Into the Umisphere

We favour coffeehouses that feed the soul. This is, after all, an artistic inquiry, and art is about soul. Umi, on Chinatown's fringes at Somerset and Percy, satisfies.

You can often discern much about coffee joints from their design ethos. (So much depends/on a red wheelbarrow...*) Starbucks artfully camouflages a cookie-cutter tendency, yet all outlets bear the stamp of centralized corporate design dicta. Second Cup, ditto except on a smaller budget. Locally, Bridgehead differentiates itself with a slightly self-conscious blend of environmental hipness and industrial cool, shifting its semi-standard palette of design elements from outlet to outlet.

Umi is a bohemian one-off (our blog friend Robin K gently labels it 'screwy'), mainly pouring very good Central American beans (decafs are fresh-pulled Americanos). Gauzy deep blue drapes set off sunset orange walls. There's a library of well worn books, odd potted plants, a counter with a view onto the street (and into the Tang Coin Laundry). Wall art blends ironic feather-bedaubed black velvet with more serious oils. An aged white piano is in one corner, a neat stack of amplifiers and microphone stands in another, for weekend open stages. The effect is more chaotic than in the big chains, and yet, for us, more comfortably lived-in. The look is of evolving creativity.

People who go out to drink coffee, we find, gravitate toward reflections of their mental self-images. Of a morning, you'll find the well-dressed "grab some jet fuel and swoosh downtown to work" types at Second Cup and Starbucks. Table customers' lappies tend to be Windows machines. Those at Bridgehead tend to dress in earthier fashionable garb and often linger a bit longer, lined up with their backs to the walls to better display their mating plumage: white MacBooks, MacBook Pros for alpha types.

Uminauts can sometimes observe daring new mommies with ute-strollers, speaking of their husbands' rises in the Tory hierarchy, but the Umi look biases heavily toward 'urban artist'. Clothes are fashionable after their own fashion, but often not in the sense of any current designer other than the wearer. Laptops are in evidence, but there's less emphasis on WiFi Wanker brand flashing. From a scuffed duffle a riotgrrl may pull out a machine swathed in asymmetrical duct tape, as much to nullify a logo as to to strap it together.

Feeding one's soul aside, actual food items also reflect differing sensibilities. Starbucks caters to a distressing Americanized proclivity to vastly oversweeten everything, and make it huge. Bridgehead's treats are less sickly sweet, and sandwiches comprise earthy breads and creative fillings, often vegetarian. Umi's do too. But the real grabbers are the unassuming looking little dark chocolate with jalapeño cookies, in a basket near the cash register. They set off coffee in a way that is liable to knock your socks off if you care about details. We do.

Umi's open stages bear mention: they're higher-energy than any similar events we've seen in years. Artists and sell-out crowds are bright-eyed yet relaxed. Bands, soloists, poets and other spoken word artists, in any style you want, and just about all of it exciting and good. We like that musicians and crowds separated by less than a metre interact freely, supportively and humourously. We like that poets are applauded with loud finger-snapping. We like that Umi's counter staff can be coaxed out to perform a very credible spoken word/urban music rap. We also like the fact that everybody there, performer and watcher, is palpably excited about new art being made in real time. Umi is a hot medium. That's cool by us.


The semiotics of Nescafé

To all of you who have arrived here recently via Google, trying, apparently, to understand the semiotics of that series of Nescafé ads where a man and the woman borrow instant coffee, exchange meaningful looks, and converse archly, before finally getting to the romantic part: Welcome! It's not really what we're about, here, but you're certainly welcome to rummage around a bit. Perhaps (they said... archly) we can give you other ideas...


Field trip to the Glebe

Nothing like a boutique espresso, from people that roast their own...


Somewhat further outside the (alleged) box

Tuesday, June --, 200-.

On the way
to a familiar place
they left,
turned left,
somewhat further
outside the

ordered tuna maki
and perrier
and praised the sushi
sucked bubble tea
through a straw
-- mango? --
chewed dark gummy bubbles
with contemplative difficulty
puzzling out
their obscure flavour,
then opined,
'possibly blackcurrent';

It was a point of honour
not to ask the waitress,
who was Lucy Liu in a
Shanghai cowgirl outfit
taking an
incognito night
off from the
Hollywood rat race;

All present
cheered themselves
for leaving
comfort zones
blue and green walls,
there may
have been
sufficient caffeine
in the bubble tea,
and only trace amounts
of lead
in the Perrier.


