I’ll call for pen and ink, and write my mind

22 Mar My red Lamy Safari with a 1.5mm italic nib; a bottle of J. Herbin 1670 "Rouge Hematite" ink, my personal favorite; and a Wordsworth quote on Crane & Co. triple hairline stationery.

Years ago, while working in politics, the personal power of handwritten correspondence was impressed upon me. Like most people my age, I had never really bothered with writing by hand – not when I could type 100+ words per minute (yes, really). The act of writing out even a postcard made my fingers cramp and my shoulder ache.

Something about it stuck with me, though. The way that a handwritten note was almost instantly memorable; the reactions people had to the thoughtfulness of a letter over an e-mail. I bought some nice Crane & Co. stationery for a little extra “oomph” when I wanted or needed it. Then (as some of you may recall) a friend led me to Bibliographica journals, and that was another step up in my treatment of the written word.

While I was raving about my new journal to everybody I knew, my buddy Torvic said, rather offhandedly, “I’m surprised you don’t use fountain pens.” That was two years ago; now, 9 pens, 10 bottles of ink, I think seven Bibliographica journals (two mine, the rest gifts for friends/family), one wax seal, and countless stationery/notebooks/journals later – not to mention my ceaseless babbling about this newfound obsession hobby – I wonder if he regrets opening that door.

A Kaweco "Student" fountain pen in blue; one Leuchtturm1917 pocket notebook, dot grid, in orange; my Bibliographica "Nomad" journal; and a bottle of the now-discontinued Caran d'Ache "Storm" ink.

A Kaweco “Student” fountain pen in blue; one Leuchtturm1917 pocket notebook, dot grid, in orange; my Bibliographica “Nomad” journal; and a bottle of the now-discontinued Caran d’Ache “Storm” (purple) ink.

One thing I quickly discovered is that there is an enormous and (to me at least) surprisingly active community of similar fountain pen fanatics around the world. I suppose this is true of any new hobby – once you start looking, you realize it’s everywhere. Ink reviews, pen reviews, paper reviews. Reviews of THIS ink in THOSE pens on THAT paper, or THAT ink in THIS pen in THOSE journals. Lingo and definitions (do you know what feathering, wet noodles, bleeding, nib creep, superflex, ebonite feeds, stubs, and converters all mean? I do!) It’s all out there. Rather than overwhelming, I found it fascinating.

By the way, I owe a huge shout-out and debt of gratitude at this point to the incomparable Stephen Brown, whose YouTube channel and depth of fountain pen expertise has been an endlessly reliable source of excellent information, and to the Goulet Pen Company, a family-owned small business who have provided a wonderful personal touch to any investment I’ve made in the hobby and also given me loads of info through their founder Brian’s “Ink Nouveau” blog. Thanks, Stephen, and thanks, (Brian) Goulet!

The Kaweco "Student" again, and the Nomad journal

The Kaweco “Student” again, and the Nomad journal

After some research, I started with the pen that many new FP hobbyists start with: a Lamy Safari [actually, I remembered that my FIRST pen was in fact a Lamy Logo, followed rapidly by a Safari]. These [the Safaris] are relatively inexpensive pens, about $20 to $30. I know that probably sounds like a lot if you’re used to writing with a 2-cent Bic, but considering that many fountain pens cost THOUSANDS of dollars, this is pretty cheap. Safaris are built like tanks (out of the same plastic used to make Lego), they break down completely for cleaning and maintenance, and you can swap the nibs. That means you can have one pen and write in different line sizes, from extra-fine hairlines to huge 1.9mm “italics” (many pens, you’re stuck with the nib size you get when you buy it). You can also get a special insert for Safaris called a converter, so that you can use bottled inks – and once you do that, the fun of fountain pens starts to really open up.

J. Herbin "Vert Reseda" (spearmint green) and a dip pen

J. Herbin “Vert Reseda” (spearmint green) and a dip pen

There are, and I’m not exaggerating, hundreds of fountain pen inks. One particularly prolific company based in Massachusetts, called Noodlers, makes well over a hundred just in their own brand, and there are dozens of brands.*

J. Herbin "1670 Rouge Hematite" and Crane & Co. stationery

J. Herbin “1670 Rouge Hematite” and Crane & Co. stationery

When you start with inks, you discover that colors aren’t what you thought they were. For instance, it turns out that blue is not necessarily blue. I have three blue inks, and they run the gamut from a dark, almost denim blue (Noodlers Ottoman Azure), to a slightly violet lighter blue (J. Herbin Eclat de Saphir, the first bottled ink I purchased), to Iroshizuku “kon-peki,” which is a sort of topaz. There are violet-blues, green-blues, “true” blues, and blue-blacks (and by the way, black isn’t necessarily black, either). There are greens, purples, yellows, oranges, greys, reds, pinks, green-blacks. There are “luxury” inks (Iroshizuku, the ink you see in the picture below, is a very pricey ink: I received this bottle as a gift) and more utilitarian inks (Waterman “Serenity Blue,” formerly called Florida Blue, is a rock-solid benchmark ink, for example; or Parker Quink). There are even controversial inks: the aforementioned Noodlers produces an especially vibrant and robust blue called Baystate Blue that can practically set off fistfights in the FP community.

Iroshizuku kon-peki, a favorite

Iroshizuku kon-peki, a favorite

Inks have different properties, too – you’ll hear FP fanatics talk about how an ink “behaves.” How easily an ink flows makes a big difference in whether it writes very “dry,” or more “wet” (how much ink goes down with a stroke of the pen). Some dry quickly on the page, others take ages. There are quick-dry inks, lubricating inks, waterproof inks, tamper-resistant inks, fluorescent inks, and, yes, invisible inks. Some inks are more “saturated” – that is, they contain more particles of pigment than others, which can lead to problems if the ink dries out and you end up with a clogged pen. Reds are notably saturated, and my favorite ink of all – J. Herbin “1670 Rouge Hematite” – is pretty gunky. But this is a sensational blood red ink with a greenish gold sheen that is simply, indescribably, spectacular: you have to see it for yourself, in person, to appreciate it. It also comes in a very kickass bottle.

J. Herbin 1670 Rouge Hematite, my overall favorite ink

J. Herbin 1670 Rouge Hematite, my overall favorite ink

Then there’s paper. Some paper is better than others for fountain pen use, and that’s when you start to learn and appreciate the difference between, say, Leuchtturm1917 pocket notebooks vs. Moleskine (spoiler alert: go for the Leuchtturm!) Some paper “bleeds” – the ink shows through on the back. Some “feathers” – the capillary action of the fibers in the paper draws the ink around and makes writing look fuzzy or blobby. Some is glassy smooth (a quality that is generally favored by fountain pen writers, and includes brands like Clairefontaine or Rhodia); some is quite textured (such as G. Lalo Verge de France, my go-to stationery for personal letters).

Of course, the pens themselves vary widely. Plastic, aluminum, rubber, cellulose, resin; new, vintage; prices that run from the $3 Platinum Preppy up to multi-thousand-dollar limited edition monstrosities…though when it comes to writing, the body of the pen tends to matter less than the nib, the thing that actually applies the ink to the page. And the nibs are all different, too – in line width, in material, in flexibility, in smoothness of writing; steel, gold, flex, “nails,” stubs, italics, obliques. My Lamy nibs tend to be a bit less smooth, for instance (though some writers prefer the feeling of a “toothy” nib on the page), whereas my Faber-Castell “e-motion” is a stunningly smooth writer.

My smoothest-writing (and most treasured) pen, the Faber-Castell e-motion with pearwood; my original Bibliographica journal; and Iroshizuku kon-peki ink.

My smoothest-writing (and most treasured) pen, the Faber-Castell e-motion in pearwood; my original Bibliographica journal; and Iroshizuku kon-peki ink.

Yes, it can all be a bit complex and overwhelming. But then, you hit just the right combination of factors and get a blissfully pleasant writing experience. The right ink, in the right pen, on the right paper. For me, recently, it happened when I put a sample I had of Noodlers Cactus Fruit Eel (a very punchy purple-pink which is “lubricated” to provide better ink flow) into my newest pen (a Kaweco Student) and wrote a note on some Clairefontaine Triomphe stationery. The combo was so buttery smooth that the pen practically floated across the page. I wanted to write, and write, and write.

