When is a hundred dollar cup of coffee not a hundred dollar cup of coffee? When half the proceeds go to charity, of course. Which still leaves a $50 cup of coffee, one which I found myself sipping in an appropriately reverential fashion in mid-December 2013 at a fundraiser for Second Helpings at downtown's Cerulean restaurant.
In today's competitive environment, for a restaurant to satisfy the demands of an increasingly fastidious breed of diner, it needs to be able to offer something other than just good food. And I don't mean dancing or dinner theater: more like a display of passion and an understanding of the medium that can help an establishment stand out from the crowd and continue to engage its clientele. Fresh and local is a great place to start, with many of the top farmers now becoming household names amongst those who pay attention to where their food is coming from. But is fresh and local enough to sustain interest when almost every quality establishment now has access to more or less the same produce?
Caleb France, chef and owner of Cerulean restaurants here and in Winona Lake, clearly doesn't think so. While taking full advantage of the outstanding produce available from within the state's borders, he is also expanding his horizons: constantly experimenting with new ingredients and techniques, even engaging the services of an in-house forager to locate usable quantities of local vegetation. France spends weeks or months perfecting dishes, continually refining them to the point where the depth and complexity of flavors is never less than fascinating. It's a style of cooking which hearkens back to an earlier, French-inspired era, when kitchen brigades were large, highly disciplined and of necessity expensive.
France's passion for his profession is evident not just in the quality of what's brought to the table, but in the pristine organization of his kitchens and his ability to surround himself with equally passionate and accomplished professionals. The wine list, for instance has been assembled by folks who evidently know their stuff: it's a radical departure from the traditional format, and an improvement on the now familiar progressive list, adding a twist to the proceedings by offering comparable examples of old world and new world wines from the same grape varieties. There's enough good wine on this list, none of it widely available at retail, that I feel inclined to make repeat visits. Which brings me back to the $100 cup of coffee.
After realizing that most commercially-available coffee didn't meet with their standards, Cerulean's own expert Nate McLaurin recently began roasting his own beans at the Winona Lake restaurant. Working with a renowned boutique importer to perfect a house blend (and it is pretty well perfect) the decision was subsequently taken to push the boat out further by pursuing some rare Haraaz Red Marqaha beans from Yemen. McLaurin said he chose this coffee to show "how innovation and close, relational proximity to the farmers can provide opportunity for unique discovery, financial security for farmers and educational experiences for consumers."
As for the taste? Quite unlike anything I have ever experienced: definitely one for the connoisseur. It's complex and fruity, tremendously high in acidity and possessing an almost Ceylon tea-like elegance. Last time I checked there was still a small quantity for sale at the restaurant.