Solo III

Wednesday, June -, 20-

Independent c-shop


Last time I was in the UK I noticed an upsurge in coffeeshops
I remember a place that used to roast coffee and the smell was wonderful, out in the street
When I was a boy
I used to walk by there on the way to school
One of those childhood memories
Then coffee went the way of... everything went to instant
Instant coffee bars, Nescafe and this stuff with crystals
I left the UK in my early twenties

Starbucks over there a lot now
A lot of these chains
Yeah they’re starting to do real coffee again
It’s not just about the coffee, it’s going in, sitting down, reading the newspaper
Everything comes back around again
There’s nothing new
Samuel Johnson
My memories of Turkish coffee
The smaller the cup, the stronger the coffee

One place we were looking for ping pong balls
Try to explain ping pong balls to
We decided to send a couple of kids to look for them, pay the kids to
A girl who was six and a boy who was probably three
Talked to the parents and they shoved the boy forward, he was clueless
We wanted the girl to go
Finally managed to explain to the parents what we wanted
Five Egyptian pounds, their eyes were wide
We walked by the store, how’d they know there were ping pong balls here
Anyway we saw the kids later walking up with baskets of kale and greens
Obviously spent their five pounds
Interesting how they kept pushing the boy forward
Nothing wrong with having the girl do it
Encourage equality wherever possible

I remember went in for a shave
There was a little kid with a cutthroat razor
I was a little perturbed
What’s your name, son, Sweeney?
It was a very close shave, a good shave

Even if you’re aware of the local customs, you’re not always aware of what your travelling companions are doing or not doing, so that can be a problem


Solo II

Tuesday, June -, 20-

Ottawa South BH


He was one of the original investors, did you know?

Back when

put some money in

at the time

coffeeshops in Toronto are getting really...

Bye Jennifer

Bye Tim, thank you!

like, the most expensive coffee in the world

huh huh huh huh huh huh ha ha ha ha ha



I wasn't

like what happened with wine

people with lots of money who are looking for

Tim Horton's has their customers, they're loyal

a dollar sixty seven for a small why not?

oh yeah and when I travel I look for them, I know what I'm going to get

she might be coming back now because she asked me

I can't stay at my friend's house anymore


she phoned

well anyway


Caffeine IV: Strange Brew

Second Cup has been on the Canadian upscale coffee scene since 1975, with mixed success. Perhaps it comes by its name because it gets things half-right, so needs two cups to fill expectations. In general, the Second Cup experience falls somewhere between Starbucks and Tim Hortons. It sells coffee at upscale prices, but pinches pennies obviously - a cabal of stringent bean counters offering astringent beans.

Since the early part of this decade, it's been owned first by Cara Operations - caterer to students and airlines - and later something called Dinecorp Hospitality, headed by a former Cara CEO. The affiliations may not inspire confidence among current and former Cara-feteria diners, aware of Cara's parsimony. Food was all 'bidness' and mouths were mere units. So, Cara and luxury coffee may appear to be a schizophrenic match, and in fact the Second Cup experience reflects this in some ways.

In Ottawa, the chain often matches Starbucks outlets corner for street corner, but seems to be trying to do it on a more restrained budget. Certainly Second Cups have the the iconic large espresso pumps, and many are possessed of large potted plants and big comfy chairs grouped around gas fireplaces. These are nice touches for people looking for a cosy little upscale experience for the price of a coffee. Inside, correct colours have been carefully selected by decorating consultants, staff are personable, but the spaces remain feeling barer and acoustically more live than is desirable. For the Ultra Cosmic Top Sekrit Project to succeed, acoustics are important. The Second Cup's distract. True luxury enfolds one in discrete muting. If one accepts the proposition that upscale is warm, the gestalt here is cooler than it should be, even for Marshall McLuhan.

And Second Cup's current logo, like its retail spaces, sports a somewhat stripped feel. Earlier logo iterations were gold leaf on darker backgrounds, often in three-dimensional carved wood. Artistically, they looked edgier and more stylized. An interim version attempted to duplicate the wood in thick Styrofoam. Closer than, say, five metres, it looked like the cheese it was. The current minimalist version is a one-dimensional, bland, over-homogenized pabulum of commercial art cliches that substitutes painted drop shadows for actual depth.

SC's trademark brew bouquet is emblematic also: it's a lighter roast than that favoured by Starbucks - thinner-bodied, fruitier and more acidic on the palate. In earlier times, espresso drinks sometimes tasted of coffee tinted dishwater, rather than the requisite velvet darkness, because baristas drew so inconsistently. Latter-day coffee machines may have cured this, but as in the case of Starbucks, automation reduces the luxurious sense that a skilled artisan is crafting a small treasure just for you.