Retro Chic: Leva Capuccino Bar

Since our failed attempt to try them back in December, I’ve been itching to visit the newly-renovated Leva Capuccino Bar (11053 86 Avenue). So on a windy Friday, Bettina and I ventured back in the direction of the University campus.

It turns out their grand re-opening took place on March 24, and in addition to renovations, they also revamped their menu. As this was my first time at Leva, I’m not sure what it looked like prior to its facelift, but I can say that the new space is very chic. With a clean black and white color scheme, accented with orange chairs and fabulous crystal chandeliers, it has a younger, but similar vibe to Caffè Sorrentino. The order counter (save the LCD panels), is designed with a 70s touch, anchoring the cafe with a retro feel. Also of note is their selection of food magazines, including Gourmet Traveller and Donna Hay – definitely not your average coffee shop collection!

In addition to the baked goods and artisan gelato, Leva also offers several salads, panini sandwiches, and pizzas. Never being able to pass up a good Margherita, I gave it a try. Made to order, the pizza was great (and better than the one I had at Earls a few weeks ago), in large part due to the light and crispy crust. The creamy bocconcini cheese was a delicious alternative to the more commonly used mozzarella, and really served to make this pizza special. My accompanying iced coffee was just that, but included just the right amount of added sweetener, cutting through the usual bitterness associated with the drink.

Just a short walk from the University, Leva is worth a try if you’re in the area.
Cafe exterior
Interior
Order counter
Margherita Pizza
Bettina’s treats (of which I sampled as well – the blueberry ricotta tart was the best of the three)

Random Weekend Notes

  • Millwoods finally has its first stand-alone Starbucks (2331-66 Street)! Though “finally” is a misnomer in this case, as its been in operation since August of last year. I guess I just haven’t paid enough attention when passing by the south side of the Mill Woods Town Centre complex. Anyway, to help ease the pain of phonetic transcription exercises this morning (I naively thought my days facing the evil schwa were over), I bought myself a vanilla cupcake. I must say it wasn’t bad – moist, and topped off with creamy, buttery icing, I even pardoned the oily paper cup as a byproduct of forced freshness. So at $1.95, and more accessible than the few and far between specialty cupcake shops, it’s a worthwhile indulgence.

Vanilla cupcake, coffee, and homework

  • Speaking of Starbucks, Mack told me about a novel documentary called Starbucking that will be out on DVD in April. The movie focuses on why a man has made it his personal mission to visit every Starbucks in the world.
  • Yesterday afternoon, I decided to make like my coworker Anna and walk home after a seminar at the Grey Nuns Hospital (if you were wondering, as I was, Youville Drive, the street the hospital is on, is named after St. Marguerite d’Youville, the first native Canadian to be elevated to sainthood). It was one of those perfect pre-spring winter days with sunshine, fresh, cool air, and active, visible wildlife. The trek was a modest 45 minutes, and particularly after a meandering stint in the Mill Creek Ravine (I wish I had my camera!), made me wonder why I don’t do this more often. Like withdrawn new year’s resolutions, the answer to that is simple of course, but I hope to be more “active” as the weather shifts, and perhaps blogging this will make me more accountable for such grand visions.

Musings on Second Cup

I took advantage of a promotion at Second Cup today, where by ordering one of their new drinks, customers are given a free magazine. I chose the vaguely appealing Dark Chocolate Raspberry Latte, and received a complementary issue of Elle.

The drink, while both rich and saccharine (bitter lattes are not for me), had the tang of fruit that I don’t think mixes well with coffee (I hold the same opinion for chocolate – the best thing, for example, about Terry’s Chocolate Orange is smashing it).

I read an article recently about Second Cup’s upward swing in Canada’s coffee market. While still ranked third behind Starbucks and Tim Horton’s, their goal is to encourage repeat customers by offering excellent service: “It’s taken for granted that the drinks are going to be great – but when you’re treated so well, that’s something people keep coming back for,” says Karen Gold, their Marketing Director.

Gold’s comment is true to some extent – my morning coffee has become such a ritual in my workday that nearly all of the rotating Empire Building Starbucks baristas know my regular even before I open my mouth. It’s such a small thing – earned only over time, consistency, and a lot of money – but their immediate recognition does make me feel “special.”

The Second Cup I visited today is one of the nicest (and newest) in the city. Located in the upscale Manulife Place (10180-101 Street), it’s filled with plush chairs, polished dark wood tables, a fireplace, and stylish drop lighting. The downside of this particular store is its hours of operation – closed on weekends, and after 5:30 on weekdays, it prevents any extensive post-work gab or unwinding sessions. All Second Cups, however, really need to rethink their coffee bar design – is a ledge the size of an arm really functional, or large enough during the rushes? It seems this fundamental fixture should be paid more attention to than say, an additional couch or new product.

While I’ll be faithful to Starbucks until the end, it’s always nice to have competition and choice within the market.

Manulife Place Second Cup

Starbucks’s Cinammon Dolce Latte

I tried the “new” Cinnamon Dolce Latte at Starbucks on Friday. While nothing can replace my White Chocolate Mocha, the Dolce was very good – rich and creamy, and I couldn’t taste the cinnamon at all. Rather, it tasted to me like an even better version of the Gingerbread Latte.

I’m sad to say, however, that Starbucks has reached Hallmark-levels of holiday agenda pushing, with their Valentine’s merchandise display up already on January 3, when most people still have full-on new year’s denial. Why can’t we just order coffee without the distraction of seasonal gift items?

