Going to a coffee shop in New Orleans can be as much about seeing familiar faces as getting a cup of coffee. There's a twist to that appeal at Coffea, the new coffee shop in the Bywater that functions as something like a gallery for the art, personalities, food and even cast-off household goods of its neighborhood.
The short food menu in particular reads like a catalogue of neighborhood eats. In the morning, neighbors come in for doughnuts, buttermilk drops and apple fritters baked a few blocks away at Henry's Bakery on St. Claude Avenue. Beef brisket for tacos comes from The Joint, the barbecue restaurant near the Industrial Canal. Even the mix for the sweet potato pancakes comes from Mardi Gras Zone, the Marigny bead warehouse that has morphed into a 24-hour grocery store since Hurricane Katrina.
Some of the produce comes courtesy of daily visits from Okra the Fruit Man, the preferred moniker of the itinerant vegetable vendor known around New Orleans neighborhoods for the beaten pickup truck from which he sells his goods and the crackly megaphone through which he sings their praises. Quiche -- meaty with sausage or vegetarian and garnished with a dollop of fresh cream -- is a new addition to Coffea's menu after a neighbor offered to provide them on a regular basis.
And of course, there are all the familiar faces. If the tall, lean man serving your coffee in the morning looks familiar, you might have seen him the night before playing a gig around town. That would be Andy J. Forest, the harmonica player who is also a writer and painter. His paintings decorate the walls of Coffea, which he and his wife Gwen opened in August around the corner from their Bywater home.
The Forests conceived their plan for Coffea not long after the birth of their daughter, Ella Dora, when they needed more family-friendly working hours than Andy's music gigs and Gwen's restaurant jobs could provide. The word coffea is Latin for coffee and it is also the brand name of an Italian coffee company that supplies the Bywater shop's beans, its vintage-looking espresso machine and its gleaming new china cups. Chicory coffee from sources closer to home is served in mason jars.
While the groceries come from all over the neighborhood -- and beyond -- Coffea is no mere distribution point. From a tiny and completely open kitchen, Gwen can usually be found operating a crepe griddle, microwave and panini press. The appliances are packed so close together that if she had an extra arm she could tend them all simultaneously.
Crepes are a major specialty and they're made with nice, lightly malty buckwheat batter. The "huevos crepe" is like a plate of huevos rancheros with the crepe standing in for the tortillas. Breakfast biscuits are not simple grab-and-go, palm-sized sandwiches. Rather, the hearty biscuit is split open and arranged open faced for a serious meal of poached eggs, layers of ham and a good amount of cheese. Bagels come from H&H Bagels, the New York bakery that ships millions of its products around the world.
The smoky, tender brisket meat from The Joint delivers a memorable taco done one better at Coffea with copious garnishes of salsa, fresh cream and melted cheese bubbling on soft corn tortillas. The tacos come with an odd but tasty side of sweet mango puree in a demi tasse cup and a small bowl of black beans redolent of garlic, cumin and orange. The mozzarella panini is a lot like a Caprese salad sandwich, with moist slices of the fresh cheese layered with aromatic basil leaves and crunchy red onion on a pressed roll. There are always vegetarian options and even gluten-free crepe batter for people who don't want to eat wheat.
That tiny kitchen -- roughly the size of a U-boat galley -- handicaps the pace at which orders can be filled and a wait of 15 or 20 minutes is not unusual at the top of the lunch rush. A self-service coffee arrangement makes stopping in for a cup of chicory blend a speedy affair, but otherwise be prepared to sit for a spell.
Happily, Coffea is one of the more interesting places to sit. The shop has the look of some fantastically designed living room or artful consignment shop turned into a diner. Sources for the furnishings and dcor were the adjacent Bargain Center, neighborhood yard sales and even the trash-to-treasure piles of household belongings that still sprout on New Orleans sidewalks as people clean out homes after Katrina. People bring things by all the time -- furniture, pieces of art, a box of brass doorknobs -- and somehow they find their way into the increasingly complex mosaic of the place. Someone keeps stocking the bathroom with toy birds that chirp in response to motion and the Forests never really know how many are in the flock on any given day.
That same bathroom is equipped with a baby changing station, a helpful addition for owners with a toddler, and also an indication that Coffea is a neighborhood haven for people with young children. There is an area where parents can keep restless kids cornered, furnished with tot-sized sofas, easy-reader books and toys. It turns out kids aren't all that disruptive in a coffee shop when there are things at hand to absorb their attention.
Coffea's eminently solid brick building had previously been a vintage furniture store, and before that an artist's studio, and before that a machine shop, and long before that a post office with a stable next door for the postmen's horses. Today, as Coffea, it is a work in progress with a countless number of contributors.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Coffea offers an assortment of breakfast and lunch specialties as well as an odd collection of art and bric-a- brac.