The rain on the day we visited Assembly in Carlton was, in a word, unseasonable. For November it belted down heavy and caught my partner for the day, Rachel, and I out on a few occasions. We had spent a good two hours traversing to various cafes around the inner city of Melbourne only to find that all the ones I had on my hand written list, now damp and lightly fraying from the rain, were all shut.
Except for Assembly.
I almost tripped on the front step as we skipped through the front door on the right after a dash from our car we were greeted with a very carefully curated speciality coffee shop. Assembly operates delightfully though, a little different to a lot of other emerging cafes in Melbourne. It seems to be a coffee store first and a cafe second.
A 2×2 stove with four percolators sits up against at the mirrored wall in the back with a neon sign flickering ‘Coffee & Tea’ that hung over staff compulsively watching the coffees preparation. Milk must be a certain temperature, only a specific number of beans must be used, brew times must be to military efficiency. There’s a mad science going on here that the staff are very proud of.
Three years they have occupied the space in Carlton and inspired by Japanese design, the space is very stark with an excellent combination of black metal and natural timber.
We stepped back outside, hugged the awning and went into the door on the right. A blond haired barista greeted us warmly, his man-bun tied neatly to match his short back and sides. I whispered to Rachel ‘Man, I wished I had the wherewithal to grow my hair long.’ We ordered a flat white, a cappuccino and a blueberry tart. As we were the only ones in the cafe late in the afternoon just before closing time both coffees came out promptly.
The cafe struck me as an after thought. It didn’t have the same level of polish as the retail space next door. The stark dark color palette of the seating area and narrow space struggled to encourage either of us to feel entirely comfortable, especially when it was just the two of us. A steady stream of regulars ordering take outs verified that this place is about good coffee, not a cafe experience. We both agreed that we kind of liked that.
‘I’m really sorry. Was I meant to bring a tart on a plate for you?’ The blond barista tentatively interrupted as we both looked up from reading the variety of magazines that we had picked from the rack. We said yes and he apologised profusely before shortly returning with the tart. ‘Have some filters on the house’ he offered and placed two black coffees either side of the dessert.
They were better than the flat white. Smooth with a fruity mix and probably the best coffee I’ve had since I left Tokyo five months ago.
‘It’s nice to have something in Melbourne to talk about.’ I mentioned to Rachel. She smiled and went back to fawning over the publication she was reading.
It’s fairly easy for me to look back fondly on all the minimal coffee stands and design conscious places I visited while in Tokyo, but let’s be realistic here. I spent a total of 10 minutes at Be A Good Neighbor Coffee Kiosk in Sendagaya, Shibuya. Despite this, such was the pleasure in such a thrifty, thoughtful coffee experience with a humble message attached to it that I fell for it and it is one I can’t wait to revisit.
The original of a trifecta of coffee stands by owner Mashiro Kajiwara, editor of one of my former favorite Japanese publications RELAX mag, it’s plain to see his training and foresight for the future of specialty coffee wasn’t misplaced. The others having been opened on the other side of Tokyo at Skytree and in buzzing Roppongi are testament to this vision. True to the stores name, there’s a warm casual welcome when you enter, which is always acknowledged as a foreigner in Tokyo. There’s no pressure to order and vacate despite the closet like size and standing at the thin timber ledge on the window to gather your thoughts for a few minutes felt normal. The stand is being as good as it can be to you.
There’s a choice of 3 single origin beans from the understated Kagoshima based, Viola Coffee brewed anyway you prefer. There’s no seating but if you linger you won’t be rushed out and the staff are happy to talk espresso. If coffee isn’t your thing there’s also a small selection of teas, cakes and scones for you.
‘A New Day Starts Here’ is the mantra at Be A Good Neighbor with it being on a wooden v-board out the front and above the espresso machine and I visited when it actually held some relevance to me. Being the last coffee kiosk I visited before I jetted off to Korea and said goodbye to the current incarnation of living in Japan Be a Good Neighbor left me with enough of an impression, even after only ten minutes, that I could see myself coming back and being welcomed with ‘Usual?’ as if I were a living next door myself.
It occupies a space no bigger than the bedroom at my parents house way back home but Little Nap Coffee Stand, behind Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, Japan is cute, charming and chill. Oh yeh, it’s also got pretty good coffee. Which is interesting given that its location is where you’re more likely to find kids playing in the street than the overwhelming culture bomb at Harajuku, a mere 15 minutes away by foot through Yoyogi Park.
But that’s awesome because it’s a recurring theme when you’re on the coffee trail in Tokyo. Get off at some random station, walk 10 minutes through the backstreets, find an empty coffee shop that somehow, despite seemingly being near no one, has people coming through it.
Reputation is everything and without it shops wither and die. It’s glad to see that Little Nap had a queue of what seemed regulars by the time I left.
Venturing to Little Nap taught me one thing. Coffee in Tokyo is not all piss and wine filtered through the cushions of an abandoned couch from the 1970’s. There’s good coffee everywhere hidden in plain sight. It just requires a bit of clever research to uncover. It also helps to avoid Doutor Coffee.
Getting a coffee shop right should be an easy trade. Small space, espresso machine, stock their own bean brand no ones heard of, fancy branding and open whenever you like. So why is it in Korea most coffee shop has an identical modern fit-out, is open 24 hours and is large enough to seat the population a small pacific nation?
The answer is consortiums. They run them all. So finding one with the above traits, an independent coffee shop that ‘you know care’™, in the main youth area of Hongdae is surprisingly tricky. Luckily Coffee Libre is there to get my hole in the wall take away fix.
Open since 2011, the renovated herbal medicine shop off the main area of Hongdae serves as the cafe of, I’m not quite sure really, an emerging empire much in the vain of Streamer? Coffee Libres’ roastery and head office are located nearby is what I’m trying to say. It’s small but you can tell there is a love of coffee here and shows in their participation of almost every coffee related event in Korea in the last 3 years.
Knowledgable on aeropress, which is a supreme rarity in these parts, freshly ground beans and a lack of soy milk speaks volumes really for the appreciation of coffee the staff at Coffee Libre hold. Only three items are on the menu, Espresso, Americano and Cafe Latte all reasonably priced at ₩4000. Iced Lattes are cardinal during Seouls humids summer.
Well worth going out of your way and doubly worth finding it. Check out Coffee Libre if you’re in Seoul.
My understanding of New York Style pizza comes exclusively from what I’ve watched on American sitcoms. Pizza sold by the slice rather than whole, with thin, oily, awful toppings and about as gourmet as a kebab after midnight. It’s simply not a thing where I’m from.
Pizza SLICE in Shibuya, Tokyo doesn’t aim to change that, but at least do it in a much better setting than the gutter in-front of the kebab truck.
Only open since November 2013 its goals are fairly simple. Simple dining and beer in a social environment where it can be shared between friends, evident in the large share tables and open floor. Staff are willing to have a conversation with you if you ask something interesting enough, my suggestion would be their opinion on the Godzilla Remake. It’s less than favorable.
Slices range from a reasonable ¥300 for a cheese slice to ¥600 for the slice of the day, which was Chorizo and Mozzarella when I visited. Beer is on tap and you can also get a coffee if you feel like being a real weirdo.
© 2018 Carey Ciuro