Fresh Start Bakery

I decided to check out Fresh Start Bakery (484 Riverbend Square) with my parents while we were in the area this afternoon. I had originally read about the cafe in Vue Weekly, and noticing the apparent hunger in Edmonton for upscale breads and treats (Fresh Start joins Cobbs Bread and the more established Bon Ton and Bee Bell Bakeries), it seemed time to try the city’s latest.

Catering to the wealthy and idle, the cafe was clean and spacious, with stone accents and marble counters to boot. Atop the hearth sat a flat-panel television screen, listing the country songs being played on the digital radio station. The bakery counter was located to the left of the entrance, displaying fresh loaves and desserts too saccharine for a late lunch. My dieter’s sensibility drove me instead to the bistro showcase.

Given the location of this cafe, expensive dishes were to be expected. The bistro side offered some freshly-prepared goods, including paninis, rice bowls, and pizza, but also some heat-from-the-cooler standard coffee shop fare, such as quiche and shepherd’s pie. I opted for the latter, while my Mum ordered a large bowl of beef and vegetable soup.

The pie was nicely plated, but sadly, I couldn’t tell if it had been microwaved or oven-heated (usually indicative of the former). Still, the beef was well-seasoned, with a reasonable quantity of vegetables, and the cookie-pressed mashed potato florets created a distinctive presentation. My Mum’s soup was disappointing in size ($5.99 for the bowl), but she did appreciate the low sodium flavored broth and generous portion of beef included.

Before heading home, we opted to take home some baked goods. I chose a Montreal-style cheese bagel, and after a frustrating “Who’s on first?” type exchange with the clerk (“No, we want the goosen, NOT the cinnamon bun!”), my mum ended up with a cinnamon bun (don’t ask). I found the bagel to be worth a return trip – crunchy with a sumptuous cheesy essence. My Dad commented that the cinnamon bun was good, but inferior to Mum’s own.

Fresh Start can be considered an alternative to the run of the mill coffee chain, and if I happen to be in Riverbend in the future, I wouldn’t overlook dropping by for a cup of coffee. But I’d be sure to load up on a heartier meal elsewhere first.

Fresh Start Bakery (I neglected to bring my camera, so I was forced to take an image from the website).

Film: “Black Gold”

After dinner, we watched the documentary Black Gold. From the movie’s website:

“Tadesse Meskela is one man on a mission to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. As his farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world in an attempt to find buyers willing to pay a fair price.”

The film set a global course, from the New York Stock Exchange where international coffee prices are set, to the province of Oromia, Ethiopia, where poverty is pervasive, in part due to the terminally low selling price of coffee, to London where Meskela tries to acquire new purchasers for his collective’s coffee.

I’m not a documentary-junkie, but I did find that there was something missing in the film – it needed a harder edge. Format-wise, there were the expected juxtaposition tactics of extreme destitution against the wealth of developed nations. At the same time, some jump cuts were much too jarring, weakening the effectiveness with the time needed to adjust between locales.

The filmmakers did try to broaden the scope of the problem to include international scapegoats, mentioning an apparently pivotal end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, as well as a breakdown of WTO talks between the EU and developing nations in 2003, but overall, this section was much too general. I suppose part of the problem was that the film up to this point had followed Meskela, and without a developed figure present at the conferences, it was difficult to continue the narrative they had worked so hard to construct.

There was one panel of text summarizing how the multinationals (Kraft, Sara Lee, et al.) had turned down requests for interviews. I’m not saying that the filmmakers had to stalk industry representatives or stage a protest in front of company headquarters à la Michael Moore, but there had to be further elaboration. Yes, governments and trade organizations are at fault, but so are the corporations.

Near the end of the movie, the camera tracks Meskela as he searches the aisles of a London supermarket for coffee originating in Oromia. He does find a package, and expresses his hope that consumers on the ground level will begin to investigate the source of coffee, and work to advocate against the injustice faced by third world farmers. I think this point should have been communicated further as well, for example, by interviewing consumers about their awareness of the coffee trade as a whole. I was waiting for the explicit condemnation of those who silently comply with unjust treatment.

So, am I now a hypocrite if I continue to partake in coffee without asking the questions that need to be asked?

I see cups of red…

Besides the return of such classics like Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” on the airways, another holiday staple I eagerly await involves Starbucks’ Holiday Trio. More than the Gingerbread Latte (my favorite of the three) however, I am looking forward to the seasonal “red cup”. Last year, their “red cups” recreated conventional yuletide scenes, encouraging the association between warm fuzzies and Starbucks. Yes, it worked on me; I’m a sap.

I stumbled across a Starbucks Gossip blog, which included the tidbit that their holiday campaign will begin on November 9, at least in the States. The yet-to-function seasonal site address is pegged to be www.itsredagain.com.

The Starbucks blog, who’s self-proclaimed role is “monitoring America’s favorite drug dealer,” contains quite the cornucopia of information. Any articles written about the coffee giant are linked to and discussed. Two stories from the month of October that intrigued me:

  • Champagne with your coffee? A couple hold their wedding reception at a Starbucks (hm, not a bad idea…)
  • Out out, cheap patron! The debate over the so-called “ghetto latte” (I think I’m a Starbucks snob – frugal customers should go elsewhere for their iced latte fix. If you’re at Starbucks, you should be prepared to pay a premium for the quality, service, and atmosphere).