Taster's choice Photo by Evans Vestal Ward

Taster's choice

Intelligentsia brightens Pasadena’s coffeehouse scene

By Dan O'Heron 04/21/2011

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In need of a good cup of coffee and a little bite to eat, I broke from my traditional Starbucks and elected to go to a new coffee house called Intelligentsia. But was it a wise choice? 
 
Ill at ease over the name Intelligentsia, I worried that I might be Mensa-carded at the front door, or made to feel out of place inside by not swishing coffee around in my mouth before swallowing. 
 
Isn’t equating coffee with “intelligence” an abnormal exultation? I mean, unless it’s hypocritically decaffeinated, or instant, isn’t coffee pretty much just coffee? Doesn’t it all come home to roast in burlap bag and taste about the same? 
 
At first glance, it was apparent that Intelligentsia — just like Starbucks — offered free office space to all comers except liberal spenders. Very few of the ubiquitous PCs were sided by cups or crumbs. Front and back, seated in old church pews, many customers, I suspect, were praying for such an indulgence.
 
While head-scratching over the name, I spotted an acquaintance seated at one of the many high-top, communal, reclaimed-wood tables. Speaking with a Harvard accent, it figured that he would have an affinity for a name like Intelligentsia.
 
Admitting to studying the Intelligentsia process, he went on to explain with enlightened judgment how they “understand the unique qualities of many varietal coffees — body, acidity, flavor and aroma — and the importance of blending and roasting locally.” It’s critical, he said, that beans, picked only from in-season trees, are roasted for the right amount of time at the right temperature.
 
“It’s the touchstone of refinement,” he said. “Ergo, if you drink a lot, why not make each cup as tasty as can be.” I was just smart enough to catch on. In days that followed I tasted four in-season coffees. My favorite was a Tanzania. Spicily scented, the simple cup of coffee became a likeable elixir 
 
For convenience and price, I’ll still be going to Starbucks, but now they’ll have to time-share me with Intelligentsia. And I won’t be longing anymore for casual joints like Old Pasadena’s E-Bar, where to make conversation I had to talk to some slack-limbed youth, slumped in lumpy couch and reading a Swedish newspaper on a stick. 
 
These days, apart from the free office-space rentals, there are few similarities between Intelligentsia and Starbucks. The triple espresso here is no more stimulating or addictive than the one I get at Starbucks — neither cup will get me in to see Betty Ford — but Intelligentsia’s is smoother and tastier enough to order a second cup.
 
Like coffee, small-plate food dandies here are carefully calibrated to adjust to the seasons and are marked for sharing. There’s an early spring look and a taste of young foliage unfolding in salads like $8 citrus segments among baby greens and fragrant fennel. And other salads are made nippy and nectarous with a honey-chipotle vinaigrette. 
 
For more hearty fare to share, there’s the charcuterie plate. A culinary state-of-pork-art, it includes locally cured salumi, highly seasoned and coarsely ground dry chorizo, American prosciutto and olives tucked into a baguette ($12).
 
By itself, in vanishingly thin ravels, the “American” prosciutto is much like the Italian classic except that it is seasoned and air-dried in Iowa — and it costs more. Just as sweet, but without a scintilla of metallic bitterness like in Italian meat, I liked it better and ordered a side that I didn’t share with anyone.
It’s also a delight to chip away at a $10 flight of salsa dips: pineapple-chipotle, black bean and corn, and pico de gallo queso fresca.
Leaving nothing to chance, in going for the good stuff, the $16 cheese platter, well-stocked by The Cheese Store of Pasadena, includes a special “Beamster” gouda from Holland with a nut-like flavor similar to edam but with a slightly creamier texture. It’s particularly good with red wines and boutique beers curated at a long bar by Bar Covell’s Matthew Kaner. 
 
Even soda pop has a special credibility: Beverages like Coca-Cola and the all-but-forgotten Blenheim Ginger Ale flow strictly from bottlers who still use natural sugars instead of corn syrup and brew only in glass bottles. The difference in taste between sodas 
in glass and those in plastic or aluminum is easy to discern — no gassy first swig, no aftertaste.
 
All in all, Intelligentsia is a smart place to sip and graze. And, reminded that H.G. Wells defined “intelligentsia” as “an irresponsible middle class with ideas,” I’ll never again feel outranked by the name. 

Intelligentsia
55 E. Colorado Blvd., Old Pasadena
(626) 578-1270
intelligentsiacoffee.com
Beer and wine

 

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