Article by Wade Hunter with photography by Fitz
(Lead photo- Wade Hunter in Cafe Stella)
There may have been a point in my life where to even rouse me into any form of humanity, I borderline had to have an IV of aqueous caffeine in the morning – subsisting, sometimes and begrudgingly, on the stale diesel-grade sludge that is ‘Navy mud’- a.k.a., ship coffee. At this juncture, my life has allowed me a proverbial ‘t-break’ from what once was the lifeforce to my homunculus shell of a body, except permitting a paltry cup or espresso on particularly engaging days. So, our dearest readers: maybe I’m a wuss, but nonetheless allow this to also be a cautionary tale for caffeine bingeing of high orders. We at Southern Grit offer our bladders and sanity so that you need not to.
Here our motley crew were about to engage a caffeine-laden cafe crawl through the select coffee houses of Norfolk. The plan was simple. As each of us felt we had met our personal ‘basic bitch’ quotas for the day, there was little motivation to head to any of the pseudo-cafe Starbucks that dot the land like temples in Kanchipuram. Instead, we vouched to head to four of the more noteworthy shops in the area: Stella’s Café, Elliot’s Fair Grounds, Zeke’s Beans and Bowls, and later on a whim, Cure Coffeehouse and Brasserie. Among the various specialty drinks that would be sampled, a need for a constant arose which would act as a kind-of litmus test; something pervasive and timeless, but challenging to make exemplarily well – the cappucino.
An unassuming staple of the cafe world, when done right, highlights both the quality of the bean and the skill of the barista. Traditionally, a well pulled espresso shot is mixed with near equal parts steamed milk, just enough so to negate most if not all of the bitterness of the coffee. The way that the milk is pulled and textured plays an important role as well – as the ideal consistency should be something of a lofty microfoam with no visible bubbles.
Figuring the amount of caffeine to be consumed, I was a bit nervous. “Shouldn’t we rig some kind of spittoon system, like they do in wine tasting, so we’re not utterly wired by the end of this?” I maybe should have thought if I were smarter.
(Above- nitro coffee, decor and cappuccino from Cafe Stella)
Trepidation aside, our first stop was into the darling of Colonial avenue that is Stella’s cafe. Even at the high customer volume, the inside resonated with a low tempo. A cool toned interior, unfinished floors, and found furniture set the bay-area, shabby-chic vibe felt within. It’s a quiet space to ruminate or work, drawing the local twenty-something professionals and family types in the area. Placed well within sight of the customers is also something that sets Stella’s apart from other places – an in-house bean roaster. The owner himself is known to tinker with the various house blends, aiming to offer cohesive flavor profiling for each brew offered. Placed prominently behind the bar lay a fairly expansive blackboard menu, featuring a heavy array of sandwiches, petits fours, and extensive beer and wine listings – making it the only location on our tour, aside from Cure, to offer alcohol.
Fitz, the saint he is, brought us our first round of the day. There was a unanimous opinion that the cappuccino was excellent. While the foam top offered some apparent frothing, it was of such a gradient as to be interesting to the pallette. The flavor was well rounded and creamy, while still offering the nuances of the roast beneath; nutty, warming, and slightly piquant, but no bitter whatsoever. On the final sip, the remnant foam glazed the cup in a very sexy manner.
(Above- customers at Cafe Stella)
For the specialty drink, A recommendation came for Fitz’s personal favorite, the nitro-coffee. It’s frankly nice to see modernist style techniques such as nitration diffusing through the market right now and becoming tempered and more commonplace. Much like the more commonly utilized carbonation, nitration is saturating a liquid at high pressures with a gas. Unlike carbon dioxide, however, nitrous oxide forms much smaller bubbles, causing a creamy mouthfeel when served, eventually settling into a malt head. Also, the nitrogen lends a sweeter flavor to the substance, as opposed to carbon dioxide’s effervescent sour.
The nitro-coffee that we had coalesced beautifully into a creamy foam. On ice, the base coffee used was from their cold brew, minus the dilution. Jimmy, our sound guy and fellow reviewer, considered the beverage to have an “almost tea-like” quality, probably due to the subtle volatiles in the coffee grounds often destroyed at higher temperatures than that found with cold brewing. I found the whole thing similar to a good stout; in retrospect, the ice may have detracted from it, but at the time added to the refreshment (considering how temperate and balmy it’s been in the early summer.)
Well awake with some newly found energy and the world a notch brighter, we pile into Fitz’s car and head to the next destination within the NEON/Arts District. Among many things, Zeke’s is a barista’s kind of coffeehouse. Sequestered on a corner of a block dominated by Alchemy NFK, Zeke’s gives the impression of the VA Beach cousin visiting the arts district, but still within the sway of the espirit de corps being culminated there.
(Above & below- Zeke’s NFK’s barista Dylan making various coffee)
Upon entering, I heard something Paul Banks-esque playing (maybe his independent work? Or an interpol b-side?) A quaint interior reminiscent of it’s sister store, with subtle beach-house details in the peripheries, greeted us. Sadly, we were here for only the beans this time and not the bowls, but the various poke dishes coming from the kitchen were nonetheless beautiful to behold. Dylan, a seven-and-a-half year veteran of coffee houses, had an approachable wisdom of his trade and explained what he was doing with well-honed aplomb, giving me confidence in the reproducibility of his product. I noticed a sriracha bottle filled with simple syrup, which was a nice touch and something all cafés should have for iced drinks.