Yep: you can do wax seals, too.

Yep: you can do wax seals, too.

The question, of course, is why bother with all the hassle. A disposable ballpoint is, frankly, an engineering marvel; gel pens and rollerballs are smoother than a Bic; and, truth be told, fountain pens can be kind of a pain in the ass. You have to clean them a lot, sometimes they just refuse to write (I have a Parker IM Premium that’s a definite problem child), you can run out of ink unexpectedly while out and about somewhere and be stuck with an expensive and useless lump.** So why do I like this?

Well, there are a few reasons. I don’t really have any other hobbies – ok, travel and photography, but I mean a hobby in the sense of a tactile habit. I find the finicky fiddly nature of the pens surprisingly engaging. I actually enjoy spending time breaking the pens down, cleaning them out, and inking them back up with a new color. I like the variety of colors and inks; I like the beauty of the pens themselves; I like the way it feels to write with one (yes, it does feel different than a Bic or a rollerball, and yes, it feels better). Yes, I admit, I like the slightly nostalgic affectation of writing with them. I like that they make me want to write. I can, and have, spent entire days at my desk with these things.

My red Lamy Safari with a 1.5mm italic nib; a bottle of J. Herbin 1670 "Rouge Hematite" ink, my personal favorite; and a Wordsworth quote on Crane & Co. triple hairline stationery.

My red Lamy Safari with a 1.5mm italic nib; a bottle of J. Herbin 1670 “Rouge Hematite” ink, my personal favorite; and a Wordsworth quote on Crane & Co. triple hairline stationery.

And mostly, it goes back to what started it all. Here’s something fun: write somebody a letter, a note, or a card. Doesn’t matter who. Doesn’t have to be on the most elegant stationery, or in a crazy ink color, or with a fountain pen. Doesn’t have to contain any profound depths of philosophical musings. Just get a nice blank card, or a plain piece of paper, jot down a few thoughts about your day, tell them you were thinking of them, and send it off. See what kind of reaction you get. Then never, ever, ever buy a Hallmark card ever again.

I love Facebook, and What’s App, and e-mail, and the 24/7 interconnectedness of modern life. Wouldn’t trade any of that for anything. But I do love the reaction people have these days to receiving “real” mail. It’s fantastic. Earlier this year I started corresponding with my grandfather, and in one of his letters he told me that he almost took a job in Spain back in the 1950s. Nobody in my family had ever known that. Never would have happened by e-mail.

And that’s really why I get such pleasure from this. It gives me something I enjoy spending time on, and from that I get the opportunity to bring some small joy to people I love. To me, that’s more than worth it.

*As a side note, I’m rather fond of Noodlers, in particular the aforementioned Ottoman Azure (blue), Apache Sunset (an ink that “shades,” that is appears lighter in some places and darker in others, rather gorgeously between a light sunny yellow and a deep autumn pumpkin), Black Swan in Australian Roses (another great shader running the gamut from reddish-purple-black), and Noodlers Black (…which is black, and the only black I own – tend not to care for black ink. Boring! But they’re sort of a necessity and this is a very good, waterproof one).

**One thing that I bet you’re thinking but which is more or less false: don’t they leak? No. Modern fountain pens don’t leak. Not even on planes. Seriously. And yes, of course there are exceptions (Noodlers makes some very inexpensive pens that I tried and absolutely hated which tended to leak all over me), but I’ve had Pilot disposable rollerballs leak all over me far more spectacularly, and with far more frequency, than any of my fountain pens.

[Stray observations: the title of this post is a line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI part I; I have no affiliation with any of the companies or brands mentioned here, just a happy customer; and if you would like a letter, by all means use the contact form on this website to send me your address. Just do me one favor: WRITE ME BACK! I bet I get one written reply for every 30 I send out. Kind of funny when you think about it]

Secret Costa Brava – And Keeping It That Way

15 Oct I mean...what can one say?

Hello, readers! I’m back!

I don’t have even a half-hearted excuse for not updating before now. I mean sure – for the first, say, two weeks after moving to Barcelona things were a bit chaotic (finding a place, moving in, opening a bank account, immigration roulette…the usual). But they soon settled down, and – this part was a surprise – it turned out that I had pretty much the entire month of September off from classes. So my only excuse is that I’ve just been a bit lazy…surprising no one who knows me.

First things first. Despite my semi-despondent last post, I did leave Budapest – not very happy about it at the time, I’ll admit. AND, for the first time in my life, I missed my alarm and almost slept through a flight, which I took as something of a sign when I did finally wake up in a cold sweaty panic. But here I am, in Barcelona, with quasi-mixed feelings but overall very happy.

I have plenty to say and show you about Barcelona already, but I thought I’d get back in the swing of things with a post about a little weekend getaway I made a few weeks back. Barcelona, as some of you may know, is parked  just south of a stretch of Mediterranean coastline  called the “Costa Brava.” When my friend Lindsay decided to come from Maine and visit me for a few weeks in September, I had the idea to rent a car and head north into the Costa Brava over our last long weekend before classes started back up. Two of my friends here, Anne and James, thought this sounded like a pretty good way to end the summer, so on a warm and sunny Friday we all piled into a smashed-up little Hyundai hatchback and off we went.

Our mighty chariot. NOT PICTURED: the devastated fender and bumper corners and the multitude of catastrophic gouges.

Our mighty chariot! NOT PICTURED: the devastated fender and bumper corners and the multitude of catastrophic gouges.

Aside from the coast – which, as you likely know by now from this blog, is sort of my happy place – there are a ton of tiny little medieval towns and villages dotting what turned out to be a pretty stunning landscape in the region. We rented a great house on AirBNB in one of those towns, called Pals; made vague plans to visit Girona (a larger city nearby and capital of that region, also called Girona); and made even vaguer plans to find “beaches.”

What can I say? I’ve had grander trips, I’ve had more action-packed trips, I’ve had trips that took me to more “exotic” places. But it’s rare to nail that special cocktail of elements that melt into one blissful stretch of perfect little moments. I may have had more “exciting” trips – but I don’t think I’ve had a much better one.

We decided to work our way up to the coastline to Pals rather than take a straight shot on the motorways. This meant a four hour drive instead of a 2-hour one, but the views were…SOMETIMES…worth it. We were expecting idyllic little coast towns and a view of the sea the entire way.

A sweeping view of the Med. This is sort of what we expected the whole drive to be like. ...it wasn't.

A sweeping view of the Med. This is sort of what we expected the whole drive to be like. …it wasn’t.

Truth be told, though, the stretch just north of Barcelona isn’t really that exciting. First of all, a very busy rail line runs right along the coastline in that part of the region. Which means if you’re on the beach in any of those towns, you’ll have commuter rail trains blasting past every few minutes. Peaceful! (we did get a 5-second glance of a nude beach, which was – rather curiously – situated right next to both the train tracks AND a busy stretch of road, and which was announced to the car when somebody, not me but I can’t remember who, shouted “NUDE BEACH”)

On top of that, the towns through there just weren’t particularly nice. They looked like your worst nightmare of tourist trap coastal blight. Maybe there was beauty to be found there once upon a time, but now, not so much. That said, we did come across the odd beautiful vista here and there.

Turn to the side and it still looks pretty terrific.

Turn to the side and it still looks pretty terrific.

After a couple of hours picking our way past a dozen or so traffic swamped, strip mall infested towns, 500 McDonalds signs, and a brief moment where we almost smashed headfirst into a bizarre barrier that appeared in our lane out of NOWHERE (seriously), we saw signs for “Tossa de Mar,” which was a town that my flatmates here had recommended to me. We were getting hungry, so we made a pit stop, grabbed a couple of pizzas, and headed to the beach to eat.

This, it turned out, was a very good idea.

Ah, yes...that'll do nicely.

Ah, yes…that’ll do nicely.

Ever eaten pizza on a more or less deserted beach just before sunset with some 13th-century ramparts looming over you? …I have.

Castle overlooking the beach. With, for unknown reasons, a giant banner about Volkswagen hanging on it.

