04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Search for the Perfect Ristretto: Caffe Luxxe

The fact that I haven't diverted your attention to this place yet is just plain wrong, as I'm here at least three times a week. And sorry to anyone from the Eastside reading this, but Caffe Luxxe beats out Intelligentsia for my coffee fueled needs. There. I said it. Let the Sharks versus Jets style turf war for espresso supremacy begin!

Actually it would be ristretto versus ristretto supremacy, as Caffe Luxxe serves ristretto shots in their drinks (like Intelligentsia), making it a rare find in the coffee shop world. After reading about the ristretto method for pulling espresso shots (where a shorter brewing cycle enables the sweetest flavors to be extracted before the bitter ones can develop) in one of my favorite publications, Gastronomica, I was on a mission to find one in LA. I stopped by a few places I expected to see ristretto offered: LA Mill, Intellgentsia, etc., but got nowhere fast. I walked into Caffe Luxxe, which I had already been frequenting on a regular basis and asked: "You don't have a ristretto shot, do you?"
"All of our drinks are made with ristretto shots."
So I had been sipping ristretto all along! It made perfect sense when I compared what I had heard about ristretto to what I was served at Caffe Luxxe: abundantly thick crema, the deep auburn layer of emulsified oils that cover the surface, and sweet mellow flavors sometimes with a kiss of floral aromas underneath. I may be bordering on hagiography, but the sips I've enjoyed by my favorite baristas there were outstanding. Each shot is about 3/4 of an ounce (the average espresso shot can be 2 ounces) and pulled in 25 seconds. All of these elements combine to make what Caffe Luxxe promises: una bella tazza di espresso - a beautiful cup of espresso.
My Favorite Non-Fat Cappuccino
God, just look at that foam!
Erik doing his thing behind the counter.
The pastries are provided by Bread Bar, a local boulangerie.
The simple espresso menu (Drip coffees are available at the Santa Monica location).
A description of their two beans: A Capella (for pure ristretto shots) and Testarossa (to go with steamed milk).

Ian's Signature Drink
The main reason I haunt Caffe Luxxe so often is not necessarily for their superlative coffee. As my mom keeps reminding me, caffeine and I don't mix too well, so I have to keep it to a minimum. But jumpy nerves be damned! I keep returning because the baristas are just really really cool. Erik, Nathan, and Ian are the three I run into at the Brentwood location, and other than knowing their espresso inside and out, they each bring a special something to their drinks. Erik is a trained chef and major foodie, Nathan is a classically trained singer, and Ian just competed in a national Barista competition, representing Caffe Luxxe for the first time.
The competition is judged by a panel of 7, based on the physical drink and technique (i.e. the cleanliness of your station). Each barista must present 4 espresso shots, 4 cappuccinos, and 4 signature drinks--a concoction from the individual's imagination. Ian was generous enough to make his signature drink for me, and just, wow. Wow. It's beyond amazing. I'd like to start the petition to add his drink to Caffe Luxxe's menu.
The drink starts with half an ounce of fresh bay leaf and juniper berry simple syrup. In my mind this blend of aromatics is beautiful with venison or as Erik suggested, with salmon, not necessarily with something sweet. But then again, olive oil is delicious on vanilla ice cream and balsamic is great with strawberries, so it's no surprise that this mix would be beautiful with the depth of a Caffe Luxxe ristretto. Next, a ristretto shot is added with a small dollop of steamed whole milk. Add one strip of orange zest and voila! A sophisticated non alcoholic aperitif is created.
I didn't get Ian's exact recipe, but from what I gathered, it goes as such: combine equal parts sugar and water over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add a bunch of fresh bay leaves and about 4 or 5 fresh juniper berries to the mix. Anymore than that, and the syrup may start tasting like gin, "Which might not be such a bad thing," said Ian. But for our purposes, we'll stick to 4 or 5. Turn off the heat and allow the syrup to cool. Bottle the syrup with the berries and bay leaves to keep infusing it with flavor. Ian's mix had been infusing for a little over a week.
Add one tablespoon of the syrup to a small glass. Pull a good shot of espresso. I feel like that's saying bake a perfect souffle or rub your belly and pat your head at the same time, as it's harder than it sounds. I'm by no means an expert, but a good starting place is grinding your own beans right before you pack the shot. Also, overfill your filter with the ground beans and even the surface with your finger. Push the tamp into the filter with about 30 to 50 pounds of pressure. If you have no idea what this feels like (because lord knows I didn't) try pressing your tamp onto a bathroom scale until you reach the right level of pressure. Also, the espresso should drip out in a thick steady stream or reddish-brown liquid. If the stream is coming out too quickly, the grind may be too coarse. Pull your shot for 25 seconds. It should be around 1 to 2 ounces. The crema should be thick and a rich caramel color. If it is thin and quickly recedes to the edges, it's not a good sign.
Pour the shot over the syrup and top with some foamed whole milk and a strip of freshly zested orange. Mix with a spoon and enjoy!

For more articles like this, visit Claire's Blog, The Kitchy Kitchen.