By MARK LAMSTER
The Dallas Morning News
Some years back, and by now it's so long past I can't actually pinpoint the moment, I stopped thinking of a cup of coffee merely as an efficient caffeine delivery system and began taking it seriously, or semiseriously, as a daily epicurean endeavor. This despite some considerable cost, and not just financially. The realization that one has become a cliché of haut-bourgeois urbanity can be a serious blow to the ego.
So be it. While I am not so adept that I can instinctively distinguish the respective qualities of Costa Rican, Indonesian or Kenyan arabicas, and you're not likely to find me at a local cupping ceremony -- where the truly devoted sniff and gargle black coffee, the better to distinguish its most nuanced flavors - I am not ashamed to enjoy an espresso drink of complex flavor, and if it has a nicely executed rosette in its foamy head, all the better.
A few years ago, when I arrived in Dallas, there were precious few places to satisfy this craving. Now, the legion of baristas seems to be growing at an exponential pace. If you play your cards right, you might even score an invite to one of their regular latte art contests.
As it is, I have developed my own list of regular haunts, mostly in the vicinity of my home and office, both downtown.
For people watching, which my wife will tell you is an essential aspect of the cafe experience, there is no better place than Ascension, the Design District commissary where they roast their own beans and also offer featured coffees from other esteemed purveyors.
At Method, on the corner of Ross and Hall, the beans are from Austin-based Cuvée Coffee, and they are prepared expertly, with a strong berry flavor and an almost metallic finish. Rosettes are perfectly executed. "It's very Brooklyn in here," said the wife, which was a compliment coming from an expatriate of that New York borough. The monogrammed M tables are a nice touch, too.
On North Henderson, the location that once was home to Pearl Cup has recently been overhauled by Austin-based minichain Houndstooth Coffee, with decorative blond-wood slats and industrial-chic furnishings. A variety of roasts are on offer daily; the chocolatey Konga makes for a fine latte. No longer so crowded as it was in its Pearl Cup days, it makes for a comfortable work space away from home.
Perhaps downtown's best-kept secret is Urban Blend, a bright space tucked away on a cul-de-sac facing the West End DART stop. Now nine months old, the bright interior of blond wood (yes, this is a trend) was designed by its proprietors Jason Clontz and Stephen Ellis. "You do what you have to when you want something bad enough," says Clontz. They get their beans from Cultivar, the Lakewood stalwart. If you're looking for a convenient, quiet spot to work in the city center, with easy access to mass transit (always critical for an architecture critic), there is no better space.
But for my money, the city's best cup of coffee, not to mention the best bang for the buck, just might be the Van Buren at Davis Street Espresso, the retail operation of Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters, which supplies many of the city's top restaurants and coffeehouses. The house version of a cortado - a kind of short, more pungent latte - arrives in a glass jar on a bespoke board with a small biscotti, a spoon and, as a palate cleanser, a matching glass of Topo Chico sparkling water imported from Monterrey, Mexico - "way bubblier and way more awesome" than your standard soda water, I was assured.
Don't even bother asking for it to go, because this is actively discouraged, and, anyway, you might as well enjoy the interior, by Stash Design, of (yes) reclaimed wooden slats, which give the place the warm feeling of the bowels of an 18th-century schooner. Just don't expect a tea party.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News and a professor in the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram at @marklamster.
Ascension Coffee, 1621 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas. 214-741-3211. ascensiondallas.com.
Method Coffee, 1623 N. Hall St., Dallas. 469-726-2290. methoddallas.com. Scroll through a photo gallery of Method:
Houndstooth Coffee, 1900 N. Henderson Ave., Dallas. 972-863-9080. houndstoothcoffee.com.
Urban Blend, 805 Elm St. (entrance on Austin Street), Dallas. 972-971-3045.
ubcoffee.squarespace.com. Scroll through a photo gallery of Urban Blend:
Davis Street Espresso, 819 W. Davis St., Dallas. 214-941-0381. davisstreetespresso.com. Scroll through a photo gallery of Davis Street Espresso: