Even though Public Espresso + Coffee represents the most modern turn of coffee culture in Buffalo, its retro setting makes having a cup there feel like a glimpse of the past.
Nestled in the lobby of Hotel @ the Lafayette, the coffee and espresso bar is surrounded by the old-fashioned letter slots and gilded elevators of the opulent French Renaissance-style hotel. This is serious coffee, in a setting that supports stopping and appreciating each cup.
Public Espresso is an oasis of principled excellence in a desert of drive-thrus, steaming double-doubles and paper cups. While Public Espresso does offer its elixir to-go, their pour-over style forces visitors to slow down and savor, and with the quality of the shop’s product, it’s time well spent.
The lobby bar is one of Buffalo’s first “Third Wave” slow bars, which challenges customers to appreciate the beans themselves, without covering them up with artificial Irish Crème flavorings or fancy accoutrements.
Focusing on fresh beans and local ingredients, owners James Rayburg and Sam Scarcello say their goal is to draw out each coffee bean’s natural features and qualities intrinsic to their deliberate roasting and preparation.
Public Espresso roasts, brews and serves a variety of styles, from pour-over coffee, espresso and cappuccino to the more adventurous Cortado and Coup d’Etat styles. The baristas use a science-driven method of pouring and pulling each drink, so preparation takes a few minutes.
Use those minutes to appreciate the scenery or learn more about their process; it’s fascinating to those curious about good coffee, and employees are always willing to share.
Its pastries come from Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora and Butter Block pop-up shop. The glass case – or should we say shrine? – features a selection of pastries and sweet treats to accompany the coffee. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday sees fresh Elm Street fare, while Friday is Butter Block Day, with homemade pop tarts and brioche bombs among the regular features.
We visited on two days, to give our arteries a chance to recover from the influx of sugar and caffeine, as well as try fresh selections from each bakery. On Friday, we ordered both pop tart flavors ($2) – brown sugar and chocolate this week – as well as a peach brioche bomb ($3) and a chocolate-almond croissant ($3). To go along with them, we tried a Coup d'Etat ($3.60) and a Cortado ($4), two radically different styles of coffee.
Coup d’Etat is coffee for the Buffalonian who takes a shot at the bar to start a night out. Taken in one gulp, the drink is composed of layers of simple syrup, milk and espresso. Think of it like the Irish Car Bomb of coffee. In French, the Coup d’Etat is the sudden overthrow of a government or other sudden, decisive motion. The milk, sugar and coffee all blends together in the drinker’s mouth, creating a creamy, lightly sweet jolt of caffeine. If you like to start your day off with a bang, this is your drink.
The Cortado is an espresso and goat milk concoction with a velvety texture and smooth, rich taste. It’s a hot but short sipper, perfect for pairing with a pop tart or two. For the lactose-intolerant coffee fan, the Cortado is an opulent relief from the thin, sad soy lattes most other coffee shops offer.
So, about those pop tarts. Butter Block’s are what our favorite childhood breakfast wanted to be when it grew up. The perfectly flaky, crumbly crust blankets enough filling for flavor, without oozing. Eat just one, we dare you.
As we ordered the brioche bomb, our barista declared it “The best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” Still warm, this pastry was a nest of buttery layers of crisp brioche cuddling a dollop of fresh, summer-sweet peaches. I don’t even like peaches, and I fought my dining companion over this one.
The croissant glistened in the pastry case, a textbook example of laminated pastry. This week, it was sprinkled with toasty almonds and filled with a sweet, gooey cream and a ribbon of chocolate that dribbled onto the plate as the pastry shattered into buttery flakes.
It was everything a croissant ought to be: never frozen, time-intensive and both delicious and beautiful. Butter Block’s owners -- Colleen Stillwell and Ginny Rose Stewart -- preach a dedication to the pastry arts’ labor of love. After trying these treats, we believe them.
After our heart rates returned to baseline, we stopped by again for Elm Street Bakery’s fare on Saturday morning, ordering up a slice each of zucchini and banana bread ($3 each) with a blueberry and a chocolate ribbon streusel muffin ($3.75) with a raspberry espresso tonic ($4.60). The baristas blend a Fever Tree raspberry tonic with a shot of espresso for a cold, fizzy, slightly sweet coffee and fruit concoction.
“You either love it or hate it,” she explained. “Some people are like, ‘What is this poison?’ But others get addicted.”
The daring blend of fruit and coffee flavors was sweet and tart, fizzy and fresh. It was a risk I happily slurped.
Our pastry selection tended toward the fruity as well, starting with a blueberry muffin that a friend described as “a handful of blueberries connected with eggy pastry scaffolding.” Both muffins were egg-heavy and very moist, with a streusel crust. The chocolate ribbon muffin’s streusel topping was slightly salty to offset the richness of the bread. Make sure to get a bite of the ribbon in with that salty topping, to get the full effect.
Both quick breads were rich and moist, with the banana bread coming in as one of the sweetest we’ve ever tasted. It was clearly made with some nice, time-blackened bananas, holding together so well it was just this side of mushy. The zucchini bread had a Christmas-like spice to it, with a smattering of pepitas on top for crunch.
Public Espresso + Coffee is both an education in what coffee can be and a beautiful spot to take a few minutes or a few hours to drink it all in. We may be a shot and a beer town, but this is a new kind of shot that shows we are slowly moving toward something fresh and different. Like coffee and raspberry tonic.
Public Espresso + Coffee; inside the Hotel @ the Lafayette, at 391 Washington St.; Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Lizz Schumer writes about food, drink and whimsy for Buffalo.com and other publications. She is the content manager for Resurgence Brewing Company and can be found online at facebook.com/lizzschumer, @eschumer and lizzschumer.com