Published January 10. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 10. 2013 11:23AM
Surely everyone has a short list of unforgettable, life-changing moments.
Etched in time, we carry these memories in a virtual lock box, close to the heart: the awkward first kiss, the nervous excitement felt when accepting that high school diploma, the pride of walking your daughter down the aisle for the first time (or second, or third).
For me, the first trip to Washington Street Coffee House in New London falls somewhere on the list.
And do you want to know the cruel irony of it all? As vividly as I can recall the exemplary service, the enjoyable indie rock mix playing through the dining area, and the comfort of their cozy wood benches and farm-style tables, I can't recall the first dish I tried on that inaugural visit.
Was it the mouthwatering roast beef sandwich served with a heaping portion of meat, horseradish sauce, white onion and lettuce on a brioche bun ($8)? Maybe. Or was it the wonderfully original egg tacos - two farm eggs, sharp cheddar, shaved cabbage, red onion, cilantro and house-made jalapeno sauce on corn tortillas ($6)? Possibly. But, then again, it could very well have been the refreshing stir fry of bok choy, mushrooms, onions, carrot and bean sprouts served with rice noodles and a sweet chili sauce ($7).
Whichever, I was hooked.
Washington Street Coffee House is located in the old Bean & Leaf space off State Street. The sight of this quaint spot evokes thoughts of locally roasted coffee, fresh scones and expertly baked cookies. And you will find all that here, but Washington Street Coffee House is truly more than a coffee house. From day one, I've been impressed by how this new café - it opened in October 2012 - could offer so many inspired, unique and delicious menu items.
I imagine Chef Chris Sherman to be something of a culinary Jackson Pollock or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Instead of a palette of oil paints, Sherman works quickly and creatively with cilantro pesto, red peppers, mushrooms, onions, toasted walnuts and chicken to make tasty and satisfying Cavatappi pasta ($9). Or maybe he's a Wall Street maven, except he trades in the currency of roasted pork, nuoc cham sauce, daikon (white radish) and carrot pickles, cucumbers, cilantro and spicy mayo to create a Banh Mi sandwich bursting with flavor on a baguette ($8).
The dishes are so innovative that it's almost as if Sherman is inviting you, or challenging you, to step into a higher realm of food. He's the high school basketball coach, white towel draped around his neck, dabbing the sweat from his brow, pushing his players to dig deeper. "Come on," he says. "One more bite. There's more flavor for you to discover. Don't quit now. Do you want to kiss the sky or not?"
In many respects, he and his co-owner and girlfriend, Misha Lebell, are iconoclasts - smashing the idols of our one-size-fits-all fast-food culture, modern-day Samsons knocking down the pillars that prop up the bland, the flavorless and the conventional.
The dishes at Washington Street Coffee House feature top-notch ingredients and are made to order. And that makes the speed with which they are delivered to the table that much more impressive. There's also a nod to the local, with coffee roasted by Dave's Coffee in Westerly served daily.
The homespun aspect of the cooking extends to every detail. I like to add a kick to my egg tacos with a little hot sauce, but, on a recent trip, the bottle of standard hot sauce was not out. Upon inquiry, Sherman asked me if I wanted to try some homemade hot sauce he had recently finished. Like a dog waiting for his owner to toss a tennis ball, I said, "Yes."
"It's pretty hot," he warned, while pouring his fiery concoction into a small sample cup.
And what was it like? Well, you'd have to try it to understand the totality of the experience, but I will say this: In high school, urban legend and a fair amount of boredom led my friends and me to try to sync up the audio from "The Dark Side of the Moon" with "The Wizard of Oz" played on mute. Rumor had it if you started the album just after the MGM lion's third roar, the two would fuse together with mind-numbing precision and clarity. Now, it's safe to say if you simultaneously listened to the Pink Floyd classic, watched the iconic film and ate this hot sauce, your television set would burst into flames.
The owners of this fresh start-up come to the endeavor with experience in the local food scene. Sherman previously ran the oyster bar at Mystic Oyster Club, where Lebell worked as pastry chef. The Oyster Club's loss has become New London's gain.
Since the get-go, Sherman and Libell have hoped to separate themselves from other downtown coffee spots with the quality of their food offerings. Based on their delectable desserts and innovative sandwiches and dishes, I'd say they've done just that.
Washington Street Coffee House
13 Washington St., New London
Prices: Inexpensive. Lunch items under $10.
Service: Friendly and prompt.
Hours: Sundays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesdays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.' Wednesdays through Saturdays 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Credit cards: Cash only (ATM on premises).
Handicapped access: Accessible through main entrance.