Empire Espresso has one of the prettiest espresso machines I've ever seen. The La Marzocco machine at College Street's newest coffee shop is covered with a custom silkscreen adhesive in a Moroccan tile design, which only adds to the Moorish-accented cafe. There are little iron lanterns lining the wall, glassware has gold flourish, and the cushions along the window are brightly embroidered.
Once the location of Lolie, a short-lived jewellery and pet accessory store, the space has been transformed by owner Lisa Young-Kutsukake into a quiet haven for coffee and sweets. With the soft opening just three weeks ago the menu is still in development but so far the cafe is off to a great start.
First, take you pick of beans. Barista/ minority owner Sarah Dillon uses Dark City Roasters for the dark and Pig Iron Roasters for the light. Pig Iron is the roasting extension of Lit Espresso Bar, but I don't sense any neighbourhood competition. Empire Espresso uses them for good reason - the beans are award-winning. A second grinder will showcase a rotating selection of beans.
I went with dark, and what resulted was a smooth, nutty Americano coming in just under three bucks ($2.85 to be exact). A latte, using the dairy, soy or almond milk available, is $4.00 and you can choose 10 oz. or the larger 12oz cups to temper the double shot with extra creaminess. Besides the usual caffeinated fare, they are experimenting with new fresh juices, and have a selection of local Social teas to sip.
Not to be overshadowed by the smells of fresh brewed coffee, at the back of the cafe you might find the in-house pastry chef Hannah sliding baked goods out of the oven. The day I arrived they had rosemary lemon shortbread and gingersnap cookies under lovely glass domes at the marble counter. Both were good at $1.55, but the gingersnaps exquisitely so, elevated by a touch of heat from cayenne and a crunch of sugar crystals on top.
The $2.50 cheddar or blackberry and lavender biscuits provide hardier snacks, and don't miss the same-priced cinnamon buns. Take a bite and you'll find the cassia does double duty, mixed in with the dough and as a sticky sweet ribbon as well.
The front window is outfitted with low built-in benches for a quick sit, but without tables it's clear that Empire Espresso is more a-tuned to the commuter crowd than the computer crowd. Still, with its handful of chairs, a baby change table in the basement washroom, and promised WiFi in the future, I'm sure anyone apt to linger will find the cafe a welcome oasis in bustling Little Italy.
Photos by Morris Lum