panini at Swim in the last year, including the great Roma version featuring delicious salty prosciutto, pliant creamy mozzeralla and anise perfumed basil on uniformly crenulated grilled foccacia, and this is what I had expected and missed. Indeed, there’s still plenty of the laptop and stroller mafia holding court at Swim, but there’s no damn way they’ll stand in the way of my achievement of panini nirvana.
Swim Café, 1357 West Chicago, (312)492-8600