Castle overlooking the beach. With, for unknown reasons, a giant banner about Volkswagen hanging on it.

Things were looking up. We made it into Pals not too long after that, checked in at our AirBNB, made a desperate grocery store run in the last minutes before it closed, drank many beers, ate many foods, and had a semi-early night so we could explore Girona the next day.

Which we did! Nice town with a gorgeous (and enormous) cathedral. Only later did I learn that Girona is the birthplace of an astonishing and delicious pastry called a “xuixo”* (pronounced CHOO-cho), and still regarded as the place to get the best ones. In truth, good thing I DIDN’T know this at the time, my heart would have exploded before we even made it back onto the highway.

Pretty town with a river

Pretty town with a river

A massive cathedral

A massive cathedral

From just in front of the cathedral, looking back out over town

From just in front of the cathedral, looking back out over town

The facade of the cathedral

The facade of the cathedral

Windy medieval streets, and a guy looking at a windy medieval street.

Windy medieval streets, and a guy looking at a windy medieval street.

I think it's pretty clear.

I think it’s pretty clear.

A last look at Girona facing the other way.

A last look at Girona facing the other way.

On our way back to Pals, we decided to veer off to the coast and find another beach to enjoy the last few hours of sunlight. This was a spontaneous decision, which meant that we were all just kind of sitting in the sand in our normal clothes, except for James, who had wisely (though I believe randomly) worn his suit and actually got to swim.

Now before you look at any more of my pictures, I need to add a disclaimer. Topless sunbathing is a rather common practice in these here parts. I tried, for reasons of “not wanting to be a total creeper,” to minimize the pictures I took at the beaches, full stop. When I DID take a picture, I tried to make sure I wasn’t invading anybody’s relaxed privacy. That being said, these were mostly big beaches, many were fairly crowded, and I was shooting with a wide angle lens. There may be an odd bare breast or two in here. For which I can only apologize to all involved, including any of you who find such things offensive, although honestly you’re kind of a prude and it’s just a breast, get over it.

I don't remember what this beach was called but it was near Begur.

I don’t remember what this beach was called but it was near Begur.

I hate whoever owns that house.

I hate whoever owns that house.

Now I know I just said that the beaches were fairly crowded, but truth be told, they sort of weren’t. A picture of these beaches from July or August would, I’m certain, show a VASTLY different magnitude of chaos than what we experienced, which was – at “worst” – a beach that was comfortably full: in other words, adequate gaps between you and your neighbors. And the weather was damn close to perfect. Not blistering hot during the day, not meat-locker cold at night, and water that was somewhere between “slightly cool” and “really warm.”

The next day we had a very, very intense plan: “spend all day going to several different beaches.” It’s a tough life, but we made it. We first tried one that I had been looking forward to, called Aigua Blava (“Blue Water” in the local language, Catalan). Not bad; not quite as idyllic as I had hoped after seeing some pictures online. But we’re splitting hairs here.

Part of the appeal of the Costa Brava is that the coastline is rather craggy: lots of small coves with tiny beaches backed by sharp, steep hills and mountains. Why is that good? It keeps development away. Yes, there are places where you can find a 2-mile stretch of sand bordered by hideously character-free hotels and shitty restaurants. If that’s your thing. Me, I prefer the little coves. Aigua Blava is one of those. There are, if memory serves, two sleepy restaurants on the beach, but that’s about it.

Aigua Blava to the right...

Aigua Blava to the right…

Aigua Blava straight ahead...

Aigua Blava straight ahead…

And Aigua Blava to the left.

And Aigua Blava to the left.

OK, take a look at those three pictures above. Now take a closer look. Notice anything? …no? Take a look at the water. See how there are NO people in it? Well – funny story! – that’s because there were swarms of jellyfish in it (which in Spanish are called “medusa,” which I enjoy). Seems climate change and overfishing have sent the jellyfish population in the Med skyrocketing in recent years, and this year was especially bad. They’re not all that dangerous around here, but some of them can sting. Sooooooooooo, yeah. The appeal of swimming was vastly diminished as we lay there watching people haul one jellyfish after another out of the water.

Aigua Blava was our morning beach, and after nipping home for lunch we hit beach #2, Sa Tuna, which was a cute little town but a fairly uninspiring, rocky beach. Upside: fewer jellyfish!

But really, it IS a lovely town

But really, it IS a lovely town

After leaving Sa Tuna, we decided to explore the medieval heart of our temporary home town, Pals. This  turned out to be the second-biggest surprise of the trip (though at the time it was THE biggest surprise). Just a quaint, charming little town, not very touristy, with a handful of stores selling kitschy stuff that managed to avoid being your typical mass-produced crap. It is also crowned by a neat old tower.

A...thing...on the side of a building in Pals

A…thing…on the side of a building in Pals

Flower pots on a wall in Pals

Flower pots on a wall in Pals

Nazar!

Nazar!

This fish is shocked

This fish is shocked

A totally random pottery plate thing on a rock wall in Pals

A totally random pottery plate thing on a rock wall in Pals

Beautiful homes

Beautiful homes

The tower! Which has a lot of history...which was described on a plaque...none of which I remember.

The tower! Which has a lot of history…which was described on a plaque…none of which I remember.

Really a beautiful place

Really a beautiful place

We had to return the rental car by late afternoon the next day, and we knew we had a two-hour drive ahead of us on the highway, which meant if we got our act together, we could leave early in the morning and hit one last beach on our way back. Which we did. And which ended up being THE biggest surprise.

And now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on this blog: I’m NOT going to tell you exactly where we were.

I’m not under any illusions about the readership or the popularity of this blog. There isn’t much readership, and it’s not that popular. I get a scant handful of hits regularly, but if I crack 50 pageviews in a day, something’s going crazy. That being said, I don’t want to contribute – even in the most minimal way – to the destruction of a place that is still as special, as wonderful, and (for the time being anyway) as undiscovered as this astonishing little slice of the coast. So I’ll show you a few pictures, and tell you how it was, but that’s all you get. Sorry. I have to have a few secrets. (I will say that we found it after Anne did a LOT of research online the night before, so it’s possible you could get there too. Good luck.)

You get to This Place by parking where it looks like you shouldn’t and then walking down a tiny, basically unmarked, steep set of stairs and narrow path nearby that doesn’t look like it goes anywhere. Then all of a sudden you come around a bend, and…

A glimpse of perfection

A glimpse of perfection

Oh...oh, my...

Oh…oh, my…

I love the coast. I love being on a beach. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a handful of the truly great beaches of the world: Cinnamon Bay in St John, Tulum in Mexico, Çeşme in Turkey. I’ve been to plenty of others that were spectacular but not quite world-class. This little gem goes in my top three.

I mean...what can one say?

I mean…what can one say?

It’s a miniscule little sliver of pebbly beach, which – when we were there – had only a few people on it, backed by a sheer cliff, fronting some of the cleanest, clearest, most stunning water I’ve ever been in. There’s really not much more to tell. The few hours we spent there were among the most blissed-out of my life.

That's me, basically as happy as I've ever been.

That’s me, basically as happy as I’ve ever been. Picture by Lindsay.

And that, readers, was that. My friends eventually dragged me away from the beach and we came back to Barcelona, and that’s not such a bad place to be, but I could quite cheerfully live out the rest of my days at that little cove.

SO. A typical, long-winded recap to breathe life into the Idle Expatter here in Barcelona – which I’ll post about soon.

Maybe.

Happy trails!

*XUIXO BONUS SURPRISE: for those of you who were paying attention, or made it to the end, or both, WHAT – you may be wondering – is that “xuixo” thing I was talking about? It’s basically a fried sugar-coated croissant filled with a local version of pastry cream. Bad ones are pretty good; good ones make you want to cry; and you’d do unspeakable things just for a single bite of the best ones.

A xuixo, with some other things that don't matter because you have a xuixo. Picture shamelessly stolen from Lindsay!

A xuixo, with some other things that don’t matter because you have a xuixo. Picture shamelessly stolen from Lindsay!

Next Stop, Barcelona

18 Aug Two men look at a bench with a statue on it. (film photo: Olympus OM-2 and FujiFilm Superia 200)

Tomorrow marks 1 year to the day that I’ve been in Budapest. A week from today, I’ll be in Barcelona, my next new home for 10 months or so. But something strange is happening to me. For what I can honestly say is pretty much the first time ever – and feeling much like the tenth Doctor – I don’t want to go.

A building on Nagymező utca (film photo: Olympus OM-2 with FujiFilm Superia 200)

A building on Nagymező utca (film photo: Olympus OM-2 with FujiFilm Superia 200)

My mom is fond of saying that I was born with “one foot out of the cradle,” and as many readers of this blog will know, for a few years now I haven’t settled down for very long before moving on. I’ve talked before about getting addicted to that momentum of always itching for the next place.

Now, though, I’m torn. Don’t get me wrong. I am excited for Barcelona. I know it’s one of the world’s great cities. I’ve never been to Barcelona, or even to Spain. New places (to me) to explore for an extended period of time: right up my alley.

And yet…

Two men look at a bench with a statue on it. (film photo: Olympus OM-2 and FujiFilm Superia 200)

Two men look at a bench with a statue on it. (film photo: Olympus OM-2 and FujiFilm Superia 200)

When I came here last year, I couldn’t wait to leave Korea. Before that, I was so ready to move on from Maine. Before that, California; Maine again; DC; Vienna; back to Maine…I’m like a perpetual-motion “the grass is always greener” machine, never satisfied where I’ve been, briefly excited about where I’m going (until I’ve been there for a little while, then – on to the next place!)

I had no pre-formed opinions or expectations of Budapest when I arrived last August. Strange that I never visited when I lived in Vienna. The only image I had in my mind was a stereotypical (and hilariously wrong) vision of a perpetually cloudy, murky, post-Communist, Eastern Bloc, morose concrete jungle that was always oddly damp. The reality, of course, is that Budapest is gorgeous, sometimes stunningly so, and in the summer at least, more or less perpetually sunny (I’m sitting on my balcony as I write this staring at a spotless blue sky).

A statue in front of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Budapest usually looks this good.

Since I was accepted into this program and knew I’d be spending two years in Budapest and Barcelona, so many of my friends immediately declared their intent to visit me in Barcelona. All year I’ve been begging and pleading with them to come to Budapest, either instead of or in addition to Barca. This city is dramatically, unbelievably underrated.

And more Nagymező... (film photo: Olympus OM-2 and FujiFilm Superia 200)

And more Nagymező… (film photo: Olympus OM-2 and FujiFilm Superia 200)

When I went to Vietnam, a friend teasingly posted on my Facebook wall that she was awaiting the moment on that trip where I’d profess to having “fallen in love” with the country, which was something I had done on my first day in Turkey. The truth is, though, that while I like the majority of places I’ve been, loving them – truly loving them – doesn’t actually happen that often. Turkey was the odd case of a love at first sight that ended up lasting.

Budapest wasn’t love at first sight. I liked it right away. I liked it most of the year. There were things I didn’t like; a few times I was ready to say, ok, enough. But here I am, at the end of my time here (at least for now), and the honest truth is, I simply don’t want to go. Somewhere, somehow, over the last 12 months, “liking” Budapest turned into a full-blown, hopeless love.

Building on Nagymező utca

Building on Nagymező utca (film photo: Olympus OM-2 and FujiFilm Superia 200)

Like any love, it’s impossible to explain, of course, and it’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. So I won’t try. And don’t worry, I haven’t gone completely softie on you all. Give me a few days in Barcelona and I’ll remember how I’m not at all ready yet to settle down.

For now, though – and for the first time – I have to leave. And I don’t want to go.

OPEN: Blue Bird Cafe

11 Aug The wall showing the whole coffee-making process, from beans-to-cup

This weekend, Blue Bird Cafe and Roastery opened for business here in Budapest, which counts as a pretty big splash on the coffee scene in this town. I went yesterday and you, dear readers, now get my first impressions.

While writing my first two posts on cafes in Budapest, I asked around for any places that weren’t on the “artisan map” but might be making coffee at that level of expertise. A few people mentioned Blue Bird, but it wasn’t quite open yet when I was writing the other posts. Now they are.

Let me say right off the bat that this is not a review – at least not like the other cafe reviews I’ve done so far, numerically graded on a scale – for a big reason. They’re still in what you might call a “soft open.” The space is ready and they’re open for customers, but they’re still (naturally) working out a few kinks here and there, some of which will inevitably be based on customer feedback and their baristas gaining experience. Remember my review of Madal, when I mentioned that I had been there just after they opened, didn’t love it, and found it a much better place when I went back a little later? Same principle with Blue Bird. Some things just take time.

So what can I say about it? It’s interesting, it’s already worth your time and money, and it just might have the coolest space of any cafe I’ve seen in Budapest.

(by the way, I apologize for the generally grainy image quality. I’m between “real” cameras at the moment and I’m stuck with just my iPhone. They’re the best I can do with it!)

Inside the cafe: spiral stairs down at the center, surrounded by a wide bar

Inside the cafe: spiral stairs down at the center, surrounded by a wide bar

The interior design of the cafe is fantastic, and I mean that. Upstairs, you’ll find mosaic tile floors, a broad archway around the espresso bar made up of hundreds of oddly sized and shaped pieces of wood, custom hand-built furniture and accents (lamps, etc), and one chalkboard-black wall with a cool illustration of the bean-to-brew coffee process. In the center of the cafe, surrounded by a very broad bar with some stools, is the spiral staircase down to the lab (more on this in a second) and the bathrooms.

The wall showing the whole coffee-making process, from beans-to-cup

The wall showing the whole coffee-making process, from beans-to-cup

Awesome mosaic tile floors

Awesome mosaic tile floors

The wooden archway

The wooden archway

The interesting design aesthetic extends even to the menus, which are printed on planks of lightweight wood. I love everything about the design of this cafe. It’s cheerful, interesting, colorful without being obnoxious, whimsical, and absolutely unique (more on this below).

Espresso drinks

Espresso drinks

Wine and food

Wine and food

See? Printed on a slab of wood!

See? Printed on a slab of wood!

Downstairs, there’s a separate space they’re calling “the lab,” where they plan to run tastings, courses on coffee roasting and brewing, and other info sessions. There’s also a very, very cool lacquer mural of an antique world map on the floor at the base of the stairs.

A corner nook downstairs in the "lab"

A corner nook downstairs in the “lab”

Custom-made espresso machine for the downstairs lab, with grinders and a custom copper sink

Custom-made espresso machine for the downstairs lab, with grinders and a custom copper sink

The lab space (balloons for the opening)

The lab space (balloons for the opening)

Awesome.

Awesome antique world map floor.

What’s most impressive about this space, which they’ve been building out for five months, is how much of it was done by the owner, his wife, and his friends – which is 100%. I said above that the place was “unique.” “Unique” means one of a kind, and it’s not hyperbole or an exaggeration to say it about Blue Bird. The design of the entire cafe came from his wife. The owner hand-placed all of those wood blocks in the archway himself. He and a friend custom-made most of the furniture, and the fittings (the lamps, for example), themselves. The wall showing the coffeemaking process was conceptualized and executed by a friend. The entire thing is impressive enough without knowing this, but the fact that it’s such a labor of love really makes you appreciate just how exceptional it really is.

While they only have space for a few seats upstairs (including a nice looking sofa and a rocking chair, which I wish I had snagged for myself), Blue Bird has the good fortune to be located in Gozsdu udvar, a neat little semi-covered (and pedestrian only!) passageway-slash-courtyard near Madach Imre ter. It’s a short alleyway that runs between some buildings, and it’s packed with restaurants, bars, and, now, a cafe. That means Blue Bird gets to take advantage of something that is a surprising rarity in Budapest: it’s in a pedestrian-only zone. Budapest is far from the most traffic-clogged city I’ve ever been to, but the appeal of lingering outdoors with a coffee on a summer’s day is somewhat lessened when a tram goes rocketing by, rattling your teeth out, so loud that you can’t hear the person sitting next to you if they shout. Blue Bird is, instead, surrounded only by the hustle and bustle of people enjoying themselves.

