Saint Alban, an all-day cafe opened by Tim Mink and Brooks Reitz, takes its name from the “Boke of St. Albans,” a book printed in 1486 containing three treatises on hawking, hunting and heraldry whose audience was the “gentlemen of that time” (Tudor England). The book is considered a compilation, not “all by one hand.” And it certainly has that in common with Saint Alban, an all-day cafe.
Saint Alban is clearly an opus not by one hand, but a well-considered cafe that bears the imprimaturs of many creatives. From its decor to its menu, its gallery of art to its Lewis and Wood wallpaper, well, the dossier of Reitz and Mink’s first foray into cafe design was obviously thick with well-researched examples of modern and not so-modern coffee culture.
Seating is casual and varied. Counter seats jockey for position along a wall of windows fronting King Street, and a community table landscaped with urns of fresh citrus fruit waiting to be pressed marries practicality with minimalism.
Tables for two are notched right into structural columns and mismatched tables and chairs are washed in soft hues of cinereous and taupe and generously positioned in the sun-filled (usually) eating area.
Wainscoting, recessed paneling, creative casework and turned table legs bracing pastry display areas reinforce Saint Alban’s sense of place and play.
The use of gilt, glass and mirrors spin modern Saint Alban’s into another century.
Charcoal studies of nudes and international black-and-white photographs echo Procope and Cafe Flore in Paris while crockery and Rogers flatware set the table with a decided British mother tongue.
Original plans called for a cafe that could meet all your dining needs: jumpstart your day with coffee, pastries and breakfast; stop by for sandwiches, tartinetttes and salads for lunch; find your “Third Place” bridging the gap between home and office and then perhaps enjoys some sherry and a simple repast.
But space and time sidetracked those plans and the rear room of Saint Alban is now staged for gathering on a comfy sofa, along a narrow stretch of table real estate or at high tops or tables for two. Special events could play a future role, but right now the team of Mink and Reitz suggest you conduct your digital business under the “eszpresszo” sign and sample the ever-changing menu that is produced in a room the size of a “cupboard.”
Executive chef Ari Kolender has been brought up from neighboring property Leon’s Oyster Shop and the menu has been a work in progress since its early January opening.
A baker has been hired for production on the sweet side. EVO and Brown’s Court are the purveyors of breads and rolls so you know the foundation for any sandwich is well-grounded. Cast-iron skillet biscuits are in the “R&D” mode but buckwheat waffles will not disappoint as well as a belly-filling banana bread spackled with Nutella. Chunky granola has been such a popular item that it’s packaged and ready for grab-and-go purchases.
Hard-boiled farm eggs are a.m. regulars, quaintly wrapped in butcher paper and served with Bulls Bay salt. The same eggs are sliced and layered with pickled fennel on a sesame dabbled brioche roll (after 9 a.m.).
Scones are puckered with browned bits of ham and cheese and are shaped into mini-bread forms. Substantive and savory, they offer crumb and crunch and generous portion size.
Sandwiches are girdled with brown butcher paper and tied with baker’s twine — that seems an appropriate yin and yang for meat and bread, the butcher and the baker. Salami’s fat is cut by a spicy salsa verde spread and the baguette’s crumb is moistened by the jus of marinated tomatoes. A turkey sandwich was smeared with the fruity tang of Taleggio cheese and frilled with sprouts that added nothing to the mix. Croque monsieur, a typical French bar/cafe ham and cheese sandwich had just the proper crunch tempered by a smooth bechamel sauce — crunch and cream always is a good partnership.
The tartinettes — open-faced, toasted bread, topped with a changing assortment of ingredients — are easy eating. Ricotta and tomatoes, smoked salmon and cucumbers and a “cousin” of pissaladerie (caramelized onions and anchovies) are right-sized for snacking and the anchovies are a great match for a pour of fino.
Wines are available by the glass, bottle and carafe. Rotating taps provide the beer selection.
Bellocq single estate teas are brewed with patience. The bright yellow caddies demonstrate all the fine merchandising skills owners Heidi Stewart and Michael Shannon learned at Martha Stewart Omnimedia but the teas are exceptional, sourced from fine full leaf tea plants, quality estates and blended with organic botanicals whose perfume scents and flavors the brew.
Saint Alban’s coffee is a Philadelphia favorite: La Colombe Torrefaction. La Colombe founders Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti met in Seattle in 1985. They established La Colombe Torrefaction in Philadelphia in 1994 committed to “culinary coffee.” A cult favorite, and high and ethical standards across the board earn this team and their coffee high praise. Saint Alban does well by the bean: a velvety mocha, a fuss-free cortado, properly steamed milk that holds the form of design in a cappuccino.
Saint Alban has stocked its pantry well, choosing its purveyors with care. Weekends are crunch time for the kitchen and the small waffle iron can be overtaxed at brunch.
Reitz’s regular presence at Saint Alban shows an operator evaluating his product. The “all-day cafe” is an organic and flexible hub.
It is interesting to note that Johannes Gutenberg introduced the moveable type printing press in 1439. In 1475, Constantinople became the home of the first coffee house and through coffee houses the Age of Enlightenment through information exchange was birthed. Rumors, news and gossip were shared equally.
The Economist reports: “It was in coffee houses that commerce and new technology first became intertwined.”
As I visited Saint Alban for this review, I observed how Reitz and Mink are braiding food and beverage into a digital drinking and dining experience. The bonhomie is palpable. The paradigm has shifted. Will coffee and tea and wine and sherry drinkers pay the freight?