I’m artisanaly exhausted.
I’ve just returned from Taste Hong Kong. This year I sampled an artisan hot dog, artisan tatter tots and an artisan ice lolly. All three had the artistic merit of a stroke victim recreating the Mona Lisa with half a packet of Crayola.
I have no problem with handmade, authentic and artistic food. On the contrary, such cuisine gives me more pleasure than just about anything else. I sampled Alvin Leung’s signature dish – the x-treme xiao long bao – at Taste and it was everything I’d imagined it would be. The giant fish egg popped in my mouth delivering rich, complex pork liquor. The dish is only achievable through genuine respect for culinary heritage combined with exceptional craft skills.
The real problem arises when the margin between very average and very good in ‘artisan’ categories is not significant. The difference between Bubbledogs’ artisan hot dog at $95 and an IKEA hot dog at $7 is not that great – and it’s certainly not greater than a magnitude of ten.
Some foods deserve their artisan status. You simply cannot wake up one day and decide to knock-out some Crottin de Chavigol or take a take a job as an Itamae sushi master. Both requires generations of knowledge and a lifetime of experience.
Others foods do not. Artisan coffee is one such false reality that everyone now takes too seriously.
To challenge both my cynicism and taste buds, I decided to try the (supposedly) best of the best. A $65 single origin, fresh roasted, drip coffee from NOC Coffee Co.
The new – and largest – NOC frequents that geographic hinterland between Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town. It has all the mandatory qualities of an expensive coffee shop. The staff were chirpy and of ambiguous gender. The clientele were all beautiful young trust fund types on Mac Books. And saccharine acoustic covers filled the large empty space.
According to the Artisan School of Food (yes, it really exists), “Artisan” is a term used to describe food produced by non-industrialised methods, often handed down through generations but now in danger of being lost”. Now, with more than a dozen high end coffee shops within spitting distance of NOC, coffee is in no danger of being lost anytime soon. Moreover, the interior is deliberately industrial. Large machines, computer screens and spotless white surfaces are more akin to an animal testing facility than a relaxing spot in which to while away a few hours.
“But it means we can roast our own beans” NOC might decree. Great, I heated my own part bake baguette last night, that doesn’t make me a master baker (get your mind out the gutter – I said master baker).
Similar coffee shops launched their reputation with a barista award or two, but have sustained it with very good food. Arguably, The Cupping Room is now more famous for their eggs and avo, than their Arabica beans.
NOC apparently stands for Not Only Coffee. So, it stands to reason I should try the food.
All in all, my all-day breakfast wasn’t bad.
Unusually, it contained a real sausage (a ‘banger’ as they erroneous call it). This wasn’t great, but it was much better than 99% of what passes for a sausage in Hong Kong.
There was potato gratin. Again, not perfect, being slightly undercooked, but cheesy and well-seasoned.
My scrambled eggs were perfectly cooked with a creamy, soft scrambled consistency.
With my breakfast warm-up act departing the stage having given an adequate performance, it was time for the main event.
I’ve never spent $65 dollars on a coffee before and my expectations were high.
The coffee came in a little jug. This was pretty unnecessary but a little theatre is probably needed when a single drink costs the same as a decent lunch.
The first sip was utterly underwhelming. It was watery and a little insipid. There wasn’t any hint of the rich, redemptive hit that comes from a decent espresso. However, the taste did linker a little longer and the flavour profile changed – and improved – the more I drank.
So, was it worth $65? Absolutely not. I’ve been robbed. I like to think I’m fairly perceptive when it comes to flavour, but I’m not entirely sure I could pick-out this particular offender in an identify parade of 7-11, McDonalds and office pantry crimes against caffeine.
There will be many who take a great issue with my contemptuous stance on coffee. That’s because coffee is now not merely a caffeinated beverage, it’s become a lifestyle indicator. Like Apple products, avocados and Ed Sheeran, expensive coffee is indicative of a financially comfortable, culturally lacking, Instagram-led city life.
And that’s fine, but let’s not pretend there is rare artisanal merit in a good cup of coffee. If there were, there wouldn’t be more coffee shops in the local area than you can shake a selfie stick at.
How much? $65 for a coffee!
Where? 321 Des Voeux Rd W, Sai Ying Pun
Who goes? Beautiful young trust fund types on Mac Books