The staff here were eager, enthusiastic, charming, and chatty. Some of them looked a bit exhausted when I arrived, since they had just opened the night before and were already back at it, but it didn’t show in the service. They couldn’t have been any friendlier.

Unfortunately, however, the drinks I had were a mixed bag.

The espresso options

The espresso options

Blue Bird, in addition to being a cafe, roasts their own coffee. That’s uncommon in Budapest – I only know of one other cafe in town, Lumen, that roasts their own beans (please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about that or if there are others!) There are obvious advantages in terms of being in complete control of your product freshness, but there’s another one: quantity. Blue Bird can roast for themselves in small batches, which means – as you can see in the picture above – they have the ability to offer a variety of espresso options at a time without sacrificing freshness (or having to order in bulk).

I started with a flat white made with the “morning blend,” which seems to be their standard espresso. I had some problems with it. A flat white should be made with microfoam, which makes it a bit smoother and richer-feeling than a latte; mine at Blue Bird tasted like a very short latte. Now I couldn’t make a flat white to save my own life. They’re not easy to nail. I’m sure Blue Bird will get there with time, but for now it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had (and the technical difficulty of the drink is a reason I’ve ordered it at every cafe I’ve reviewed so far).

The flat white at Blue Bird

The flat white at Blue Bird.

The bigger issue for me was the roast on the espresso, and this gets into a matter of personal taste. It was much too dark for me. I prefer a lighter, smoother, less assertive espresso and a darker, more aggressively “coffee”-tasting filter coffee. That’s just me. There are some who prefer an espresso that kicks them in the face, and some who prefer a filter coffee brewed more like a tea (floral and aromatic).

Lots of different factors impact coffee taste: the grind, the extraction time, the roast, water temperature…you get the idea. You could have a lighter roast and a very fine grind and end up with bitter, strong coffee; the strongest espresso in the world won’t taste like much of anything if you dump water over grinds the size of beans. So the question isn’t “how does it taste?”, but rather “does it taste the way it was intended to taste?” In other words: my espresso tasted dark. Was that because they properly prepared it on purpose to be dark, or was it because they messed something up?

The answer in Blue Bird’s case is that it was on purpose. If you like a very aggressive, very strong espresso, you’ll probably enjoy the morning blend (the barista told me what three varietals go into the blend, but I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t write it down and have since forgotten). I think I might like it better in a latte, but there wasn’t enough milk in a flat white to mellow it out for me.

The important thing, though, is that when I told the barista that the roast was too dark for me, he a) understood what I meant and agreed that it was a dark roast, b) explained why they roast it to that level, and c) suggested an alternative. I tried a straight-up shot of the Mexico Alturo, and loved it. It was well made and much closer to the kind of espresso I enjoy.

Finally, I went home with beans (or, well, in my case, grinds), a small sample of their Malawi AAA Geisha. Full disclosure, Alex (the owner) very generously gave me this sample for free (another reason this isn’t a review per se). Free or not, this is superb coffee. I’ve made a few cups at home now in my AeroPress, for myself and some friends, and it’s extremely good. Good enough that if I weren’t moving out of the city in two weeks, I’d probably be buying all of my beans from them from now on.

Beans. Cute label.

Beans. Cute label.

Talking to the owner, Alex, provides a little insight into why they’re as good as they are already. This isn’t his first rodeo. This is his eighth cafe he’s opened in the past decade, everywhere from Ukraine to Israel and now Budapest. That’s a pretty good pedigree.

Blue Bird makes a very interesting and compelling addition to the cafe scene in Budapest, I think. The fact that they roast in-house certainly sets them apart in a lot of ways, and the decor really has to be seen to be believed. They have lots of interesting ideas for the future (custom-made small-batch roasts for individual customers based on their own preferences? That’s something I’ve never heard of). Some of their technical prep work could use a polish – which they know – but that comes with time, and is probably to be expected, to some extent, given that they’d been open less than 24 hours when I showed up.

That being said, they’re worth a visit already, and they’re definitely a place to keep an eye on.

Budapest’s Best Coffee and Cafes, part 2: The Artisans

20 Jul The cortado at Tamp & Pull

OK, so I have a problem. The problem is this: 1) all four of the cafes in this post are terrific, friendly, lovely places that you can’t go wrong with; 2) all of them have now seen the “part 1” post in this series and have been SO enthusiastic of the idea; 3) all of them are ridiculously supportive of each other and the young-but-growing craft coffee scene in Budapest; and 4) I’m not very mean.

I came up with this cafe-reviews idea because I knew I wanted to do a post on Espresso Embassy and the AeroPress workshop there, and at the time it seemed like a fun thought to do a bigger, more comprehensive series on cafes in Budapest in general. But now I’m trapped with this first one, because I would feel guilty giving any of the cafes below bad scores.

Luckily for me, none of them deserve bad scores. Not even close. It boils down to this: all of these four cafes love what they do, and it shows.

That leaves me with a bit of a quandary, which is that I don’t have huge variations in the scoring between these four.  I’ll just disclaim at the beginning here that any of the cafes below are great places that are worth your time and money. You can’t go wrong with any of them. Maybe take this post, then, as more of a guide to the craft scene here than a competitive breakdown.

How did I land on these cafes? Well, as it turns out, there’s a map.

The "Artisan Coffeeshops" of Budapest map

The “Artisan Coffeeshops” of Budapest map

Remember when I said these places support each other? One of the cafes on this list – Madal, I believe – put together this map. Which is kinda cool. Try to imagine Starbucks giving you a map of all the Costa locations in town. I have no idea if the other cafes on the list were in on it or not, but almost all of them have the map in their shops now.

So, in alphabetical order (and as it just so happens, ascending order by score – not intentional, just a coincidence), here goes.

And if there are any you think I missed, please tell me in a comment! What are your favorite top-notch cafes in Budapest? Let me know!

Fekete

Fekete

Fekete

Muzeum krt. 5, 5th district

Public transport: metro line 2 or trams 47, 49; station Astoria (just meters away)

COFFEE – 7 (out of 10): I had a flat white here for 750HUF. Of the coffees in this list, I’d say Fekete’s was the weakest. Which isn’t to say it was bad, but it was among the most expensive in the category and was not the richest, most full-bodied drink I had on the circuit. Maybe because I ordered it as a takeaway instead of sit-down? It was a little bit too milky for me as a flat white. Still a way-better-than-average drink. Espresso only (no filter coffees)

COMFORT/ATMOSPHERE – n/a: It’s really, really unfair to judge Fekete on these categories against the other places on this list, because it’s basically takeaway-only. Yes, they have a few stools inside and a few outside, but this isn’t the same type of establishment.

SERVICE – 5 (out of 5): This is where Fekete really shone. All of the cafes on this list have great staff, but the barista at Fekete was positively bubbly. Super, super friendly. We’re a bit obsessed with customer service back in the States and Fekete was exemplary.

“Espresso isn’t spelled with an X”-factor +8: Making up some of the points for comfort and atmosphere here. More details below.

TOTAL: 20 (out of 25)

Wifi: Yes (free)

Food: Packaged snacks (chocolate bars, e.g.) and some fresh croissants.

Eggs-Benedict-Side-of-Ham Instagram: I forgot. Whoops. Sorry😦

Notes

Fekete is in a superb location (right next to a major tram/metro station on a busy main road). It’s a little storefront place that seems aimed more or less exclusively at takeaway business. I didn’t give it comfort or atmosphere ratings because it’s not a CAFE, per se, in the sense of an enclosed space with seating. They do have a few stools scattered inside and out, but with the trams and traffic rattling past you just a few feet away, it’s not the kind of place you’re gonna want to linger.

Inside Fekete

Inside Fekete

That said, it has such a chipper, inviting charm. Customer service in Budapest often tends toward…um…I’ll be polite and say “brusque.” But the barista at Fekete the day I visited was so ridiculously cheerful that I almost couldn’t believe it. Really, I mean, higher than top marks here. I feel like Fekete is the kind of place that’ll remember your name after you’ve been there once and be genuinely happy to see you every time you come back. Such a pleasure to find that in this town.

