Twenty-something years ago, there was nothing but Waffle House coffee in Atlanta. The only cappuccino you could find was in a movie theater's vending machine. I'm exaggerating, but not by much. Things changed in 1992 when a couple from Seattle opened Aurora in Virginia-Highland and introduced the city to good espresso. It was an immediate hit. Our coffee palates grew up overnight.
Not long afterward, Starbucks and Caribou arrived. In fact, the latter established itself directly across the street from a new Aurora at the corner of Piedmont and Monroe. As has happened everywhere, the independent Aurora soon closed that location, unable to compete with the cozier, laptop-friendly Caribou and its comparatively wretched coffee. (The two other Aurora locations remain open and the Caribou is now gone too, beaten out by Starbucks at Ansley Mall.)
Over the years, more independents did establish themselves. But none has compared to Octane, which opened on Atlanta's Westside almost eight years ago. It would take pages to describe what makes the shop, owned by Tony and Diane Riffel, so unique. There's the French press coffees, the fascinating varieties, the great staff, the state-of-the art technology and the shop's advocacy of the arts. Above all, there is, for me, simply the best espresso I've tasted anywhere.
My drink is a doppio macchiato – two shots of espresso with a bit of foamed milk – and I'm typically lucky if the average barista even knows what it is. Octane's espresso, no matter the blend, is complex – unlike the over-roasted stuff at Starbucks – with an amazing number of flavors racing across the palate. The mouthfeel is slightly slippery, enriched by the milk foam added in exactly the right quantity.
Now I don't have to travel so far to enjoy perfection. The Riffels have opened another location of Octane (437 Memorial Drive, Suite A5, phone number pending) in the rear of the Jane complex in Grant Park. It has been in planning for over a year. Initially, Tony Rifffel told me, he planned to rent a space facing Memorial, near the hugely popular Six Feet Under. But then he expanded his plans and there's actually more to be enjoyed at the new, hugely-windowed location.
Riffel met Sarah O'Brien, a pastry chef, who was also looking for a location in the area with her husband Deon Kay. The three ended up deciding to share the large space. O'Brien has sold her pastries at farmers markets around town under the label of Little Tart Bakeshop and is not surprisingly passionate about using healthy local ingredients. She and Kay met while students at Brown. They ended up traveling the world and moved here from Paris, where O'Brien worked two stints in bakeries as an unpaid intern. She says her ongoing obsessive goal is to make the perfect croissant. She's close.
The shop needed a large space, too, because Octane will soon begin roasting its own beans on the premises. Finally, Riffel also decided to include a bar selling craft beers, wine and meticulously designed cocktails.
The big novelty here is the food. Besides O'Brien's bakery goods, the new shop is offering a light dinner and snack menu prepared by Julia Schneider who moved to Atlanta after getting a BA in advertising at Michigan State. She landed at the Art Institute of Atlanta's culinary program.
I've sampled Schneider's menu twice. The first evening I had slices of pedigreed pear from Washington State, topped with prosciutto and garnished with something like a cold chimichurri salsa. The effect was surprising. Who would think pears could stand up to garlic? The plate also included a large slice of warmed Port-Salut with crunchy crostini.
O'Brien is making the desserts for the evening menu and I ordered her lavender and blackberry-honey panna cotta, a quick transit to meals I had in the Luberon during the lavender harvest years ago. I'd like a stronger note of lavender myself, but, my god, I want this creamy dessert anyway I can get it.
My next meal's tastiness surprised me; it's not the kind of thing I typically go for. It was a sandwich stacked with two fried eggs, heirloom tomatoes, pancetta and caramelized onion butter. It was served with a cup of smooth habaero salsa that you absolutely should spread on the bun. A big serving of lightly dressed mixed greens was also on the plate. The sandwich is a messy delight. It's made on a spongy pain de mie bun that doesn't really stand up to the egg's yolk once you bite into it. I ended up eating a good portion of it with my fork and knife.
Following the second meal, I passed on O'Brien's chocolate cake and ate a shortbread cookie and hazelnut biscotti with my Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong tea. During morning visits I've also tried her cake made with ground almonds and a crispy scone speckled with dried apricots and candied ginger, probably my favorite so far. Give the caramel-bacon popcorn a taste, too. You need a new addiction.
I asked Riffel what he thinks makes Octane so special. "Passion," he said quickly. "I hire passionate people and as a result we have very low turnover."
"How does a person become passionate about coffee?" I asked.
"Oh," he said, "I mean passionate about something, not necessarily coffee itself."
Whatever grander passion you have, Octane can now fuel your passion for stellar pastries and light, healthy food to accompany cocktails that will reportedly be as refined as the coffee drinks.
I could seriously live on their deviled eggs fried green tomatoes.
Always great to see new concepts in Atlanta, especially the pay-an-arm-and-a-leg-for-finger-food-and-overrated-cocktails variety.
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