The Manhattan Coffee Pilgrimage
So much for trying to keep my posts short. I promise you that it’s necessary here.
Nothing, I tell you. Oh, long past are the days when I had coffee rules… what are those again? It used to be two shots of espresso, or their equivalent in drip coffee (and why would you bother with drip coffee when you could have a cappuccino? Or so I thought)… now I laugh at that.
Is it because as a college student, there exists an unspoken rule that you have to live on “bottomless cup” deals and the murky brown water the dining hall passes off as coffee? An even more important coffee rule used to be that if no good coffee was to be found… well, I just wouldn’t drink it.
But then I relapsed. What could I do? There was pretty godawful espresso, made drinkable with the addition of a little foamed milk. And still I drank it. And spent money. And drank more.
All I can say is, thank god for a certain recently-opened student-run cafe, run by a guy with five years of coffee-industry experience. He took a year off just to make coffee in Portland, home of all that is holy,Stumptown Coffee Roasters. In addition to espresso drinks with fabulous latte art, they have FREE DRIP COFFEE (music to the average student’s ears).
Unfortunately, this place is only open from 9 pm- 1 AM. Does it matter? Well, only for my sleeping habits.
Alex, the professional barista who opened this cafe, made me a list of coffee spots to check out while I was in New York. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to Brooklyn, but in just 3 days I was able to get to ALL of his Manhattan recommendations. There were seven cafes. I managed to visit one more than once, and even squeezed in a cup of Turkish coffee on my last night.
That is a LOT of caffeine… and I although my body may have been begging for mercy, my mind and taste buds were thanking me for the coffee buzz and excellent espresso.
- Most of the baristas are straight out of Look At this F**king Hipster. I also noticed an abundance of Asian female baristas with short hair… Maybe there’s hope for me yet?
- Out of all of these places, only one had a bathroom. When you’re drinking this much coffee, a backup plan is necessary. I don’t think further elaboration is needed.
Without further ado, I give you the Manhattan Coffee Meltdown (Most of these cafes were featured in the NY times article):
Third Rail Coffee (240 Sullivan street).
Located on the fringe between Soho and West Village, Third Rail is also next to Peanut Butter and Co, which yes, is overpriced, but a cute idea. Out of all the coffee I sampled in New York, Third Rail’s was the weakest.Roasters used: combination of Intelligentsia, Stumptown and possibly Counter Culture (I forget).
- Ordered: iced coffee, which was transparent both in appearance and taste. Probably good for those who like their coffee weaker, but it was too weak for me. On my next attempt, I ordered the house blend, an El Salvador that was good and full-bodied, but nothing to write home about. I’m not discounting, it though– last time I was in NYC I ordered a cappuccino, and man, was it good. Clearly espresso is where it’s at here.
Joe: the Art of Coffee (514 Columbus Ave): thank you, THANK you for bringing good coffee to the Upper West Side!
- Roasters: Ecco specifically for Joe
- Ordered: a cortado (5 oz). Other than not being quite hot enough, it was really damn good. It was served in a ceramic mug (as opposed to the traditional glass), but the espresso was mellow and sweet, with an underlying acidity.
Cafe Grumpy (Chelsea location: 224 West 20th Street)
- Roasters: They roast their own beans, and each batch is cupped separately.
- Ordered: Coffee tasting flight: what a deal! I would have ordered espresso, but seeing as how you could sample any three Clover varietals of your choice (about 4 oz each), how could I resist? I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not the hugest drip coffee fan; it gets cold quickly and has none of the texture of foamed milk. On the other hand, the variety you get with drip coffee just can’t be tasted in even the best espresso. If I want to be able to truly taste coffee, I’d better start with the slow-drip stuff. Still, I refuse to compromise my dislike for super “fruity” (aka acidic) coffee, so that almost always means choosing South American over African. The barista recommended the Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Out of the three, the Guatemalan was definitely my favorite: it tasted richer and mellower, as opposed to the El Salvador, which was cleaner (veering into potentially dangerous acidic territory here). The Honduras was a balance between the two, managing to be full-bodied and bright at the same time.
Cafe Ost (441 E. 12th Street)
Out of all the cafes I went to, only Ost seemed to value the idea of sitting down and enjoying a cup. A number of articles have recently been published attacking those of us who prefer working or relaxing in cafes, and I stand by what I’ve always said: I go to cafes just as much for the atmosphere as I do for the coffee (although clearly, I’m willing to compromise and drink my espresso standing up the way they do in Italy if it’s worth it). I drank at the bar, but the overall vibe was laid back and cozy, ideal for cloudy days and warm sweaters. Ost also offers German and Eastern European food; their hamentaschen looked delectable.
