The caffeine crowd has kept the on-line forums busy over the past few weeks in anticipation of award-winning barista Sam James’s new place on Harbord Street. And now, after three months and a few bypassed opening dates, the Sam James Coffee Bar is finally open. “I didn’t want to open until everything was perfect,” says James. “It’s a shame when you go to an espresso bar and you’re let down by the coffee.”
James noticed the vacant spot three months ago when he was doing laundry across the street and thought this would be a good “old school” neighbourhood in which to set up shop. James kept the decor minimal: blank walls, save a tapestry made by his photographer friend Jeremy Jansen, and a white-tiled floor. A few stools are set up by the front window, but as the name suggests, this place is a bar and not a lounge.
Behind the counter are plaques and awards declaring “Samuel James” the best in the biz, as well as a $5 bill signed by Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista’s Handbook, who flew in from Montreal for the opening. Other followers of James’s career—from Cherry Bomb to Hank’s to Manic Coffee to Dark Horse—lined up around the block on opening day to order off the simple menu: coffee ($2.14 for a regular cup), old school ($2.14 for a shot of espresso), new school ($3.33 for a soy latte) and tea ($2.38).
A small selection of sweet pastries delivered daily by J.P. Challet’s (Le Sélect, The Fifth) catering company across the street includes buttery croissants ($2.25) and dulce de leche banana bread ($2.25); James adds that he’d like to introduce savoury options.
But what is most intriguing here is the siphon coffee ($5.31 for one, $7.96 for two): a labour-intensive, seldom-used brewing process resembling a high-school lab experiment that produces a coffee superior to the regular brew. Consisting of two small, stacked coffee pots and connected by a tube, water is boiled in the lower chamber over an open flame and rises through the tube into the upper pot containing the coffee that James grinds by hand. Once the brew is ready, the flame is turned off and the coffee flows back down through the tube, which contains a filter, and into the lower chamber, ready to be poured. Total time: three minutes.
Unlike other coffees, many of which have a slightly tangy aftertaste, siphon coffee comes off as lighter, more pure and more delicate, making milk and sugar unnecessary. “Siphon coffee has less acidity and tastes very clean. It’s great for coffees with aromatic qualities, like Ethiopian beans that may have berry or jasmine notes,” he says. “It’s a date coffee, a treat for a girlfriend. It’s labour intensive, but I built this place around craftsmanship and manual labour. People will wait for great coffee.”
Sam James Coffee Bar, 297 Harbord St. (at Clinton St.), 647-341-2572, samjamescoffeebar.com.