After some debate, we decided to try one of the new coffee options being offered on the menu as a pour-over style cup. “El Salvador”, from Intellegensia, was described on the blackboard as being a provocative “Crisp pear, honey, & sweet marzipan.” The cup came with an iridescent sheen at the surface from the delicious lipids normally filtered out through finer meshes of other brewing methods. Upon tasting, it was far more different than any brew I had prior. Although most certainly a dark roast, the tartness instilled a verdant sourness at a higher note than the alkaline bitterness I would find in most brews. I definitely got an “unripened pear” with a geosmin floral-ness that Fitz described as “gritty garden.” At first I wasn’t too sure of it, but it wasn’t something easy to put down due to the curious nature of it.
(Above- Zeke’s El Salvador and nitro coffee)
Trying the cappuccino out, I was initially taken aback by the pronounced flavor of the espresso. “All of our drinks are doubles” Dillian informed us. It’s nice to know they don’t screw around for a price competitive with other shops. The thick crema of the shots peaked around the edges of the milk, expertly laid thoroughfare across the cup. The flavor was a strong espresso with just enough creaminess to partially take the edge off but not completely remove the bitter, making this the strongest of any of the cappuccinos tried.
(Above- decor at Zeke’s)
Next up was their interpretation of the in-vogue nitro coffee. Served without ice this time, one could really see the turbulent swirls as the nitrogen rose, emulsifying to a thick head at the top. One thing to note of both nitro coffees I had witnessed: N2O is fat soluble, not water. If one felt savvy enough, it may prove prudent to extend this cascading effect by increasing the available lipids in the substance one way or another (such as coarser filtering when brewing). The cold brew was considerably stronger compared to Stella’s, making me miss some of the more nuanced flavors beheld with the other.
Stepping out into the bright street, with vitality coursing through our veins, the coffee at zeke’s gave a much more discernable boost ― and boy let me tell you we were hyped–Hyped―HYPED! Our conversations were at a trill pitch with exorbitant tremolo from the growing dynamo roaring inside our chests. I took upon the world with a jittery, insect-like precision and pealed through it with sweaty palms clinched, like some ritalin addled middle-schooler running through a hallway. After corralling our shaking selves into the car, Fitz drove through some kind of temporal vortex and we ended up back in Ghent, homing into the parking lot of Fair Grounds, the talking post of Ghent.
(Above: Barista Kate behind the Fairgrounds counter)
I could feel the palpable gossip waft heavy through the porch as we walked past so many college youth. Being a short walk from Stella’s, Fair Grounds offers something different to the community under the same moniker. It’s a social hub, which is readily apparent ascending the staircase laden with flyers and posters from every happening in the area. Sitting to yourself, as long as you don’t look too dower or busy, will lead to an interesting dialog and even a new acquaintance or potential friend with lovely people, such as the wonderful Hollywood of Ghent.
Fair Grounds offered the most affordable cup yet, with a decent mug of coffee being no more than a couple bucks. What they were really known for was the breadth of sugary concoctions they had amassed through the flavored-latte arms races. Every novelty flavor under the sun, from bacon to lavender, has been featured on this menu, with names like ‘Jewel Berry’ and ‘Suga Mamma’. I was crawling out of my skin and the room could barely contain me. “Want to go on a jog around the block?” I half jested. Honestly, at this point, I was beginning to feel a bit queasy with the whole thing, but I held it together for these last couple cups.
(Above- Fairgrounds’s “The French Toast”)
Aside from the cappuccino, we went with the referred latte from the board-o-syrup – the French Toast. Dusted with a fine layer of cinnamon, upon first sip I was not ready for the sweetness, but after that – well, I’d be damned if it wasn’t liquid french toast. The roast might not have been readily apparent through the dessertiness of the drink, but Fitz pointed out that it was the “southern sweet tea of coffees,” making me feel a little less guilty for loving it so much. Overall, our sweet-tooths won out for me and Fitz, leaving Jimmy apathetic towards it. As far as the cappuccino… it was unremarkable. The surface was smothered with a raft of styrofoam-like froth which when broken through, revealed a weak espresso/milk mixture.
It became evident that we could no longer neglect a certain coffee place, despite our best efforts. Fitz didn’t really like Cure; he felt that the baristas there were cocky assholes and the crowd it draws are the kinds of people that would “[sic] hang out with Carlton from Fresh Prince.” Despite this, we had to be objective and decided to head over there, if just for one cappuccino.
At this point in time we were treading deep into territories pioneered by overnight cross-country truckers with a Big Gulp of Jolt, a pocket full of no-doze, and a Tijuana Bible. That initial dynamo was now imploding into a star close to my heart, sending throbbing ripples through my psyche like a mercury filled balloon. Seen through the car window, the earth pivoted under our tires with bright streaks.
Arriving off of Botetourt street, Jimmy and I managed to slink and oscillate our way across the pavement and into sitting positions outside of the café. Not sure how much more coffee we could drink, it was decided that a single cappuccino would suffice. When the beverage came out, it was picture perfect. With no discernable bubbles in the microfoam, and a fine crema ranging from auburn to chestnut in color, the mouthfeel was positively unctuous. Beneath, the espresso flavor was more pronounced than that found at Stella’s, but more nuanced than Zeke’s, leaving Jimmy to feel as if it was “just right.” Even Fitz confessed that the cappuccino was “good.” The pricing was considerably steep compared to other places, however, leaving one debate whether it was worth the cost.
(Above- Cure’s cappuccino)
Ending our venture, we were more rattled than a shell-shocked soldier. I may have a boxcar stomach, but none of that matters when you’re in orbit. We all desperately needed something solid to gnaw on. Setting our thrusters to burn retrograde, we guided our faces into atmospheric re-entry, plummeting into a pizza at the Bakehouse at Chelsea.
For more info on Cafe Stella visit
For more on Zeke’s NFK visit
For more on Fairgrounds visit
For more on Cure visit