As far as drinks, the coffee here was, for me, the least successful of the four. I think it was just too high a ratio of milk-to-espresso for my taste. Especially as a flat white, where the espresso should come through more, whereas here it got a bit lost (pretty good as a latte, though). And it was the most expensive of the places I reviewed.

A cute, tiny little shop

A cute, tiny little shop

But you know what? I don’t care. This place had such charm that it overcame the small issues. In my mind, Fekete hovers right on the line between the “artisan” and “neighborhood” categories (I’m including it here to have consistency with the map). If I lived in this area, I’d probably stop in here every morning (I’m a little bummed that it isn’t on my block, to be honest). They’re not trying to be more than they are. There’s a refreshing, honest vibe to Fekete that I really dug.

Is that subjective? Absolutely. But I’m not trying to be the World Barista Championship here. I’m trying to find the best overall coffee/cafe experiences in Budapest. Fekete is so damn charming that it punches above its weight. Pop in sometime – I bet you’ll be happy you did.

Madal Cafe

The entrance to Madal

The entrance to Madal

Hollán Ernő u. 3, 13th district

Public transport: Tram line 4 or 6, stop “Jászai Mari tér” (half a block away)

 

COFFEE – 8.5 (out of 10): Very, very good. Espresso AND filter options. I had a filter coffee (Honduran La Paz Marcala, inverted-method AeroPress) for 590, and a shot of their specialty blend espresso for 450 on this visit. Those prices are more than competitive in the category and represent a good value. The AeroPress was especially good, with one small quibble (see notes below).

ATMOSPHERE – 3.5 (out of 5): Very bright, but somewhat cool, space. Light blond woods, white walls, some seemingly Buddhist touches. Can almost come across as a little too serious. Quieter than any of the other cafes on the list. That could be good or bad depending on your preference – I personally enjoy a bit more buzz than this. And also, uniforms? In this category?

COMFORT – 4 (out of 5): Not bad. Some outdoor seating right now, and this section of Hollán Ernő street is blissfully pedestrian-only, which is rarer in Budapest than you’d think.

SERVICE – 5 (out of 5): Friendly, knowledgeable, not intimidating or overtly pretentious. Happy to chat about their product. No complaints.

“Espresso isn’t spelled with an X”-factor: No change.

TOTAL: 21 (out of 25)

Wifi: Yes (free)

Food: Pretty similar to others on the list. Croissants and a few packaged snacks.

Eggs-Benedict-Side-of-Ham Instagram

Action shot! Pouring my filter coffee.

Action shot! Pouring my filter coffee.

Notes

I went to Madal just a week after they opened, a couple months ago. After that first visit, I didn’t really know what to think. It just felt so serious. The whole staff was wearing matching blue button downs; the place was hushed to the point of feeling almost monastic or library-like; there were pictures of what looked like monks everywhere…the coffee was fine but I left thinking, “that’s not a place I wanna sit for a while.”

What a difference some time can make. I revisited Madal for this post, and they seem to have hit a good groove. The staff were far more relaxed than that first time, there was more hustle and bustle to the customer flow, and the whole cafe felt a little more lived-in, which is to say quite a bit more approachable.

The bar

The bar

And yet there’s still something a bit…I dunno, I can’t quite put my finger on it…a bit austere to the place. It’s interesting to draw a contrast between Madal and, say, My Little Melbourne (reviewed below). They’re at very opposite ends of the spectrum as far as decor and atmosphere. I wouldn’t call Madal “cozy.” I mean the staff weren’t in blue button-downs this time, but they were still in matching shirts and hats. Uniforms? In this market segment? One of the things I love about cafes like this is the chance to see a bit more individuality and expressiveness. If I wanted to get some serious work or studying done, Madal might really be perfect, but I’m not sure I want to hang out for hours here with friends.

(it’s possible that the uniforms are a branding strategy. Unfortunately, if that’s true, I cannot for the life of me remember if the logo or name or anything else was displayed anywhere on them.)

Lots of Buddhist-inspired design and decor

Lots of Buddhist-inspired design and decor. Some of that decor, by the way, is related to the name. I’d point you at their website for specifics, but the name comes from an Indian philosopher.

All that being said, if you want some great coffee, Madal can deliver. They offer filter coffee, which I enjoy and appreciate. I had a very nice AeroPress, though I did notice that my coffee cooled off pretty quickly. I’m not sure if they pre-warmed the pitcher and/or the AeroPress before extracting. It’s entirely possible that they did, and I missed it, and they do a lower-temp prep that just cooled off a bit faster than I’m used to. But by the time I drank the cup down and got the last splash from the pitcher, it was cold. That said, it was still a good coffee, as was the shot of their “specialty blend” espresso I tried. Good stuff. They offer a lot of beans for sale, so if you’re looking for some, you might check them out. And the staff and service were also great.

So, you know, I’m not sure precisely what to say about Madal to sum it up. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice, a very nice, cafe with some great product. And they’re already way more relaxed than the first time I went. I think if they loosen up a little bit more (maybe ditch the uniforms), they’ll be a firm stop on the scene here. As it is, despite being the newest kids on the block (only open a couple of months), they’re off to a good start.

My Little Melbourne

The exterior of My Little Melbourne

The exterior of My Little Melbourne

Madách Imre út 3, 7th district

Public transport: Metro lines 1, 2, or 3, or trams 47 or 49, to Deak Ferenc Ter (~2 blocks away)

COFFEE – 8 (out of 10): Had a flat white for 700HUF. Very nice. Good, roasty flavor from the espresso, good balance with the milk. Espresso prices range from 400 for a single shot to 750 for lattes. Espresso only (no filter)

ATMOSPHERE – 5 (out of 5): Quirky, fun decor, buzzy but not overwhelming noise level, relaxed and pleasant place. Maybe my favorite overall atmosphere in this category.

COMFORT  (out of 5): It’s a small space but well laid out – you aren’t sitting in your neighbor’s lap at every table. There’s a little alcove/nook upstairs with a cushioned corner bench next to a wall of potted plants that I can only imagine is very coveted. Lots of outdoor seating on a quiet, broad, very low-traffic side street (though it’s mostly parked cars, so don’t expect a garden or anything)

SERVICE – 4 (out of 5): Friendly without being overbearing, if maybe a little reserved.

“Espresso isn’t spelled with an X”-factor: no change

TOTAL: 22 (out of 25)

Wifi: Yes (free)

Food: Snacks, chips, a few fresh options like small salads and yogurts.

Eggs-Benedict-Side-of-Ham Instagram

The My Little Melbourne flat white

The My Little Melbourne flat white

Notes

The craft coffee scene in Budapest is pretty young, and My Little Melbourne is the current “grand-daddy” on the circuit, having been open, I’m told, for a little more than a year (well, sort of the grand-daddy: Espresso Embassy may have only opened in December, but most of the staff, including the owner, came from another and earlier cafe that I understand pre-dated MLB).

That history shows, because aside from Espresso Embassy, My Little Melbourne feels the most lived-in, cozy, and comfortable in its own skin. There’s no sense here at all of having anything to prove. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel at home the second you step in, even the first time.

The location is terrific – Madách Imre is a short, semi-pedestrian-only side street removed enough from the main avenues to have some peace to it, no trams or trucks roaring past. Deak Ferenc ter, the only station where all three metro lines in Budapest converge, is a two-minute walk away.

The bar and back-of-counter area

The bar and back-of-counter area

The cafe itself is tiny, but cleverly packaged on two levels, so it manages to feel more spacious than it is – especially now at the height of summer, when they have a large outdoor seating area (but be careful on those killer stairs to the upper level – I wonder how often the staff have seen people come plummeting down after putting a foot wrong). There’s a little nook tucked into the upstairs rear corner, a cushioned bench next to a wall of potted plants.* I lucked out – the guy sitting there left just as I got upstairs, and I managed to snag it. I could totally see parking there with my laptop for hours on end.

The alcove

The alcove

I had a flat white (purists are probably screaming that I’m judging coffee quality with a milk drink, but, well, I am. You’ll live) and it was one of the better ones I’ve had. The service was friendly and quick, though they weren’t exactly chatty (which is fine, don’t get me wrong – but a contrast from, say, Fekete).

The story goes that the owners decided to open the cafe after falling in love with Melbourne on a trip there. It’s not hard to see the evidence of that. The walls are covered in Australia-themed knick-knacks and bric-a-brac: flags, posters, art, even a boomerang. As mentioned, there’s a wall of shelving in the upstairs corner with plants potted in little tin bucket, which is both cool and really pleasant to sit by (although I have a magic ability to kill houseplants just by looking at them, so I hope their collection survived my visit).* It manages to feel fun and quirky without veering into precious and overwrought, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

Australia everywhere

Australia everywhere

So often, back in the States, I get the feeling that new restaurants and cafes start off with a brand image in mind (“Australia-themed Melbourne-style cafe”) and try to build a business around it, instead of the other way around. Everything in those places feels hokey and fake. My Little Melbourne is the exact opposite, the kind of authentically delightful little place that all those Portland hipsters wish they were managing to pull off, but rarely do.

When I wrote the first entry in this series, I talked about finding those cafes that offer the best blend of great coffee and great atmosphere. My Little Melbourne is exactly the kind of place I was talking about.

*UPDATE JULY 22: I’m back at My Little Melbourne as I write this, and the plants, it turns out, are plastic. Doesn’t diminish the fact that they’re nicely decorative, but the good news is that even I can’t kill a plastic plant.

Tamp & Pull

Tamp & Pull exterior

Tamp & Pull exterior

Czuczor utca 3, 9th district*

Public transport: tram line 2 to stations Fővám tér or Zsil utca, ~2-3 blocks

*NOTE: Tamp & Pull has another location in the 13th district at Váci út 85. I have not visited that location – this review is only for the 9th district shop.

COFFEE – 10 (out of 10): I tried the espresso “tasting menu,” which gives you a straight shot and a milk drink of your choice for 725HUF. Both drinks were exemplary. If I was reading the board correctly, you can add filter coffee on top of that for a round 900HUF total (I may be wrong about this) – so they do have filter coffee along with espresso. Prices across the board are the lowest of the cafes here and represent outrageously good value. Award-winning baristas (as high as a 6th-place finish at the World Barista Championship, I believe, and Hungarian national champ).

ATMOSPHERE – 4 (out of 5): Interesting and very coffee-focused decor, from the unique, clear plexiglass-sided espresso machine to the various espresso implements and machine parts decorating the wall. Feels almost more like some sort of coffee lab than a “cafe” (more on this below). Pretty quiet while I was there, though it was mid-afternoon midweek. Not exactly a homey place, but pleasant.

COMFORT – 3 (out of 5): Mostly bench seating, a few tables along the wall and a handful of tables outside. It’s not a place I’d want to park for hours on end, but for an average stop, not bad.

SERVICE – 5 (out of 5): You’re in good hands here. The barista on my visit was friendly, knowledgeable, chatty, eager to talk about their product and their processes – even told me a story I didn’t know about the origin of the cortado. If you have any questions at all about espresso or coffee or the process of making it, come here.

“Espresso isn’t spelled with an X”-factor: +1 for being among the most knowledgeable and wonky of the cafes and baristas in town. This is like a mad scientist’s lab for coffee experimentation, and that’s pretty cool.

TOTAL: 23 (out of 25)

Wifi: No – though they have a good excuse (with a university right across the street, they’d be swamped with squatters)

Food: As you’d expect, some snacks, catered sandwiches, some pretty tasty-looking pastries.

Eggs-Benedict-Side-of-Ham Instagram

The cortado at Tamp & Pull

The cortado at Tamp & Pull

Notes

Tamp & Pull offer, in my opinion, the best coffee in town along with Espresso Embassy. No other espresso or espresso-based drink I had at any of the other three cafes here was as good as this one. The espresso was rich, smooth, flavorful, and memorable. The cortado was perfect. And as far as value, I don’t know how they do it, but their prices are noticeably lower than the other cafes in the artisan category, and lower than some of the non-artisan cafes too. This place deserves a special mention as the undisputed best value cafe I’ve seen in Budapest.

The menu board

The menu board

That quality isn’t really that surprising once you know something about the cafe and the owner, a multi-award-winning champion barista at the national and World Barista Championship levels. These folks take coffee super seriously. There’s a whiff of obsession about it – a hint of nerdiness – a soupçon of fanaticism.

Clear-sided espresso machine

Clear-sided espresso machine. And my reflection.

That’s certainly true of the decor, which includes the only see-through espresso machine I’ve ever seen and a wall covered with parts and pieces of espresso making equipment. Long tables and bench seating add to the laboratory feel, and as I understand it, they offer quite a bit of instruction, classes, workshops, and other opportunities to impart some of that knowledge to those curious enough about making quality coffee to take them up on it (more details on their website).

An "exploded" espresso machine on the wall

An “exploded” espresso machine on the wall

So they’re certainly dedicated to their craft, and while that can sometimes be a bit intimidating at other places, the staff here (the ones I’ve known at least) are so eager to share what they know about a product they love, and make it so approachable and understandable, that you’ll probably learn something cool every time you come in. I did on my visit, when the barista told me the history and origin of the cortado to explain why they serve it in a slightly oversized glass, a winky homage to the cortado’s origins in Italy and Spain (if you want to know the whole story, swing by Tamp & Pull and ask ’em).

The only thing that holds them back a bit, for me, is the atmosphere. It isn’t at all stuffy, or intimidating, or pretentious, but it does feel just a tad…dare I say…nerdy. Lovably so, without a doubt, but that hint of obsessiveness I mentioned before can be a little daunting no matter how open and approachable they are.

But does it matter? When the coffee is this good, and the staff are this cool, and the whole experience is this informative and interesting? Not so much – which is why Tamp & Pull make the cut as my very close #2 in Budapest.

Istanbul in black and white

17 Jul In the Blue Mosque

I recently picked up an old Olympus OM-2 film SLR at a shop here in Budapest. When I was back in Turkey for about two weeks this past June, I shot a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 black and white film in Istanbul. Here are some of the shots from that roll.

*Updated July 18 to correct that Ilford HP5 is an ISO400 film, not ISO100 as earlier stated.

Shop windows lit at night

Shop windows lit at night

A corner store in Galata

A corner store in Galata

The most hipster shot ever: a black-and-white film shot from an old camera of a cat sleeping on a Vespa with graffiti in the background in a Bohemian district (Galata) of Istanbul

The most hipster shot ever: a black-and-white film shot from an old camera of a cat sleeping on a Vespa with graffiti in the background in a Bohemian district (Galata) of Istanbul

Tram on Istiklal

Tram on Istiklal

A bookstore on Istiklal

A bookstore on Istiklal

Olives in the market at Kadiköy

Olives in the market at Kadiköy

The very, very cool Mavra cafe in Galata (you can see the famous sleeping Vespa kitty outside)

The very, very cool Mavra cafe in Galata

Below Galata tower

Below Galata tower

A very sad street kid on Galata bridge

A very sad street kid on Galata bridge

Ataturk outside an instrument shop in Galata

Ataturk outside an instrument shop in Galata

Phaeton on Heybeliada

Phaeton on Heybeliada

More Kadiköy olives

More Kadiköy olives

Tourists trying on helmets in the Aya Sofya

Tourists trying on helmets in the Aya Sofya

Taking a quick break

Taking a quick break

In the Blue Mosque

In the Blue Mosque

Lamps in a nargile/tea cafe

Lamps in a nargile/tea cafe

Sunrise on the Bosphorus

Sunrise on the Bosphorus

Chandeliers in the Aya Sofya

Chandeliers in the Aya Sofya

More chandeliers in the Aya Sofya

More chandeliers in the Aya Sofya

A little girl dancing for her family outside of the Blue Mosque

A little girl dancing for her family outside of the Blue Mosque

Budapest’s Best Coffee and Cafes, part 1: The Best of the Best

17 Jul Espresso Embassy

Believe it or not, great cafes don’t always have great coffee, and the places with the best coffee aren’t always the best cafes. I know that sounds weird but I think it’s true, especially so in a city like Budapest, where a cafe culture stretching back hundreds of years has left plenty of beautiful cafes packed with history and atmosphere, but where the coffee itself is almost universally “meh.”

