Restaurant Reviews

Ascension's Fix: One Man's Obsession Gives Dallas a Whole New Addiction

Russell Hayward pours a measure of preheated water into a small, bulb-shaped boiling flask and carefully sets it over a halogen heating element. At the flick of a switch, the element glows amber, dimly illuminating the glass from below like a watery Edison bulb. As the water approaches a boil, Hayward outfits another glass contraption with a spring-loaded paper filter and positions the assembly over the boiling flask.

A rubber gasket seals the two pieces together, and trapped steam pressure begins to slowly push the bubbling water up a stem, through the paper filter and into the top chamber. Hayward adds a precisely measured amount of product to the top chamber, stirs it twice with a small, flat wooden paddle and then flicks off the ceramic burner, just as the remaining water is pushed up through the stem.

As the lower chamber cools, a vacuum is formed, which slowly begins to pull the murky brew back down into the boiling flask. When the stem tube releases a bubbling gasp, the process is finished. Hayward now has his fix.

This isn't a scene captured in a makeshift drug lab in the back of a rundown RV. Rather it's an elaborate process for brewing coffee, and one of the cornerstones of Ascension, the highly caffeinated coffee shop that opened in the Design District last December.

If the siphon method sounds too involved, that's because it almost is. Hayward admits the process is very complicated and occasionally he still jacks things up. When he muffs, the result is a brew that smells like burnt peanuts and other scents associated with over-extracted coffee. But when he nails it, as is often the case, the results are a very crisp, bright but full-bodied cup of coffee — the benefits of combining total immersion brewing with a filter.

The idea for Ascension has been slowly percolating in the recesses of Hayward's mind for more than a decade now. The restaurateur got his start in the Dallas dining scene with Tom Tom in the West Village. Back then he was wrestling with a small but expensive commercial machine at home, and he thought having cappuccino at his Asian restaurant sounded like a nice idea. Unfortunately it was too difficult to train his staff to properly draw an espresso.

After a divorce forced him to sell his restaurant, he moved on to TABC, the casual beer-focused joint on Travis Street. But his coffee dreams wouldn't bloom there either. Hayward realized the only way to realize his full potential as a coffee man was to open up a dedicated coffee shop. But he had no aspiration of opening "just another café."

Hayward decided if he was going to bring Ascension to life, it had to be the best of its kind. "Average doesn't win, and I've been on the wrong side of average before," Hayward said. So like a chef building a new recipe from thin air, Hayward began to build his coffee experience from scratch, starting with the beans.

He called on Clay Eiland, a local coffee roaster who helped set up the Pearl Cup and whose beans were featured at a few local restaurants. The two tasted a few coffees before Hayward decided he'd found his roaster and then he gave Eiland his pitch.

Hayward wanted to be assured he'd have a unique product, so he told Eiland he'd only work with the roaster if he were allowed to procure his own beans. Together they'd sort out a custom blend unique to Ascension that gave Hayward complete control over quality.

Next the two set out to develop a customized brewing process tailored to the blend, using spreadsheets that tracked variables like the weight and grind of the beans, volume of water, temperature, extraction time, bloom time and so on. Each variable was adjusted until the desired result was achieved and then they moved on to the next, until they had a customized brewing process not just for the siphon but for various pour-over methods as well.

With beans and brewing procedures locked in and a lease signed in a Design District space that shares walls with the Meddlesome Moth, Hayward took on the last and perhaps most important component of his coffee shop. Having learned that bad baristas make for bad coffee, he hired Mike Mettendorf, a charismatic coffee lover with a penchant for scientific coffee making, and gave him the task of bringing on a cast of baristas.

Mettendorf's pitch was solid. He offered the chance to work at a coffee shop that went above and beyond Pearl Cup, Murray Street and the other casual coffee shops that made up the Dallas coffee scene. And he used that pitch to cherry-pick the best baristas in and around Dallas, much like a farm worker on a coffee plantation has to carefully select perfectly ripened beans on an Arabica coffee plant.

When Ascension finally opened, the attraction was instant. Not only was the coffee near perfect, but the space was clean and sleek as well. Don't expect bulletin boards with ads for lost dogs and piano lessons. Instead, broad windows and skylights send light flowing into a space filled with blond wood and high ceilings. Communal and private tables allow customers to mingle or squirrel away with a book on their own. And a coffee bar lets the curious and social watch closely as Hayward's team of baristas pull, siphon and pour their way through some of the most refined coffee Dallas has seen in some time.

Anchored by a $20,000 espresso machine that not only pulled a perfect shot every time but also created a media buzz about the place, Ascension opened to a flurry of news coverage that filled the space with customers. Interesting and refined coffee kept them there.

And yet, Ascension has more up its sleeve. As the afternoon approaches, most coffee shops become sleepy if they don't close first, but Hayward uses the setting sun for a new lease on life. Opaque curtains that obscure the floor-to-ceiling windows and dim lighting convert the place into an attractive dining room that's as good for an evening glass of wine as it is for a pork chop. The food here pales in comparison with the coffee — the execution doesn't keep up, with overcooked proteins and under-toasted paninis — but it's still serviceable and rounds out an offering that gives patrons an excuse to be here at any time of day or night.

Behind the counter a tall, glass science experiment, complete with spiraling tubes and multiple reservoirs, precisely makes one eyedropper's worth of iced coffee at a time. The daylong process results in a complex brew laced with hints of bourbon and fruit. It's a good metaphor for the long, drawn-out process that Hayward started more than a decade ago with a misplaced espresso machine in an Uptown Asian restaurant. "Dallas wasn't ready for it then," Hayward said when asked what took him so long. Surrounded by his team of intense coffee nerds and well-caffeinated customers, it's safe to say he's on the right side of average now.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz