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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

entry arrow12:31 AM | Waiting for Coffee in Cafe Antonio

[with reworkings of old posts]

I don't know what it is exactly about perfectly brewed coffee that excites me even more than sex (or chocolate) can. Honestly. It would take another caffeine freak like me to understand, for example, the sheer sense of emergency when, early this week, I had run out of coffee beans and only remembered to go grocery shopping late Tuesday afternoon. Somebody who meant well earnestly suggested the quick fix of instant coffee. It would also take another caffeine freak -- but somebody decidedly more sophisticated -- to understand the double-take, the shock registering on my face upon the light of the suggestion. Instant coffee? Uh. Is the sky green? Do I like to eat mud?

In Lee Cimbali that Tuesday afternoon, I took time to make my purchase. Coffee, after all, is serious business. The wrong kind can alter my sanity -- the way the wrong beer can probably tick off the late Nick Joaquin. Eventually, like a man choosing a lover, I chose to buy 250 grams each of French Roast and Arabica -- and I am sure now that I've made the right choice: the evidence lies in the coffee aroma, that wafting seductress, that embraces me right now as I write this essay. Arabica, I am convinced, comes closest to the scent of heaven. It has a grounded sense to it, a wildness that hints of adventure, of heat, of caffeinated tangos in your head.

Yet I must confess that I have forgotten, for some time now, how real coffee smelled, or tasted like. For the past few months, I had subsisted on Folger's Classic Roast, American-made of course, which should have told me something. My brother, you see, had given me a huge 1.47 kilogram-pack of Folger's coffee, which took me forever to consume, and which basically altered my coffee habit and sense of taste for quite a while. Folgers was decidedly bland, but I didn't know that until now, now that I am smelling Arabica, and it comes as a shock to me that brewed coffee's aroma basically can still punch me to higher degrees of excitement.

To brew coffee is to make magic in a mug. Forget the tiresome general perception of coffee's side effects -- that it makes hysterics of us all, that it contributes nothing less to unfortunate tachycardia and worse, nerves. Recent news from medical science, however, has shown us the health benefits of coffee. For me, it goes beyond the mere medical. I know for sure that there is no other elixir easily purchasable that guarantees a good day and a mind alert to every beautiful possibilities. If this addiction, it will be my only sweet vice.

I remember this news from CNN a few weeks ago that contended that coffee makes people smarter. But of course. Civilization, without any doubt, has been refined through the long years of history with a cup of coffee at hand. I can very well imagine the members of the creative class -- artists, writers, editors, inventors, scientists, engineers, visionaries -- pushing the limits of human possibilities and imagination while clustered around a cafe table, with an espresso machine not too far away to sate the demands of hungry intellects. One specific set of influential people in arts and culture that has made history is the so-called Algonquin Group who chatted, debated, and worked out strange and new ideas with each other -- ideas that still matter to us today. I can easily imagine Albert Einstein sitting in a cafe dreaming ways bending the physics of time, space, and E=mc2. I can easily imagine James Joyce sipping espresso, and dreaming literary perversions into Ulysses. All technological hubs in the world -- be it Dublin or Seattle or Silicon Valley -- simply cannot do without its cafes, the way all university towns -- be it Boston or Princeton or San Francisco -- cannot be complete without their local cappuccino dispensers. All cradles of knowledge have coffee shops in every corner.

Which is why it is strange to consider that for the longest time, Dumaguete -- the so-called premier University Town in the Philippines -- had no real cafe to call its own. True, there is Lee Cimbali -- but its location in the belly of grocery haven does not easily lend itself to an air of sophistication, or intelligent conversion. You simply cannot discuss Barthes or Derrida when, in the next table, a snotty little boy cries out to his yaya for his ice cream, or a mother becomes increasingly harried with the mountains of shopping bags gathering around her. There was, of course, and for the briefest of days, the wonderful Silliman Avenue Cafe whose demise we all mourn, and whose crepes and coffee we all remember with relish. There are days when, getting together with Arlene Delloso-Uypitching (who co-owned SACs -- as we fondly called it -- together with Stella Solon-Du and the wonderful former Dumaguete first lady Tintin Remollo), I'd prod her to rethink opening another version of SACs. Wasn't it there, after all, where we spent away so many beautiful afternoons (and mornings) drinking coffee after coffee, and eating more crepes and barbecues after previous orders of crepes and barbecues? SACs was such a haven, it even had a celebrity clientele. (Martin Nievera and a bunch of other singers and actors and television celebrities...)

Without SACs, the alternatives that remain are mostly so-so establishments with a mishmash of positive and negative points. I've always loved the barako and the Bohemian feel of Babu Wenceslao's Cafe Memento (Palanca-winning Naya Valdellon has a poem about it) -- and its Mexicana short orders, if I remember correctly, are among the best in the city. But I haven't been there for a while. When I was a college student, it was my hangout; I was in fact among its first loyal customers. Now, I'm more of teacher than (graduate) student (if that counts at all), and it is increasingly hard to inhabit spaces populated mostly by undergraduates with everybody seeing you as the bearer of grades and lesson plans.

The best brewed coffee in town is still undeniably Dunkin' Donuts'. Its negative side? It's Dunkin' Donuts. Then there are the eating places that also serve coffee: there is CocoAmigos, whose coffee is expensive sewer water, and Don Atilano, whose coffee is quite good, if you can stand the chilly service. Most days, I settle for the unassuming coffee grade of Chantilly; sometimes I take hot tea.

No Starbucks yet around town. Nor Bo's, or Seattle's Best. Cafe culture, really, has yet to take deep roots in Dumaguete City. A few years ago, a prominent businessman once confided to me, "Why buy coffee in cafes when you can get inexpensive and instant Nescafe?" I cringed secretly at the barriotic attitude. Shows how far most Dumaguetenos still have to go to appreciate the sophistication of coffee drinking.

Which is why a slowly growing number of caffeine worshippers all over town rejoiced upon receiving news that a new coffee shop -- a swanky place that promises good things -- has opened in town.

Cafe Antonio is a cul-de-sac, not the prototypical sidewalk affair most people are used to having for coffee places. Settled in the very warm womb of The Spanish Heritage along Avenida de Sta. Catalina, the cafe is accessible only through a short winding brick staircase that greets you from the pavement. It leads to a corridor that also leads you to a courtyard done up in what I could describe as polished Spanish bric-a-brac, a nice effect really. Homey, in fact, but also elegant. There is also a small veranda that affords anyone a glimpse of the Boulevard.

The opening last Monday was a low-key event attended, I think, by mostly churchmates of the owners (the Peraltas), some medical doctors, and a lot of people I did not know. It was a swarm, which almost overwhelmed the relatively small space. The people I did know were Moses Atega, Margie Udarbe, Don and Arlene Uypitching, Manolet Teves, and Rico Absin. Those of us in our table thought the owners as visionaries, and basically very nice people. Nixon Peralta sat with us for a while and chatted, the image of a graceful, nice man.

Scanning the menu after the opening prayer, I saw the common suspects in a typical café: the usual espresso, cappuccino, Cafe American, cafe mocha, cafe latte, caramel latte, caramel macchiato, and white cafe mocha; iced mocha, iced white mocha, and iced caramel mocha; frappes and smoothies of all kinds -- caramel, white mocha, mocha frappe classic, cookies and cream, black forest frappe, ice cream mango whip, mango and coconut delight; and cafe delicacies like ice cream mango whip, ice cream banana, ice cream cocktail, nutty fudge crepe, ham and cheese crepe, ham and mushroom crepe, chicken and broccoli crepe, tuna filling crepe, and angel food crepe.

I had the last one, and it was delicious.

Of the coffee? Well, how should I know? My order never came to me after more than two hours' wait. In fact, my whole table's orders never came to us -- and as the other guests soon departed one by one, the three of us who were left behind decided to give up, embarrassed.

But wise-woman Margie texted me later, "They were overwhelmed. Maybe we can drop by on a slow day. Something tells me they'll have lots of those. Give them a fighting chance, okay?"

Okay. So here goes: Cafe Antonio is a beautiful place. They must have beautiful coffee, too. It opens every day from three o'clock in the afternoon onwards. Try it. Something tells me you'll like the place and its quiet. As all cafes with heart should be.

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