Beignets make people happy. While writing this story, whenever I’d mention them to friends, they smiled. At the outset, I didn’t even know what a beignet was, but with a basket of the puffy little beauties before me at 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, I had proof. I was smiling, too.
Before my interview with General Manager Rob Rittmeyer and GM to-be-Elizabeth McLeod (Rob will soon be leaving to coach soccer full-time), I purposely have a light breakfast. Doing a story on a coffee shop with a French thing going on? One that does all its pastries in-house? Instinctively, I know good, rich, comestibles are coming, and I want to be properly prepared. We gather at one of the marble-top bistro tables, where sunlight floods in a south-facing window. I already have a fresh house-blend pour-over coffee when the server brings the beignets to the table. I ask Rob what it is I am about to eat, and am hoping for a succinct answer. I don’t want to linger too long before getting into them. He smiles and replies, “The second most universal thing after coffee is fried dough.” Okay Rob, thank you, that’s all I need to know. Now, let’s eat!
The beignets are hot and crispy on the outside, drenched in powdered sugar, with tender puff dough on the inside. You have your choice of house-made, mixed-berry coulis or dark-chocolate sauce for dipping. Not being shy, I have both. The coulis is good, but chocolate hound that I am, this is where I go. I dive right in. The combination, with the coffee accompaniment, is pure, decadent yumminess. The French clearly know something about how to live. As I’m happily filling my face, Rob insists, “You can pronounce them ‘bag nets’ and we’ll still make them for you!”
He continues, “Gerald Peters,” the owner, “had this vision of Café Du Monde. That’s what struck a chord with him, so, as we were developing the brand, we tried to stay true to that, while being responsive to the current coffee market as well. We tried to make sure there was a New Orleans feel, a French influence.”
35° North has succeeded. Although, as an aside, when I consult with friend Skip who lives just outside New Orleans, he plainly states, “Beignets with café au lait at Café du Monde in the French quarter are the only real authentic beignets.” The gauntlet, it seems, has been thrown; but Skip, I think you need to come visit. We might just change your world view.
Indeed, the décor is inviting, comfortable and well thought out. The colors, materials and finishes, the upscale architectural details, make it a treat to be here. A large community table with a top of recycled white oak occupies one of the two adjacent spaces the shop calls home. A map of the world covers nearly an entire wall in this room and captures both my attention and imagination. The deep red horizontal line crossing it indicates latitude 35° north. Crossing the United States, this line runs right through Santa Fe, and to the east, streaks over the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean before it clips the northernmost tip of Morocco. And around it goes from there, crossing Asia. Looking at this line gives me pause. It represents an abstraction, a device, yet studying it causes me to think about what unites us, what divides us.
Historically, as today, trade certainly unites us. “Coffee is a universal,” says Rob. “It’s the second most highly traded commodity in the world after oil. It ties cultures together on all continents.” 35° North not only serves coffee, but roasts their own beans. “We have a top-of-the-line coffee broker,” says Rob, “who is very particular about what he’ll send us. It’s always current crop and it’s always peak season. We’ve set the bar high, as far as what we’re willing to bring in to roast.”
A gleaming red and chrome Diedrich Roaster sits in the corner of the kitchen. While this state-of-the-art machine has to a great degree mechanized roasting, Robb feels that there’s plenty of room for an artistic touch. “There’s a lot of nuance to how you brew the coffee, especially with the pour-overs. You have to get the grind just right…and you watch some of our baristas at the grinding machine, I think there’s absolutely an art to that.” Rob describes the process from grind to cup in great detail. It’s as though I am listening to a sommelier describe the decanting of a fine wine. The cup of coffee I have before me is delicious. Aromatic, full-bodied and balanced. The house blend, by the way, is 50 percent Sumatran, 25 percent Costa Rican and 25 percent Columbian.
Elizabeth, who has been managing restaurants with Santa Fe Dining for 10 years, is coming up to speed on coffee and is listening attentively. Robb’s enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge encyclopedic. Elizabeth adds, “So far, it’s been a crash course from Rob!”
A few days later, my sweetheart Karen and I stop in for lunch. I already know what I’m having. I’d asked Elizabeth and Ro if there was anything from 35°’s lunch menu I must have. Oh yes, that would be the croque monsieur. Describing it, Elizabeth’s expression lights up. “Ham and butter,” she says, laughing, “and cheese. It’s everything bad for you all in one sandwich!” Rob interjects, “It’s good for your soul, it’s good for your soul. It’s ham and Gruyére with a little béchamel. It’s our most popular lunch item.”
Despite how wonderful it sounds, it might be a little over the top, so I decide to ease into it with a half-sandwich and a mixed greens salad with citrus vinaigrette. My sandwich arrives, served on its own little cutting board, exuding pure richness. I smile. Karen, meanwhile, eyes it longingly. Inside brioche bread, lightly grilled for just the right crunch, the Gruyére oozes out around the edges. It’s more of a knife-and-fork affair than a pick-it-up sandwich, but to say it is good would be a gross understatement. The cheese has a little astringent bite to it, the ham is smoky…if you are not salivating yet, check that you have a pulse… the béchamel lends a hint of nutmeg. It is delish, but at the same time, it’s not an overwhelming fat bomb. It is just right. The salad provides a nice contrast for the palate, fresh and earthy. The vinaigrette has a clearing and complex citrus zing. The croque monsieur disappears all too quickly. Next time, I’m ordering the whole sandwich.
Karen is very happy with the corn-and-shrimp chowder. Ditto for the order of beignets she just has to have for dessert. “Two sticky thumbs up!” she says while licking the powdered sugar off them.
So, okay, we’ve established where I gravitate with dietary choices. But it’s important to note, 35° North offers creative breakfast and lunch—not to mention coffee—menus with many leaner items, including bistro boxes to grab and go, and a host of vegetarian options.
35° North Coffee is located at 60 E. San Francisco St. in Santa Fe. 505.983.6138. 35northcoffee.com.
Story by Gordon Bunker