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Imbibing in Oly: Sizizis and Cryptatropa

Post by Craig Sailor / The News Tribune on Dec. 31, 2010 at 10:00 am | No Comments »
December 30, 2010 6:25 pm


Sizizis is a 24-hour coffee and tea house in Olympia. (Steve Bloom/Staff Photographer)

Sizizis is a 24-hour coffee and tea joint, a dark-hued hipster hangout and a palindrome. The small unmarked dark spot on Fourth Avenue is the only place in Olympia you can get chai at 3 a.m.

Walking into Sizizis is like stepping into the captain’s quarters of a 17th century Spanish galleon. It’s dominated by massive wooden pillars and arches salvaged from an old bar. Eight tables sporting an eclectic range of lamps fill the living room-sized space. There’s no theme to the room unless you count incongruity.

Red and purple velvet curtains almost reach the creaky wide planked floor painted alternately in red and green. Salvaged beadboard in a variety of colors line the walls. Even the bathroom has vintage matching green porcelain fixtures you haven’t seen since that semester in London.

The only parts of the restaurant that give a hint it might be from the 21st century are the computer-carrying college students who populate the establishment from evening into the wee hours. And even they are frequently dressed in stylish vintage clothing.

It’s a lively place with folks stopping to stay awhile and others getting to-go cups. Young baristas are uniformly mellow. They carefully measure out and brew tea and create foamy espresso drinks. Despite the huge selection of drinks (more than 100), one barista working late one night was nursing a Rockstar energy drink.

“You can only drink so much coffee,” he said by way of explanation.

Sizizis offers 30 green and black teas along with espresso drinks and herbal infusions, or tisanes. If it grows on a bush, tree or plant, you’ll likely to find it here under a range of literal and interpretive names like Laughing Gas, The Witching Hour and Big Bear Hug. A collection of 30 syrups offers up the usual choices plus a veritable flower garden of flavors like rose, violet and lavender.

Sizizis is a 24-hour coffee and tea house in Olympia. (Steve Bloom/Staff Photographer)

In a phone interview, owner Elizabeth Turnbow said she’s proud of the quality of her ingredients. Her coffee is from Portland’s Stumptown, the current darling of the espresso world, and most of the tea is from Germany’s Tea Gschwendner. Coffee drinks range in price from $2.50 to $4. Teas are mostly $2.50 and the tisanes are $3.50.

The nearly two-year-old cafe was started by Shelton dentist and Olympia renovator Duane Moore. Moore is known around town for his collection of rental properties painted black. He recently sold Sizizis, which has no signage other than a sandwich board, to Turnbow and her husband Marc. “Duane’s not big on signage,” Turnbow said.

Turnbow credits the vibe of Sizizis to Moore. “He’s a character” she says of her longtime friend. She says he is attracted to things that are old and beautiful. Moore did not return calls seeking an interview for this story.

The Turnbows display the work of regional artists, with shows rotating on a monthly basis. They offer free Wi-Fi and strive for a welcoming atmosphere, Elizabeth said. “We want everybody to show up.”

Sizizis doesn’t promote its food heavily but there’s a wide selection for such a small space devoted mainly to coffee and tea. Olympia food purveyors Tasty Morsels and Bearded Lady Food Company provide Sizizis with gluten-free cupcakes and cookies, scones, vegan soups, and vegetable and meat pies. The cupcakes ($3.25) – with unusual flavors such as lavender, chai and Mexican spice – are displayed front and center.

I grabbed a fork from a drawer (a nice homey touch) and dug into a veggie pie ($4.75) warmed in a toaster oven. Full of carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and cheese, the pie had a golden crust as thick as grandma’s. Expecting a savory pie, I was surprised to find it somewhat sweet. It was not a welcomed surprise.

But Sizizis’s chai ($2.50) is refreshingly low on sugar. In a region where the cloying syrup of Oregon Chai flows like water, Sizizis uses Seattle’s Travelers Tea Company. The chai arrived with a swirl of spice on a frothy top. It was served, of course, in a vintage 1980s mug.

Sizizis
Where: 704 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Contact: 360-236-9988; Myspace, Facebook
Hours: Open 24 hours

Cryptatropa

There are few intoxicating beverages with more allure than absinthe.
It was once the drink of Belle Epoque Paris, where Van Gogh, LaTrec and other notables were said to chase the “green fairy.” Its reputation for insanity, poisoning and illegality has long made the licorice-flavored spirit the Marlon Brando of booze.

Made from wormwood (Artemisia), anise and other herbs, it’s a strong spirit that is customarily diluted with water. It’s hard to separate myth from fact regarding absinthe’s ill effects, though most, if not all, appear to be bunk. It was probably just temperance-fueled public hysteria based on simple misuse. Detractors made it illegal in the United States for nearly a century. Consider it the Four Loko of the 1900s.

Absinthe became legal in the United States in 2007 and distilleries have started to pop up all over the country.

High-quality absinthe is a drink of another realm. It doesn’t just have a different flavor – it’s a whole different category of flavor. Aficionados use words like transcendental and ethereal to describe the drink.
It was the quest for absinthe and the green fairy that brought me to the Olympia bar Cryptatropa, just a few blocks toward downtown from Sizizis. It’s owned by Duane Moore, the creator of Sizizis, and fan of hard to pronounce names.

My bartender that night, Ash, was happy to give me a rundown of the half dozen or so varieties of absinthe on hand. Sporting a nose ring, black knit hat and wearing a cross between a lab coat and trench coat, Ash said the bartender-managers of Cryptatropa like to stock the establishment with unusual and hard-to-find liquor.

Before I imbibed, I took a swing around the bar. Only a few red lights offer illumination. Just about every surface is painted jet black. For a bar that trades in a Goth theme, though, it has curiously large windows, giving it the look of an Edward Hopper diner redecorated by Yoko Ono. Or a drive-thru funeral home. Bring your flashlight.
Patrons were knocking back liquor in cubby-like booths that offer lots of privacy. The corner nook was occupied by a praying human-sized, four-horned winged creature illuminated by candles.

The musical selection, Ash said, was widely eclectic. Metal, avant-garde, folk, ethnic, techno, ethnic-techno were all mentioned. Smooth jazz and country were not.

At the bar, with my designated driver giving me the stink eye, I decided to try two different absinthe brands, Pacifique and Lucid ($10 each).

First, Ash filled the glasses with ice followed by the greenish liquor. Then he took what looked like a small, perforated cake server and set it on top of the glasses. After placing a sugar cube on the device he slowly poured ice water over the contraption. Absinthe is not a liqueur and is low in sugar so the cube is added to sweeten things up a bit. Like Ouzo, the drinks immediately became milky as the sugar and water mixed with the green spirit. This effect is caused by the anise agent in absinthe. Soluble in alcohol, but not water, the anise oil separates and forms a translucent emulsion.

Both liquors tasted strongly of anise. But one of them had a secondary flavor/aroma that was unique and unlike anything I’ve tasted. All my journalism experience failed me as I tried to describe it in my notes: herbal, woody, Martian? I’m pretty sure it was the Pacifique, which I found out later is made in Woodinville. But my scribblings ended there that night.

The last thing I remember was something glowing green in the air above me. My driver said it was only an exit sign. But I know better.

Cryptatropa
Where: 421 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Contact: 360-754-3867; Facebook
Hours: Open daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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