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An espresso odyssey

Amid 'for rent' signs, new boutique offers sleek escape, one demitasse at a time

Above: James Liu and Dina Debs drink samples at Nespresso Boutique. Below: The Newbury Street shop features machines (left) that automate the process of making espresso (right). Above: James Liu and Dina Debs drink samples at Nespresso Boutique. Below: The Newbury Street shop features machines (left) that automate the process of making espresso (right). (Photos by david l. ryan/globe staff)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / March 5, 2009
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Nespresso, the Swiss "espresso solution" brought to you by Nestle, opened its first free-standing Nespresso Boutique in North America recently on Newbury Street. One could easily mistake it for a Sephora or a LensCrafters. But don't be deceived by the research-lab interior, or the complete absence of any coffee aroma. Nespresso is using lots of science to deliver consistent quality espresso, and it's trying to make obsolete the art of the perfect espresso "pull" (sorry, home-baristas). At the Nespresso bar you can see how errors (and passion) are automated out of the art of espresso-making.

The long-planned and surprisingly large Boston Nespresso Boutique (they asked me not to call it a "store") is an unexpected sight on today's Newbury Street. With a glittering interior design by French architect Francis Krempp, it stands in marked contrast to the alarming number of neighboring stores now closing or scaling back in our new economic reality. Is home espresso the beverage of choice in an economic winter? Only time will tell.

The boutique has a calm, clinical, icy-white interior reminiscent of the spacecraft in "2001: A Space Odyssey." A phalanx of cute-tech cubic or cylindrical Nespresso machines is silently arrayed against one wall, while the coffees themselves, dubbed "consumable coffee pods," are geometrically mounted on the opposing wall in double-helix patterns. The resemblance to the Krempp-designed flagship Paris boutique is unmistakable.

The scientific presentation might be intended to remind us of Nespresso's "continual technological progress toward the perfect cup," but it isn't terribly appetizing. All the cute machines are for home use (they look like cast-offs from "WALL-E" and run $199-$799), and there are three large and ominous-looking models that my docent, an effusive local actress, told me are designed for office use.

The actress - let's call her Eve - leads me to the coffee bar in the back of the store (made of white frosted glass, of course) and invites me to try a cup. Actually . . . not so fast. She has an excited bit of infomercial to serve me before the coffee. Nestle developed Nespresso about 10 years ago to promote a whole new way of making coffee: sealed aluminum pods of ground coffee "specially prepared in a patented way," then loaded into an equally patented (and expensive) Nespresso machine that pressurizes the water and blasts it through the single-use pod. The Nespresso machine, of course, will accept only Nespresso pods (55 cents each). She gave me a sour look when I mentioned other pod vendors and machines by name. "Of course those pods would not work in our machines. We invented the process."

Fortunately, Nespresso produces its own pod options: 12 different varieties of espresso all with tortured Italian-esque names: the Volluto pod (Italian-language-rapper slang for "cruel and deliberate"), the Cappricio (the Italian word for a person prone to tantrums), and a host of Italo-babble pods: Vivalto, Finezzo, Livanto . . . Basta!

Suddenly Starbucks-speak seems logical. All these foil-topped aluminum pods sit in a fancy plastic tray, in a decorative, hinged paperboard box that's wrapped in plastic for good measure. It's an unholy amount of packaging that actually outweighs the coffee you are buying. Without any prompting, my guide read my mind: "Nespresso is working on a recycling program."

I ask for a cappuccino using the Ristretto pod (this term is normally a preparation method, here it is a pod-flavor). My guide eagerly engaged the Nespresso Latissima machine, which sports a disturbing but effective pop-out wand that shoots steamed milk into the cup. The Latissima produces a very nice looking cappuccino with ample froth. The espressos are jet-black with a lovely crema. In both, the temperature is perfect for immediate drinking.

The taste is a pleasant surprise. The Latissima ($699) makes a very good cappuccino. There is a major downside, however. My cappuccino had absolutely no aroma. It smelled like a glass of water. I tried several other pods and each had a slightly different restrained but pleasant taste that seemed designed to avoid any hint of bitterness. (Nespresso machines only make espresso. To approximate drip coffee, there's an "americano" button that squirts a bit of extra hot water through the pod.)

Nespresso is extremely consistent espresso that is incredibly easy to prepare. You just insert the pod and push a button. Some less charitable commentators have called it "lobotomized espresso," "McSpresso," and the like. But as fun as it is to frown at our increasingly automated and homogenized culinary world, as a cup of coffee Nespresso isn't bad.

So why did the company choose Boston for its first stand-alone store? For much of the year, it's freezing here, so espresso at home is nice. And, lamentably, there are relatively few independent coffee shops serving excellent coffee (more like Francesca's, Flour, 1369, and Diesel Cafe please, especially in Greater Boston).

Personally, I enjoy getting that magical and elusive Great Cup from my old-fashioned home espresso machine. The result, say, three times out of five is a brilliant and sublime home espresso. The other two out of five are average or worse. A traditional espresso machine takes a lot of work, experience, and a bit of luck.

Of course, if you're groggy and impatient first thing in the morning, that glowing, blue Nespresso button might look like the better option.

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