222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza Suite 1212, Chicago 60654 – Four out of five wheels rating
This is Part II of The Cycle Cafe’s recent visit to Chicago. Our intel report this time was sourced from a past colleague who recently relocated from Seattle to Chicago. His tip led us to Intelligentsia Coffee which was said to give hope for coffee snobs visiting Chicago from Seattle.
Intelligentsia Coffee was started in 1995 in Chicago by two migrants from San Francisco who wanted to bring fresh roast coffee to their cafe and to Chicago. Intelligentsia has a good social ethic that supports “Direct Trade” practices. The business seems to be flourishing as they now have three California locations: Los Angeles, Pasadena,Venice; four in Chicago and training labs in New York City and Atlanta.
Chicago’s four spots include the original location at 3123 North Broadway, Millennium Park, the Monadnock Building and the 1871 bar on the twelfth floor of the Merchandise Mart. Visiting all of the cafes was not possible for us and we only had time for one. We chose the 1871 coffee bar housed inside of the mammoth Merchandise Mart, a hub for the design and furnishing world, plus much more. We used the west entrance off North Orleans St. for direct access to the elevators to reach the twelfth floor.
This Intelligentsia Coffee location is partnered with 1871 “a co-working center for digital start-ups”. The partnership is setup to help fuel innovation in action. The interior of the coffee bar was designed by Gensler a leading architecture and design firm. It has a spartan aesthetic with exposed conduits, ductwork and painted building structure. Quirky light fixtures with a mashup of exposed lamps fit right in, however, they created a harsh overhead lightscape that is heavy on the head and reflects starkly off the stainless steel surfaces in the space. The bounding walls are composed of steel studs visible through a metal mesh skin. An exposed brick back wall supporting a continuous stand up bar within the seating area adds a complimenting texture and a human scale to the space.
The lone barista, busy cleaning what appeared to be a coffee pot at the sink, took no notice of us as we entered the cafe and stood at the coffee bar for what seemed like a modern digital era eternity. As we waited, we were entertained by the lone pastry remaining in the adjacent display case. It stared at us longingly, with hopes of being consumed, for it was nearing closing time and it was soon to be fated to a cellophane wrap and the day old pastry platter. We began to question if they were still open and decided to call out to the barista who was now tuning the iPod for closing ceremonies. Startled into action he eagerly ran over to help us. He showed delight at our request for a straight espresso and we were given a choice of two different blends to select from, one being a seasonal. This was a satisfying touch. We selected the Black Cat blend, the standard of Intelligentsia. We appreciated his phrasing of a question asking, “if we will be sitting with our espresso?” This gracefully addressed the issue and tragic idea of an espresso being served in a paper to go cup. He was pleased with our answer and to our delight immediately served us a seltzer water then set about his work with noticeable care and concentration. The espresso was served in a lovely cup with saucer that was graced by a delicate spoon with a particularly nice line. The crema had a delicious reddish brown color and was promisingly consistent across the surface. The aroma was light and the crema was just a touch on the thin side. While not particularly robust, we found the flavor to be appealing, it finished smoothly with a sweetness that developed into a delayed lingering finish.
Intelligentsia Coffee, your 1871 coffee bar was enjoyable and the attention to design elements was appreciated. The barista’s interest in creating an espresso experience was well done. We give you a 4 out of 5 wheels rating. You received high marks for the experience and for the espresso being served unprompted with a seltzer. We enjoyed the flavor of the espresso and wanted more aroma as well as a richer and thicker crema. We look forward to a future opportunity to visit your other locations and to try a seasonal espresso blend.
Our insider recommendations paid off for our visit to Chicago and allowed us to find two worthy sources of an espresso experience at: Intelligentsia Coffee and our part I review Bar Toma.
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