There are plenty of coffee shops that cater to a youthful crowd around Taipei. Most go for either a young intellectual vibe, fitted out with bookshelves, magazine racks and featuring music by small label independent musicians or soulful musings by the likes of Cat Power or late Sinead O’Connor. Others opt for a clinical cool with minimalist furniture, glistening surfaces and esoteric jazz played through expensive speakers.
Journey Kaffe in Neihu has found another variant to the youth vibe that has clearly struck a chord, as the place is routinely packed, with seats often hard to come by, even in the middle of the afternoon on a workday. The establishment has managed to marry a number of conflicting themes into a harmonious whole and this catches the eye almost as soon as you walk into the cavernous and seemingly chaotic space. There is rustic, there is something vaguely Mediterranean, a touch of the healthfood store, and more than a hint of the American diner. There is no music, and if there were, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear it over the din of talk and the clatter of plates behind the counter.
Looking in from the street, the long wooden tables and high ceiling give off a feeling of travel, adventure and a throwing off of convention. That it manages to achieve this ambiance, even momentarily, when it is in fact run as a very conventional cafe/restaurant, is a testament to its clever packaging.
This packaging applies to its food as well. Journey Kaffe’s Web site has a mission statement that includes the desire to serve food that allows natural ingredients to speak for themselves. A close look at the smoked salmon salad (煙燻鮭魚沙拉, NT$180) indicated some clever sleight of hand. There was plenty of nice crisp romaine, some cubes of soft, sweet pumpkin, tomato pieces and three large slices of smoked salmon. These fresh ingredients were covered by a glop of caesar-esque dressing, probably bought by the gallon, which rather destroyed the lively look of the salad. A topping of commercial grated Parmesan cheese added nothing. Fortunately, the dressing, which was not interesting in itself, did allow the flavor of the undoubtedly fresh vegetables and the salmon to come through, the juicy lettuce leaves cutting through the cream sauce nicely. While the flavor would not blow you away, the portion was generous and the food itself filling but light.
The selection of Panini wraps (熱壓磚餅, NT$130 to NT$150) provides a heartier meal, and the filling of the rosemary chicken wrap (NT$150) was full of flavor, and the principles of simplicity upheld by a tiny caprese salad on the side.
Pasta bowls (NT$150 to NT$170) and a selection of substantial cooked breakfasts (NT$130 to NT$180, until 11am) are also available.
A range of homestyle cakes are available, ranging from homemade cookies (NT$25) to a brownie cheesecake (NT$80). Again, the portions are generous, verging on huge, and the presentation almost distressingly simple. This simplicity is refreshing, in contrast to the generally superfluous decorations attempted by many coffee houses, and the quality is good, if generally on the heavy side. The banana cake (NT$60) was a stonking doorstop wedge that just managed to avoid being dry, and absolutely needed a big mug of Americano (NT$75) to wash it down.
The generous servings are not intended to be stuffed down but enjoyed over time, and Journey Kaffe very specifically encourages people to linger. Large tables provide ample room for computers and books, power plugs are dotted about so that no one needs to power down midway through checking their Facebook page, and free, fast Internet ensures that everyone, not just 3G users, have a good connection. If you get too involved in what you’re doing and your Panini wrap or coffee goes cold, a microwave is provided for customers to warm over their food.
Service is generally helpful but on occasion can be slow, and seating is of varying degrees of comfort. For those planning to dig in, the small padded stools should be avoided.
Journey Kaffe seems genuinely interested in providing customers with plenty of good food for a very reasonable price, and also a pleasant environment in which to eat, read and chat. While diner type shortcuts undermine the “natural food” image that it attempts to convey, there is enough fresh food to satisfy most health conscious eaters, and hearty enough for those stopping to refuel.