- Roaster: Intelligentsia. Black Cat espresso blend. ‘Nuff said. Milk: Battenkill Valley Creamery. Regular coffee is French press.
- Ordered: Macchiato. Was tempted by the cortado, but I’ve decided that while cortados/cappuccinos are my favorite sit-down drinks, macchiatos are made for coffee tasting. There’s not enough milk to mask the taste of the espresso, but just enough to taste the quality of the milk and the steaming technique. This macchiato was to die for: the milk was velvety (never airy), and there were so many layers of flavor going on in the espresso itself. Because the initial sweetness of the milk was so comforting, it was almost jarring when the sharp coffee zing hit the back of my throat. Jarring in the best possible sense.
Ninth Street Espresso (341 E. 10th street. Because there really isn’t enough coffee in the East Village)
- Roaster: Intelligentsia for Ninth Street Espresso. Alphabet City espresso blend.
- Ordered: Cold brew. What’s the difference between a cold brew and regular iced coffee, you ask? As you might suspect, cold brewed ice coffee is brewed… well… cold, whereas iced coffee is usually brewed double-strength and then refrigerated. Because you have to make a concentrate at room temperature and wait for 12 hours, cold-brewing is a time-consuming process, one that results in a much smoother taste. My first cold brew (at Stumptown, see below) caught me a little off guard– Being used to Intelligentsia’s aggressively strong iced coffee, it seemed almost diluted. Once I got it through my head that I was dealing with two different animals here, I stopped mentally comparing cold brew to iced coffee and tried to taste it for what it was. In Ninth Street Espresso’s case, that meant sampling the best iced coffee I have ever had. Usually, I can’t bring myself to describe coffee as flowery, fruity, chocolatey, etc, but the cold brew was so sweet and subdued, I really did taste dark chocolate and berries in it. As I sipped it, I saw dark blue and purple (every now and then I get flashes of synesthesia), as opposed to the reddish brown hues I usually see when I drink coffee. It was an experience.
Stumptown Coffee (in the Ace Hotel: 18 W. 29th street)
Last year, when I was in Portland, my favorite city in the U.S., I tasted Stumptown for the first time. Stumptown only very recently became available in Chicago, and even then, it was only drip coffee, no espresso. Thank god that New York, being New York, has an Ace Hotel-Stumptown branch. Stumptown is the epitome of hipsterdom, as is the Ace. Can you tell?
- Roaster: Do I even need to say?
- Ordered: Luckily, I was with two other people, allowing for more taste testing. My macchiato was superb– probably the best I had in the city. Like espresso often does, it had a slight salinity, without being acidic at all. The aroma was very “roasty,” and the coffee was rich and bitter in the best possible sense. I love Stumptown’s macchiatos because they’re really more like mini cortados, without too much foam. Everything good about the macchiato could be found in the cappuccino– it was just stronger. Their cold brew, like I said, tasted diluted to me, but that’s probably only because I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a bright, tea-like drink that would definitely be ruined by adding milk.
Abraço (86 E. 7th street)
Is it their goal to be as elusive as possible? The place doesn’t even have a phone, for God’s sake. Due to several terrible twists of fate, it took three or four visits to finally find the place open. The fourth time, I literally begged the barista, “You don’t understand… I literally came down here just for this!” to which she responded that they had already turned off the espresso machines. The enigma surrounding the cafe, which is really more like a storefront, makes sense: without a single seat to be seen, it really is a cult. Just imagine a conglomeration of hipsters spilling out onto the street, sipping espresso and munching olive shortbread.
- Roaster: recently made the transition from Counter Culture to roasting their own in Brooklyn!
- Ordered: the best cortado of my entire life. This is not an exaggeration. I think I died and went to heaven. It was hot bordering on scorching, just the way I like it. The flavors of the coffee were literally dancing on my tongue; I tasted honey and cherries, with a hint of almond. It was sweet and licorice-like, and I’ve never had such delicately steamed milk. Plus, the glass is a nice touch. Abraco is touted as having amazing cortados, and now I understand why.
My final destination made for a nice ending to a lengthy, caffeine-filled pilgrimage. I reached my Manhattan Mecca, and its name is Abraco.