The El Bulli of Coffee: Theorem Opens In Costa Mesa, California

Today marks the first day of open reservations for Theorem, a new concept cafe from the folks behind Portola Coffee Lab. Your Sprudge.com editors had a chance to attend an advanced seating last week while in Orange County for Barista Nation LA. We don’t want to give away all the details – let’s keep it special for your first visit – and our photos were kept intentionally fuzzy and artsy – the space was not 100% camera ready during our preview, 5 days in advance of Theorem’s opening day.

But we do feel comfortable distilling the whole experience down into a single synthesis: Theorem is one of the most ambitious, professional, and exciting coffee experiences we’ve ever had.

Resembling nothing so much as an “omakase” service, guests at Theorem are presented with a unique and challenging menu of coffee preparations, which will change daily with the creative whims of Theorem’s staff. The preview menu we sampled at Theorem featured 5 unique takes on a single coffee: Portola’s roast of an Ethiopia Worka, from the Gedeo zone of the Yirgacheffe region. Service included a variety of brew methods, including a skimmed 6oz americano, a “piccolo” macchiato made with 6% milk from Straus Family Creamery, and a flight of coffees made using three distinct metal filters.

These three conventional services were followed by two imaginative riffs on the Worka’s inherent flavor notes of berry and vanilla. Theorem’s two-man barista crew prepared for us what they call an “enhanced espresso”, wherein a mixture of filtered water, blueberries, clove, and vanilla were heated and allowed to macerate together in a Hario TCA-5 siphon pot. The mixture was then poured into the handle of Mypressi Twist, then used to pull a shot of the Worka and served in a tall shot glass.

As a cap to our Worka service, Theorem’s service chief, Truman Severson, built us a one-of-a-kind affogato with liquid nitrogen ice cream made before our very eyes.

Eggs, heavy cream, whole milk, sugar, vanilla bean as a liquid base, then add nitrogen and whip, served in a coup glass with espresso on the side.

Impressive stuff, to be sure, and certifiably delicious. It’s worth noting that Theorem is tiny – their service bar seats five – housed in a small, darkly lush room separated from Portola Coffee Lab by a sliding glass door. The experience is conversational and interactive, and guests at one of Theorem’s 6-8 daily seatings will be allowed to select menu items à la carte, or defer their selections to the expert two-man staff (this would be our recommendation).

It’s always tempting to play “spot the influences” in a setting like this, but to their credit, Severson and his staff wear their inspiration on their sleeves. Restaurants like Chicago’s Alinea, cocktail bars like Portland’s Clyde Common – Theorem is specialty coffee’s procession on that path, with intentionality and creativity honed to an astonishing degree, and Severson as the movement’s pied piper.

Theorem is located in the city of Costa Mesa, a good hour from Los Angeles, and so its target clientele may be asked to submit to a bit of a pilgrimage in order to get there. Maybe in this way it’s more like the coffee equivalent to the now-closed El Bulli, located two hours from Barcelona. It’s an inexact comparison, to be sure – a Costa Mesa high-end shopping mall ain’t the coast of Spain – but both are wildly creative products of the place they inhabit, and you can draw a direct line from El Bulli to the playful reverence for science that runs deep through the service at Theorem. Every last drop is weighed and re-weighed; an array of brew methods are implemented with a gleeful schizophrenic intensity; and temperatures are constantly checked and prepped by laser gun. It’s a molecular gastronomy coffee bar, which is to say, it’s a lot of fun, an onslaught of courses and creativity and intentionality.

The second-to-last drink we tried at Theorem was also the best. Using the same coffee he competed with in last year’s USBC cycle, Mr. Severson crafted for us an absolutely delicious “Coffee Old Fashioned”, a non-alcoholic cocktail using Portola’s Indonesia Bali Kintamani coffee as its base. They age the Kintamani for 8 months in a American oak barrel, pair it with a generous amount of house-made coffee bitters, garnish with flamed orange pith and serve over one large ice rock in a high-ball glass. Tried neat, the barrel-aged Kintamani was smooth, oaky, funky, sour, and unctuous. But combined with the other ingredients and served, the results were clean, sweet, and endlessly drinkable. In a service of highlights, this was the highlight.

Today is Theorem’s opening day, and we invite you to start planning for your pilgrimage now. Costa Mesa is accessible by car from LAX or from the small Santa Ana airport in Orange County. Service is by reservation only, lasts around 45 minutes, and is a steal at $20. Run, don’t walk.