Last year, Amsterdam decided to up its tourist tax, put the kibosh on downtown hotel-building, restricted how many days residents could Airbnb their abodes, and nixed the city center from opening new “tourist shops”—bad news for venues selling everything from Nutella-shellacked waffles to souvenir T-shirts (my favorite reads: GOOD GIRLS GO TO HEAVEN BAD GIRLS GO TO AMSTERDAM).
Whether or not the limits and levies push you out of the Dutch capital, note that there is now a distinct southwesterly pull away from it anyway—to The Hague. Museums full of Mondrians, international tribunals, and the brisk beaches of the North Sea aside, a must-visit in this city, discerning drinker, is Kaafi. The cafe opened in June 2017, in the Hofkwartier, a picturesque shopping district with no shortage of specialty coffee. Yet so much distinguishes Kaafi from other spots in The Hague and, for that matter, the Netherlands.
A telltale sign is the house espresso, the Red Brick blend roasted by Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London. And following Square Mile’s recommended specs for that very brew, Kaafi uses a three-group Victoria Arduino VA388 Black Eagle Gravitech espresso machine—a rare bird in the Netherlands, with its impressive built-in weighing system. This is no coincidence. Kaafi’s founder, Zeeshan Malik, was lured into the industry at London’s legendary Prufrock Coffee, to which Square Mile is a principal supplier.
From afar, Malik appears serious, if not stoic. But exchange one word with him and he is instantly disarming and buoyantly conversational. A Manhattan-born American who spent his teen years in The Hague and attended law school in London, the almost-30-year-old first became acquainted with Prufrock as an unassuming customer.
“I just kinda walked into the place. It was a rainy day and I just needed a place to study,” recalls Malik. “I had my first cup, which was probably a Red Brick cappuccino.”
Before long, though, he became an obsessive hobbyist, enrolling in Prufrock’s training program and taking course after course, from the barista skills foundations to an authorized training certification. “I was very lucky to have an amazing mentor,” Malik says of Jeremy Challender, who at the time co-ran Prufrock.
“He would have a whiteboard in front of him,” Malik describes of the drills Challender put him through. “He timed everything I did, from the moment I started grinding to how idle I am while I’m steaming milk. And it’d be like, ‘Well you just wasted 20 seconds steaming milk when you could be doing other things, like setting up a saucer and a teaspoon.’”
After completing schooling and becoming disillusioned with lawyering in London, Malik moved back to The Hague. Eventually, he found “the courage to say, ‘This is what I wanna do, for real,’” as he puts it. “I mean, I had the most kitted-out home barista kit you’ll ever see. I was the guy who had a [Mahlkönig] EK43 at home.”
Today the pet Mahlkönig EK43 is a workhorse at Kaafi, along with two Victoria Arduino Mythos One grinders. Nitro cold brew is seasonally available, and Malik plans to soon offer Turkish coffee—apt for a brand with a whirling dervish logo. Like Prufrock, Kaafi features a usual rotation of light-roasted coffees from dark-weather Europe (La Cabra, The Barn, etc.).
In the Netherlands, early-morning consumption culture is in its nascence, which Malik found out at the start, when Kaafi opened at 7:30 and was “absolutely dead” til 10am. He adjusted accordingly, although “that’s double digits already—like, life should be well into play by 10 o’clock,” he muses, expressing hope to one day “start inching towards 9:30.”
Anticipating a day when Kaafi could potentially approach big-city busy, Malik wanted “to create a bar that was optimized for workflow and quality consistency,” he says. “I always ask myself, ‘Do I have a bar that one person could handle on their own?’ And the answer to that inevitably is yes.”
The image of a solo staffer is comfortably projected onto the two Marco SP9s that are used to prepare filter coffee. The choice has been a local talking point, for which Malik has a considered response.
“My least favorite part of being a barista is pouring hot water. I think it’s just not something that you need to be spending time on,” he emphasizes. “Proponents of manual pour-over might say that it provides a better experience, but to that, I say, it’s 2018, and most of our customers are familiar with the way a pour-over coffee is made. There’s no need to be showing that off when you can be tending to them.”
Gear and groove aside, another trait that sets Kaafi apart is kinship. Malik’s parents, since retired from continent-spanning work as Pakistani diplomats, have embraced second careers—alongside their son. Malik’s father is Kaafi’s head chef, fulfilling a longtime fantasy to have his own restaurant and now creating delectable takes on cafe fare, such as brie brûlée toasties; Malik’s mother is his pastry chef, producing a score of sweets with Pakistani twists, like the signature pistachio cardamom cheesecake. Malik’s little brother was his first employee and his wife, a human rights lawyer by day, moonlights as his marketer.
The cafe comfortably sits 40. A dapper family-den feeling characterizes the main floor. It contrasts with the elevated back area that Malik calls “our inspiration-slash-productivity space,” hosting a “cupping table that masks as a communal-seating table.” Bright and minimalist, the alcove welcomes patrons to work, staying as long as they wish; the table height is ideal for standing typists and outlets encourage laptops (and during off-hours, kettles).
Clearly influenced by his inculcation at Prufrock and helped by his family’s panoramic support, Malik offers a kind of hospitality and attention on the guest that remains scarce in the Netherlands. So for visitors to The Hague, including those of us from Amsterdam, Kaafi is definitely something to write home about.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.
Some photos courtesy of Kaafi.