At Starbucks, Caribou and other chain coffee shops, food often is an afterthought. The cases are full of croissants that look like croissants but sure don't taste like them, and softball-size muffins that prove that less truly would be more.
At Grounded Coffee Shop, a charming independent cafe in Alexandria, food is the focus. Its owners, Candy and Wilfrid Briffa, are pastry chefs with impeccable résumés that include stints at the Willard Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City. Grounded, which opened in April, offers a rotating list of things the couple likes to make, including sweet and savory croissants, elegant French tarts, fresh salads and sandwiches.
Let's start with those croissants. Made by Wilfrid, who hails from France, these look and taste like a croissant should: flaky, buttery, light and decadent. The plain croissant ($2.45) is the ideal match for a steaming cappuccino, but the surprising favorite was the spinach-feta croissant ($2.95). The filling was not the usual gluey "we have to have a vegetarian option" kind, but one with fresh greens and real zing from the sharp Greek cheese. Made from the same dough is the not-to-be-missed cinnamon pecan roll ($2.25). It manages to be delicate and not too sweet, no small feat for one of the world's most-oft-abused pastries.
Tart lovers can rejoice. Once again, Wilfrid's jewels taste as good as they look. One member of the tasting panel nearly jumped for joy when he sampled the "actually tart" lemon tart ($3.50). The crisp pate sucree shell is topped with paper-thin slices of lemon, then piped with fresh lemon curd. Fresh berries and kiwi adorned the fruit tart ($3.95), which has a base of frangipane and pastry cream.
The limited offering of sandwiches and salads also delivered. A mozzarella and tomato sandwich ($5.50), always a good way to find out whether the chef is spending time getting good ingredients, was a taste of summer. On the day we visited, Candy had brought the tomatoes straight from her mother's garden. (The fresh zucchini she also got was turned into zucchini-chocolate chip muffins.) The refreshing spinach salad ($5.50) was topped with goat cheese, cranberries and mandarin orange segments and came with homemade Vidalia onion dressing.
Grounded also goes beyond the chains in other ways. Along with plenty of comfy seating and free WiFi access, it has a shelf of books and board games and plenty of space and toys for kids. (It has become a destination for local moms' clubs and play groups.) And, of course, there's the coffee. Grounded's is always organic, fair-trade and fresh.
-- Jane Black (Good to Go, Sept. 3, 2008)