Then there’s a category of, say, neighborhood hang-outs, where you get a super comfy place to chill with a book or your laptop for hours on end, but where the coffee, while good, isn’t necessarily special.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a place that serves outstanding coffee, but where the benches and seats are so hard that your ass falls asleep within seconds, or which are so pretentious about their craft that you don’t dare order for fear that the overbearing hipster barista is gonna ironic-glare you out of the place in shame.


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And then, sometimes, the stars align and you get that magic blend of perfection – fantastic coffee, friendly service, and a great hangout.

(I’m ignoring entirely the chains – Starbucks, Costa, etc. They serve a purpose but I try to avoid them if I can, especially in a place like Budapest where you’re spoilt for local choice)

Budapest, luckily, has cafes that run the gamut.

So I’m trying something new with this blog. Instead of my normal, narrative, stream-of-consciousness recap of a place I’ve been, I’m going to try doing a focused, more “researched” overview of a specific category (cafes) in a specific place (Budapest). Over the next week or so, I’ll be hitting a couple of cafes every day, and will be sharing pictures and opinions on here once I’m finished. I’ve asked friends in town – locals and expats alike – for their recommendations, plus I have a few places of my own.

To try and give some uniformity to the process, I’ve come up with a standard “grading” system I’ll be using everywhere. It breaks down like this…

CATEGORY: Artisan, Historic, or Neighborhood (my catch-all term for anything that doesn’t fit as either artisan or historic) – doesn’t affect the grade, but comparisons are probably best made within categories.

COFFEE (1-10): This is the most important part for me, so I’m giving it the most points. I’ll tell you what I had, how much it cost, and how it was. The specific price won’t figure into my grade, but “value” will (e.g. if I have a superb coffee at a low price, I’ll bump this score up; if I have decent coffee but the price is ridiculous, I’ll bump it down). I’m not an advanced coffee connoisseur with a trained palate, so don’t expect poetic tasting notes (“floral finish with impressions of roast figs”) but I’ll do my best to tell you how I think it was.

COMFORT (1-5): Can you sit here for a while? Do you want to? Is it all hard angled surfaces or deep squashy couches? Outdoor seating?

ATMOSPHERE (1-5): How does the cafe “feel”? Is it nicely decorated? Blasting weird music, or a nice “cafe” buzz? Is it quirky? Austere? On a busy main street, or in a nice quiet courtyard?

SERVICE (1-5): Friendly, or grumpy? Chatty, or silent? Brusque, or welcoming? Do you get the feeling that they just want to kick you out as soon as you finish the last drop, or is it a place you can relax?

“Espresso isn’t spelled with an X”-factor: The “x-factor” category is my chance to give any bonus points that I feel are deserved. Maybe it’s unfair to rate a place on atmosphere because it’s carry-out only: that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great place, but that may not show up in the numeric score. Or maybe a place is more than the sum of its parts. Those “floating” points will be reflected here.

WIFI: Simple yes or no. Doesn’t affect the score.

FOOD: I’m not focusing on food in these posts, but I’ll add a few words on what, if anything, they have. Also doesn’t affect the score.

EGGS-BENEDICT-SIDE-OF-HAM INSTAGRAM: I’ll provide a helpful Instagram shot of the drink I had from each place so the hipsters understand what’s going on (and if you don’t get the “eggs benedict” thing, click here)

NOTES: A place for me to add a little bit of general, narrative thoughts on the cafe.

So for those keeping score, that’s a base “X out of 25” score with the possibility for bonus points above and beyond if I think it’s merited.

I’ll get into the categorical rankings next week, but I’m starting off with a special post on my overall favorite cafe in Budapest.

The Gold Standard (Best of the Best)

Espresso Embassy

Espresso Embassy

Espresso Embassy

Arany Janos u. 15, 5th district

Public transport: Metro line 3, station “Arany Janos” utca (two blocks)

CATEGORY: Artisan

COFFEE – 10 (out of 10): The best. I mean, seriously award winning (see notes below). Full range of espresso drinks AND filter coffee, brewed in single servings to order. Espresso prices range from 400-650HUF (Hungarian forint) depending on the drink, filter coffee between 500-950HUF depending on the beans they’re using (but tend to fall in the 500-650 range). The VALUE at EE is amazing, though – their prices are more than competitive and the quality is best in class (which means it’s the best, period). They also have a full range of teas. I won’t give notes on any ONE thing, because I’ve honestly had it all there, and it’s all excellent.

COMFORT – 4 (out of 5)The only category where EE doesn’t get full points from me. There’s a mix of tables with both bench seating and individual chairs, two long counters with stools, and a small outdoor seating area in summer. The chairs are ok, but the stools are not that comfortable.

ATMOSPHERE – 5 (out of 5): Tends to play excellent music, usually has a good “buzzy but not chaotic” noise level, a very nice matte-black-and-blond-wood decor that doesn’t go overboard. Sometimes hangs local art. Has a very cool vaulted brick ceiling.

The decor and cool vaulted brick ceiling at Espresso Embassy

The decor and nifty vaulted ceiling at Espresso Embassy

SERVICE – 5 (out of 5): The staff here are all friends, so I’m biased. But they’re knowledgeable, super friendly, eager to help and answer questions, and not the slightest bit pretentious. They genuinely enjoy what they do, and it shows.

Espresso isn’t spelled with an X”-factor +1: Making up for that lost point from comfort, because EE deserves a perfect score. More in the notes below.

TOTAL: 25 (out of 25)

Wifi: Yes (free)

Food: Snacks, some catered sandwiches, cookies, banana bread, etc.

Eggs-Benedict-Side-of-Ham Instagram

Tangerine-ginger tea. Yes, tea, I'm SORRY, I had already hit a few other cafes for the series this day and I was caffeinated to the point of heart palpitations.

Tangerine-ginger tea. Yes, tea, I’m SORRY, I had already hit a few other cafes for the series this day and I was caffeinated to the point of heart palpitations.

NOTES

If you want to know how good Espresso Embassy is, here’s a clue. In the course of starting this series, today I visited two of the other artisan cafes in Budapest and told them what I was up to. The staff at BOTH OF THEM, without any prompting from me, said Espresso Embassy was the best cafe in Budapest.

When I went back to the States this past December, I had my first experiences with “3rd-wave” coffee, at Peregrine Espresso* in DC and Speckled Ax in Portland (Maine). What’s third wave? Well if the first wave was Folgers (thin, sour diner coffee with a bottomless cup), and the second was Starbucks (big jump in quality, Italian style), then the third wave are the new baristas and brewers who take their product seriously and aren’t afraid to play around to get the best cup. Think small-batch, locally-roasted, single-source-origin coffees brewed one at a time, to order. The first time you have a truly excellent coffee from one of these places, you’re gonna be amazed at the difference between this stuff and Starbucks.

From the AeroPress workshop (July 14 2013)

From the AeroPress workshop (July 14 2013)

Imagine my delight, then, when I came back to Budapest and found out that a new cafe had opened around the corner from my school while I was gone. That cafe is Espresso Embassy, and since I first went I’ve been there more days than not. The owner is Tibor Várady, and he’s a coffee champion – literally. Earlier this year he placed 3rd in the World AeroPress Championship and 6th in the World Brewers Cup.

Me and world champ Tibor

Me and world champ Tibor

This past weekend, I participated in an AeroPress workshop Tibor led, where we learned his techniques for brewing coffee with an AeroPress. The most fun part was doing a series of side-by-side tastings where we’d prepare cups with slightly different variations (“A” is ground more finely, “B” is more coarse; “A” is filtered water, “B” is tap; “A” is steeped for two minutes, “B” for 30 seconds) to see the difference those changes made (the answer: A LOT. More than I expected and more than you’d think).

photo 3

But when they’re not doing cool workshops, Espresso Embassy is a chill, friendly, cozy cafe with really, really outstanding coffee and espresso. The prices are way more than reasonable, especially considering the quality. The staff are all awesome. This has been one of my favorite places in Budapest. If you come to visit, don’t miss it.

*Side note: as excellent as the coffee was at Peregrine, the cheddar and bacon scone was mind-warpingly delicious.

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