In a recent article Oliver Strand of the New York Times perfectly sums up George Howell’s legacy- he "has revolutionized how coffee is traded, roasted and prepared for the nearly 40 years he’s been in the business." What Strand doesn’t mention is that the prolific father (grandfather?) of American specialized coffee is at it again, this time with his Newtonville cafe, George Howell Coffee (previously Taste). Both space and concept have undergone several iterations over the years, acting perhaps as laboratory for Howell’s next big idea. With last week’s change the next revolution in American coffee might be upon us: a refocusing on coffee’s harmony with food. In addition to selling a range of hard-to-find bags of Terroir and serving up consistently excellent drinks of all kinds (cortado being my daily go-to), the cafe will now be serving a seasonal menu that changes daily.
To those of you who don’t live in Boston, or for those who do but don’t work out in the good coffee desert that is the suburbs like yours truly, it’s important that I point out George Howell is primarily a coffee shop. We suffer an embarrassment of riches in the Boston area when it comes to coffee, with many pilgrimage-worthy spots opening up all over for the at least the last year. Many have excellent pastries and snacks and a few have expanded, seasonal menus but none that I’m aware of change so often or focus so explicitly on this aspect of (lower case t) terroir.
Since renovating last spring George Howell’s menu was streamlined to highlight the famous beans (espresso, traditional cappuccinos, and coffee, both drip and pour over) with a compliment of pastries sourced from local producers like Danish Pastry House. They’d always had a small, pretty standard cafe menu with the somewhat whimsical addition of crepes, but this undertaking takes the food component in an entirely new direction.
Brooks Firth Bard is the manager at George Howell Coffee and, in my opinion, not only a great barista herself but curator of an entire staff of excellent baristas. She filled me in on why the cafe decided to take this unique step and, I imagine, massive logistical undertaking:
Our new menu is definitely an effort to have a more seasonal focus and a menu that pairs better with our coffee. We have some of the best coffee in the world and part of what makes it so special are the regional differences that you can taste from one coffee to another. This attention to origin and season should be in our food menu as well. Currently, we are taking full advantage of tomato season and really lightening everything up to make sure that our menu feels up-to-date with all these warm temperatures (the quinoa salad is both filling and super-light right now). We also have been getting a lot of attention from the gluten-free community and we want to make sure that we address that need with not just our fabulous pastries and bread from Glutenus Minimus, but also a salad menu that everyone can enjoy.
In its debut the daily menu offered a “frittata-style egg, fontina and argula on an english muffin" for $4.25 and a “pear and goat cheese" daily English muffin special for $5 along with Iggy’s bagels and toast (Dalmatio fig jam was on offer in addition to the standard butter or cream cheese). Among the lunch options were pressed sandwiches (smoked ham, gruyere, and cornichons on buttered Iggy’s sourdough sounded most alluring), a seasonal quinoa salad, and a Caprese or Golden Beet salad. The tomatoes and golden beets “layered on a bed of arugula and sprinkled with sliced almond and served with house made orange vinaigrette" became my lunch. Not only was it fresh and perfectly ripe, but the orange vinaigrette would pair beautifully with a shot of Burundi. Harmony achieved.
George Howell Coffee is located at 311 Walnut Street in Newtonville, MA. It’s just a bike or commuter rail ride away…