Perking up the coffee scene

triangle.comFebruary 9, 2005 

Lookout, Starbucks. The local boys are brewing up more trouble. All over the Triangle, as the Seattle-based Goliath of caffeine struggles to hold its ground, independently owned coffeehouses continue to open at a dizzying pace. What's more, the newcomers are getting more and more ambitious in their attempts to set themselves apart from the crowd.

You certainly won't mistake 3 Cups, which opened in December in the courtyard behind Penang on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street, for a run-of-the-mill coffeehouse. For starters, there's no espresso machine. The closest you'll come to a cappuccino here is a cafe au lait.

But what a cafe au lait. All coffees are brewed to order, using a press pot or by hand-drip method. Completing this coffee purist's dream is a seasonally changing assortment of estate coffees (no blends, thank you) roasted for the shop three or four times a week by Counter Culture Coffee.

The shop also features 15 premium loose leaf teas and sells fine chocolates made by the likes of Valhrona, Scharffen Berger and Michel Cluizel.

3 Cups is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It's clearly an attempt to raise the bar in coffeehouse standards. Will it be successful? It may help to know that the owner is Lex Alexander, who founded Wellspring Grocery, which he eventually sold to Whole Foods. Given Alexander's track record, I sure wouldn't bet against his coffee shop.

Meanwhile in Durham, Shade Tree Coffee is living up to its name by offering estate-grown coffees, many of them certified organic, shade-grown and fair trade.

The focus on quality isn't limited to coffee but extends to the Maple View Farms milk in lattes and cappuccinos and to the organic teas, Guglhupf pastries and Cosmic ice creams the shop also serves. Owner Greg Lamm hopes to add sandwiches to the menu soon. When he does, odds are they will be from a similarly reputable source.

Lamm invites you to stop in and stay a while (the ambience is cozy, with free wireless internet connection). Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

You know the coffeehouse market is hot when one of the area's heavy-hitter restaurateurs gets into the act. That's just what Payman Bazooband, owner of several Rio Churrascaria and Crazy Fire Mongolian Grill locations (as well as Oliver's Twist, a tapas lounge slated to open later this month in North Raleigh; stay tuned for more details in coming weeks) has done with the opening of Carmo's Coffee & Cafe (468-1799) in Cary's MacGregor Village.

Carmo's distinguishes itself from most other local coffeehouses by brewing with imported beans -- espresso from Italian roaster Danesi and organic coffee from Brazilian supplier Marques de Paiva. As a token of its international emphasis, the coffeehouse is named for Carmo, a noted coffee plantation in Brazil.

In addition to coffees, Carmo's sells an assortment of pastries, panini and sandwiches on croissants. The shop is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.

And if you think that the coffeehouse trend is winding down, stay tuned. Coming soon are two exotic variations on the theme, Turkish Delights on Glenwood South and Marrakesh Cafe on Hillsborough Street. Irony of ironies, Marrakesh is taking over a spot formerly occupied by Starbucks.

Got a tip for Greg? Contact him ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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