SERIOUS COFFEE Bard’s roast with a sampling of pastries. Photo: REBECCA GOLDFINE
As a sign of difficult economic times, a turnover in cafés is a noisy indicator but a significant one. For existing cafés, narrow profit margins tighten up until owners can’t see the point. But new entrepreneurs, when their previous line of work goes dry, see a venture with relatively low start-up costs. It seems simple: coffee is cheap to make and you can sell it dear. So the young and hungry replace the old and familiar, like a coffee version of All About Eve.
|MORNING IN PARIS CAFÉ | 13 Exchange St, Portland | 207.761.5637|
BARD COFFEE ROASTERS | 183 Middle St, Portland | 207.899.4788
MAINE BEAN CAFÉ | 111 Commercial St, Portland | 207.871.5773
In Portland’s Old Port the turnover this year has been notable. JavaNet closed recently, the last café in town to welcome animals. The old Breaking New Grounds was reborn as Morning in Paris Café. Bard Coffee Roasters opened across the street from Starbucks, and on Commercial Street, Maine Bean Café replaced the Portland Coffee Roasters.
Morning in Paris is much like its predecessor, but spruced up a bit. The copper-colored walls brighten things up, and the inlaid ceiling seems cleaner and more elegant. With little round tables under striped cloths, the place has a European charm. The new café still attracts many teenagers, though they seem to be hanging out with their parents more than I remember ( the better to pay for coffee I suppose). The tables at the front of the room get good light, and you can watch garrulous customers line up in front of the pastry case. The back of the room is a little dim.
The drip coffee has improved under new ownership but still struck me as a touch weak. It took a steady hand to restrain the cream dispenser from overwhelming even the darkest roast. A cappuccino was marred by a skimmish milk, which produced a too-watery foam. But the baked goods, collected from an assortment of spots, have improved. A dense little chocolate truffle cake was nearly as rich and moist as something flourless. A round tiramisu, heavy on cocoa, was good even if its round cookies weren’t quite moist. A buttery raspberry croissant overflowed with custardy cheese and a jam that was jelly-doughnut sweet.
Bard is less warm and cozy than Morning in Paris, but it strikes the right balance between sleek and comfortable to attract young professionals. There are three spaces: the round-tabled front room on display to passersby on Middle Street, a more modern bench of tables in the middle of the café, and a leather couched lounge area to the back, across from the bar.
Bard takes its coffee seriously. You can choose your bean and watch your coffee drip through a funnel for each individual cup. A Honduran dark roast was rich without any bitterness. A terrific cappuccino offered dense, creamy foam and a nutty, wintry flavor. Too bad the cookie I dipped in it was too dry and sharply sweet. Bard recently stopped carrying Standard Baking pastries and now offers some pretty pedestrian snacks. An apple cinnamon scone was too cakey and had the flavor of Irish soda bread. An oat scone was somewhat better.
Bard offers no savory snacks, and Morning in Paris offers only a reheated breakfast sandwich and bagels. By contrast, savory food is the main reason to visit Maine Bean, which specializes in sandwiches. The inside lacks charm, starting with its thin gray carpet. The coffee had a mysterious copper-colored foam on top of it, but proved to be pretty good once that dissipated. A breakfast sandwich, made to order, was terrific. The egg had been fried to just the moment where the yolk won’t run, and a good thick bacon offered both crisp crunch and satisfying chew. Lunch sandwiches run $8 to $9 and are not bad. A classic turkey came on a dense, oaty grilled wheat with lots of turkey piled high under simple lettuce, tomato, and Russian dressing in the Brooklyn style. Best of all, in the back they offer some of the terrific gelato from Brunswick’s Gelato Fiasco. While none of the Old Port’s new cafés reach the heights of that Brunswick venture, there are no fiascos either.
Brian Duff can be reached at email@example.com.