Café au Lait

It was perfect, the perfect cup of coffee. I’m not even that fond of coffee, but for that moment, it was eight ounces of heaven in a cup.

Not only was it heaven, it was the last thing I expected. I was not in a terrific mood; unhappy with the world in general, little sleep, and having just come off more than 10-hours of various forms of transportation. Worse, some of my best laid plans — half the reason for the trip — had come a cropper; the last thing I wanted to hear was “your room is not yet ready, terribly sorry.”

Then and there, I was convinced that nothing could improve my disposition. I was wrong. Perhaps sensing my despair and not wanting the lobby littered with corpses, the hotel clerk quietly suggested that, just perhaps, I might want a coffee, all the while ushering me, ever so gently, into the dining room. He was smooth. I was in the dining room and seated even before I noticed.

“No, don’t worry about your bags,” he said, motioning the waiter over to the table. “We’ll take them up to your room. Just relax.”

“Café?” said the waiter, sliding up silently. Sighing, “Oui,” I said, in my best imitation of French. I pronounced it more like “weigh” than “wee” — vowels and I don’t get along — my French has a Spanish accent I just can’t shake. As defense, I try to pretend my French is Languedoc. It doesn’t work. I figure I sound like an idiot, something I’ll have to live with.

Then it hit me. The coffee was incredible, perfect — a small pewter pitcher of steamed milk, warm to the touch, and “un petite pichet” of black, strong, rich, almost-chocolate-like coffee. Placing a raw sugar cube in the coffee cup, I poured, first the milk and then, the coffee. The result was warm and rich, the color of milk chocolate, and heaven in a cup. I suddenly remembered what coffee really was.

Coffee and I are well acquainted — this will surprise my friends that have only seen me drink Genmaicha. It’s not that I don’t like coffee. I just don’t like bad coffee. More so, I can’t stand the “fratalian” combinations one is presented with today, too much choice, not enough flavor, and weird names like “fatty-latte-vente-gente-gordo-en-la-bañera.”

To me, coffee comes in six choices. Five are Spanish that I learned as a student in Spain, and I added in the cappuccino to round out the collection. I don’t think the Spanish have a cappuccino equivalent.

  • Cappuccino: A shot of Espresso, cut with steamed (hot) milk, and layered with milk foam on top. There are two variations: Cappuccino chiaro (light) and cappuccino scuro (dark). Properly, they’re served for breakfast; gauche I am, I like them after dinner now and then.
  • Café con leche (or Café au Lait / Milchkaffee): A mixture of coffee and steamed milk – usually in a 50/50 to 25/75 proportion – served in cup that you’d consider “small.” You drink it for breakfast, along with toast from yesterday’s baguette. You can have the milk either hot or warm.
  • Café cortado (or
    Macchiato): Coffee that is “cut” with steamed milk. This is what one orders in bars, from little refreshment stands, sidewalk cafes, and the like. This is an afternoon coffee.
  • Café solo (or Espresso): A shot of coffee without milk; served in a tiny cup. Depending on the roast, this is what you think of when you think Espresso.
  • Café manchado: Mostly milk, steamed, with just a hint of coffee. It’s made with about ¼ coffee and the rest milk, kind of a reverse cortado. I think this might be the equivalent of a latte. I never drank one.
  • Carajillo: Coffee, black, enlivened with cognac or an anis drink such as Ricard. As a student, I found one or two of these greatly improved my command of the Spanish language.

There is another thing called a “Café Americano.” Don’t even think about it. It’s dishwater.

Once I had settled into my Café au Lait, I noticed the dining room. Solarium-like, the ceiling was glass, giving way to a view of overhanging trees; quiet, shaded, green — a relaxing room of wood and glass. Tom Waits was growling on the sound system, with the gravelly sounds of “Invitation to the Blues.” “Now that’s timing,” I muttered to the universe. “She’s a moving violation, from her conk down to her shoes. Well, it’s just an invitation to the blues…” I sung along under my breath: “And you feel just like Cagney, she looks like Rita Hayworth…”

I leaned back, letting Waits fill the spaces. He sings better than I do, and he knows the words. “Tom Waits for breakfast,” I thought to myself, “a wee bit heavy, but I like this place.” I thumbed through the pages on a Herald Tribune, noting that not much had changed overnight; everything was still going to hell. Perfect coffee, perfect setting: Calming, sheltering, private without that dreary anomie that comes with the typical Hyatt-Marriott-cum-Motel-66. In what seemed like a few minutes, the waiter was back. My room was ready, but “no hurry,” he said and smiled. “It will wait. Would you like another café?” I said, “Oui, merci.”

What I had found was one of those rare things, a traveler’s oasis; a hotel to add to my list of hotels where I don’t mind staying. I had decided to switch hotels for a myriad of reasons. The reasons — important then — had ended up irrelevant. The serendipitous result was: I liked the place, and I had another entry for what is a pretty short list of hotels that are just a little special.

Look, I’m not a globetrotter, but I do travel a bit. Yeah, there were a few years where my dog forgot my name, but those days are behind me. Now it’s lots of little trips, and a few big ones a year. And, hotels usually suck. It’s a room, it’s a bed, and it’s a lousy breakfast. Sometimes you get free internet.

I’ve stayed in more than my share of cinderblock cubes — nondescript hotels that could be anywhere from Abu Dhabi to Abilene. Some, like one motel outside of Colby Kansas, are memorable for the wrong reasons. That one was downwind from the nearby feedlot. Rachel, my dog, thought it smelled like Chanel No. 5, but, for me, it was a wee too “Chez Merde.” I’m serious. It was a smell so powerful it kept you awake at night.

This one, well, it had the makings of one to remember — but for the right reasons — including the best cup of café in the world. I officially added the Manos Premier to my list of hotels that don’t totally suck.

I discovered the next morning that not only do they serve a fine cup of coffee, but the coffee accompanies a wonderful buffet breakfast (included in the room rate – gotta love it): a buffet of smoked salmon, tropical fruit, and the quintessential collection of cold meats and cheeses. My lodgings were reasonable, not too fancy; furnished in French provincial, two floors, a sitting area and a loft overhead, reached by a slim staircase along one wall. The loft held the bed, and it looked out the two large windows that opened out into the street. It was quiet and cozy, friendly.

Finally, the bar, Kolya offered comfortable seating where I could stretch out my papers in the evening and plunk on my laptop without a second glance from anyone. A glass of Rhone set me back only €4 and it came with a plate of salted olives. It was Friday night, in a strange city, and I was working into the wee hours again, but at least it was a pleasant place to work, and I was looking forward to the breakfast. I was looking forward to another cup of coffee.

For the curious, my “hotels that don’t suck totally” list includes (in no particular order) the likes of The Grace in Rosebank [Johannesburg, South Africa]. The Grace is quite probably the best hotel in the world, and it definitely has the best breakfast in the world. Others on the list include, The Orca Lodge in Tofino [Vancouver Island, Canada], The Eldridge House [Lawrence, Ks.], Shaw’s Hotel [Prince Edward Island, Canada], Hotel de L’Abbeye [Saint Germain Des Pres, Paris], the Cour des Loges [Lyon, France], the Wingate Hibernian [Dublin, Ireland], the hotel at the Village at Spier [Stellenbosh, South Africa], the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite [hey, my brother's the Chef, it's a terrific place!], and the Henley Park [Washington, DC].

The reason any particular hotel is on the list varies by the hotel. Some were just incredible places to be and to see, others were redoubts from a wicked world, while others just hold irreplaceable memories. And, then some just serve the best coffee in the world.

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