In Food + Drink

Coffee Connoisseur Reuben Mardan Reveals His Top Sydney Cafés

Think back to 2004. It was the year of Shannon Noll’s What About Me; Mark Latham was our federal opposition leader; and in-the-know coffee customers were ordering double-ristretto piccolos.

“If you were ordering a double rizz, you knew a barista,” says Reuben Mardan, owner of roaster-cafe Sample Coffee.

Ordering a double ristretto (a ristretto being the first half of an espresso shot, and the sweetest part of a dark-roasted coffee) was the secret handshake, the “You know, I know” sly wink to other fellow baristas. For the record, Mardan estimates that he would sink up to twelve double-shot coffees a day. Now he’s reduced his caffeine intake to 4 to 6 coffees a day.

As a young barista and budding roaster at Surry Hills’ Single O in the early noughties, Mardan was part of the so-called ‘specialty’ coffee movement that was taking hold across the city. Back then, single origin coffees were a rarity; filter batch-brews even more so, and coffee roasters – like Mardan – were largely learning their craft through trial and error.

Reuben Mardan Sydney Cafes

“The coffee industry was very exciting back then … People were discovering new things, new techniques were being used. People weren’t even using scales to make coffee,” Mardan says.

After opening Sample Coffee, his first hole-in-the-wall cafe in Surry Hills’ Devonshire Street in 2011, he recalls his younger, more naive self trying to recruit customers to pour-over coffee, a manual method for producing black coffee, where hot water is “poured over” ground coffee in a paper filter.

“I was like, “Hey, you said you wanted a long black, but do you want to try this $6 coffee? It’ll take a while!,” he says.

But now, technology has changed. Filter coffees are made in batch-brews, producing more consistent quality at higher volumes. But more importantly, Mardan says customers are more discerning. They’re curious about where their coffee has come from, how it’s roasted, and how they can make it at home.

Reuben Mardan Sydney cafes

Sample Coffee, Photo: Facebook

Like many boutique roasters, Sample Coffee sources its green beans from prime coffee-producing regions in Ethiopia, Kenya and Colombia. Its packaging details the country of origin, the estate or farm that the beans have come from, and the flavour profile of the roasted coffee.

Mardan has travelled directly to some of these farms – he’s travelled to Ethiopia, the heartland of coffee, three times – to witness first-hand the coffee farming process, talk directly with farmers and co-ops, and negotiate green bean prices.

Ensuring fair prices to the farmers is something that Mardan is passionate about. It’s a little known fact that coffee is a commodity product, with the market price fluctuating according to demand. (Sadly, it’s not uncommon for the sell price of coffee to be lower than the costs of production.)

“If you want to continue in the industry, you also have to look after the industry. It’s humanity [to pay a fair price for coffee]. You wouldn’t want to rip off someone you’re doing business with here, so why you do it with someone [in another country]?,” he says.

From ethical supply chain considerations, to being crowned Sydney’s best barista by Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Cafe Guide, to opening a second cafe-roastery in St. Peters (complete with a a 1950s roasting machine, imported from Germany) – Mardan says he’s proud to not just survive, but thrive, in Sydney’s notoriously fickle hospitality scene.

“That’s why I’ve got grey hairs … I feel proud, but also relieved,” he says.

Here’s where he eats and drinks around Sydney.

Favourite Sydney Cafés

Reuben Mardan Sydney cafe

Fleetwood Macchiato, Photo: Facebook

“It’s tricky – there’s a lot of places that I really like to eat at, but their coffee is really not good, so I categorise them as a restaurant.”

Fleetwood Macchiato, Erskineville: “They have really interesting food … and they serve a great variety of coffee. They use our coffee, but I’m often drinking [other guest roasters]. Plus I went to primary school with [co-owner] Jai Pyne. We were besties.”

Honourable mentions: Paramount Coffee Project in Surry Hills, and Cornersmith in Marrickville and Annandale.

Favourite Sydney Restaurants

Izakaya Fujiyama, Surry Hills: “For the sushi. And the man, Kenji [owner Kenji Maenaka]. That laugh – you’ll be sitting at the bar and you hear a ‘heh heh heh’. The key is to go Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, and ask for the omakase [the chef’s choice of sushi and sashimi].”

Sixpenny, Stanmore: “It’s very comfortable for a fine dining place. You feel like you’re meant to there. I’ve only been there two times, but I’m due. And they use our coffee.”

Ester, Chippendale: “[Owner-chef] Mat Lindsay used to work at 121BC [the now-closed Surry HIlls wine bar, just around the corner from Sample]. The food is great, it’s relaxed, the wines are good. I try not to always order the blood sausage sanga because it’s so easy to do.”

Favourite Sydney ‘Cheap Eats’

Reuben Mardan Sydney cafe

Pizza Madre Marrickville, Photo: Facebook

Chat Thai, Haymarket: “They nail it. I try to mix up [my order] every time – they have such an extensive menu.”

Pizza Madre, Marrickville: For the sourdough pizza bases.

Ciccone & Sons, Redfern: For the hazelnut gelato … but in a cup or cone? “It depends how you want to eat it … With a cup, you’re having smaller mouthfuls. With a cone you’re biting it. You can’t just lick the cone to death.”

Favourite Sydney Drinking Spots

Wyno, Surry Hills: It’s quite an intimate setting, and [sommelier] Gavin Wright has an interesting wine list.”

BlackFont, Marrickville: “It’s owned by a couple, and [one half] is a Qantas engineer. I think it’s the garage of their house, and they’re open from 2-5pm on Fridays – that’s it. And sometimes they’ll shut, and not be open for two months. But they have the most incredible beer list.”

(Lead image: Sample Coffee, Photo: Facebook)

Published 06 December, 2018