La Colombe passes inspection, plans to open Saturday

Update, Friday, Jan. 31, 3:56 p.m.: A city inspector appeared today at La Colombe and gave the coffee shop a passing grade on its final health inspection. Manager Greg Smith now plans to open at 8 a.m. Saturday. The shop will have a limited number of pastries available but a full complement of coffees.

La Colombe will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Its phone is 202-289-4850.

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Welcome to Washington, La Colombe. How do you like our bureaucracy?

Clandestine coffee: La Colombe is located in Blagden Alley, next to Rogue 24. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Clandestine coffee: La Colombe is located in Blagden Alley, next to Rogue 24. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The Philadelphia-based coffee roasting company has been on a campaign to build cafes in major U.S. cities, including two in Chicago, but it has been playing the waiting game to open its location in Blagden Alley, next to R.J. Cooper's Rogue 24. The shop, which at first predicted a late summer/early fall debut, finally announced an official launch on Friday, when the mayor was expected to stop by and cut a ceremonial ribbon.

Scratch that.

La Colombe is still waiting on its final health inspection and certificate of occupancy, says Greg Smith, manager of the forthcoming D.C. shop. But the head inspector, the person who apparently signs off on all new businesses in the District, is out of town until next week, he added. Smith has hired an expediter to see if another inspector could perform a final walkthrough before next week.

The interior at La Colombe is filled with light, thanks to the garage-door windows that look out onto Blagden Alley. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The interior is filled with light, thanks to the garage-door windows that look onto Blagden Alley. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

If that happens and an inspector visits Friday, "I may be open by the weekend," Smith says. But realistically he thinks La Colombe won't swing open its doors until Monday or Tuesday. Until then, Smith hasn't even been preparing any coffee or espresso. He needs to keep the space clean for the final inspection.

"Basically, I've been sitting here for a couple of days, ready, just twiddling my thumbs," he says.

Whenever it debuts, La Colombe will be a handsome addition to the District's growing specialty-coffee market. The thin, narrow space is minimalist chic, relying on the building's old bricks and soaring, two-story ceiling to provide atmosphere. The place will serve the blends that first established La Colombe's reputation among coffee aficionados as well as the single-origin beans the roaster has added in recent years..

Greg Smith says that La Colombe was one of the early adopters of the innovative Steampunk brewing system. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Smith says La Colombe was an early adopter of the Steampunk brewing system. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

None of the coffees will be roasted on site, at least not now. They will be shipped fresh, within a day or two of their roasting, Smith says. "There's still a possibility of getting a small, little lab roaster in here," adds Smith, hinting city codes would have delayed the opening even further to install a roaster. "Basically, we're just opening and then we'll figure it out after the fact."

The shop has a Fetco batch brewer, which likely will produce most of the brewed coffee sold at La Colombe. For those who can wait a few minutes longer, the shop also has a high-tech Steampunk system designed by Alpha Dominche, the same machine I first spotted last fall at Kaldi's Coffee in Silver Spring. The Steampunk, sort of a cross between a French press and siphon or vacuum pot, offers customers not only a fine cup of joe, but also a sneak peek at the no-hands, fully-automated, sci-fi future of coffee.

La Colombe's coffee bar will offer both blends and single-origin beans, whether in a bag to go or in a cup to stay. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
La Colombe will offer both blends and single-origin beans, whether in a bag to go or in a cup to stay. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

"We generally are using this guy to showcase the single [origin beans], the lighter roasts," says Smith about the Steampunk, which will be available any time the shop is open. "It brings out a lot of the fruit, a lot of the acidity in the coffee."

La Colombe will not do pour-overs, the method preferred by many baristas at D.C. specialty coffee shops. It will, however, offer an assortment of fresh baked goods, some prepared by Frenchie's Artisan Pastries and Desserts, available in an antique display case at the front of the store.

Greg Smith, right, and his wife, Yui Murai-Smith, are manager and barista respectively of La Colombe in the District. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Greg Smith and his wife, Yui Murai-Smith, are manager and barista respectively of La Colombe. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The coffee roaster is co-founded by Todd Carmichael, the businessman and adventurer who has started a second career as host of the Travel Channel's "Dangerous Grounds," which just launched its second season. Carmichael apparently has plans for more shops in Washington.

"Once we recover from the sting of this one," Smith says about the oft-delayed shop, "then we're going to start looking for another one somewhere in the city."

La Colombe, 924 N St. NW, in the back of Blagden Alley.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.

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