For years, Seattle was considered the nation’s coffee capital, but now the action has moved further south to Portland. Or has it? Several trusted coffee professionals seem to think that New York is currently the U.S. epicenter of coffee culture. Previous NYC coffee experiences haven’t proven that point, so I took a closer look during a May visit to Manhattan.
Quality aside, some things jumped out at me about the Manhattan coffee scene:
1) Everybody knows that real estate is at a premium in New York, so several of Manhattan’s best coffeehouses don’t even have seats, just rails or bars. Given that, people stand, grab a quick coffee or espresso drink and get on with their day.
2) Time is also scarce in Manhattan, so you won’t find many people sitting for hours at a time hacking away on their laptops, you’d see in L.A. Not that NYC coffeehouses provide much motivation to do that. Chelsea’s Café Grumpy recently outlawed Wi-Fi altogether to increase customer flow. Only two coffeehouses could be considered linger-friendly: the original Alphabet City outpost of Ninth Street Espresso and Kaffe 1668, the sharp new two-story coffeehouse in Tribeca. They both have Wi-Fi and comfortable seats and don’t mind if anybody lingers. Imagine that.
3) In Portland, Billy Wilson’s BARISTA recently earned acclaim at least in part for offering coffee from multiple roasters, but that’s already been ingrained in New York since 2005, when Café Grumpy opened in Brooklyn. The Manhattan Grumpy currently carries Novo and Verve, to name two roasters. Kaffe 1668 brews beans from Intelligentsia, Counter Culture Coffee and Plowshares Coffee Roasters. This multi-roaster attack has to be due to the lack of space. Coffeehouses don’t have enough room to roast, so they might as well cast a wide net to source the best beans available. Of course this approach might be changing due to increased market penetration from roasters like Stumptown, which set up shop in Brooklyn and is opening a Manhattan coffeehouse in the Ace Hotel.
My coffee tour began at Abraço, an East Village coffeehouse that pizzaiolo/coffee lover Anthony Mangieri recommended during my 2008 visit to his stellar Una Pizza Napoletana. Mangieri was actually at the tiny coffee bar during my stop. Proprietor Jamie McCormick (ex Blue Bottle) and chef-partner Elizabeth Quijada met in the Bay Area, the third partner Amy Linton was a pirate at Ninth Street. Abraço means “embrace” in Portuguese.
We stood the open-air window and started with a Counter Culture cortado. The steamed milk cut through the acidity of the coffee to pretty good effect.
The Counter Culture espresso looked the part, with a coppery brown color and nice crema, but the sip was a little too acidic for my taste. Next time, I’m interested in trying the Black & Tan, a cascading coffee drink with two different layers.
All of Abraço’s baked goods are made in house, including the devastating olive cookie ($2), which was similar to shortbread and studded with salty, intensely flavored cured olives. Quijada also prepared fresh lavender butter cake, rose almond cookie, honey cake, olive oil cake and spinach with mushroom and fresh mozzarella. Note to self: next time, eat more at Abraço.
Ninth Street Espresso was my next stop, for a cappuccino made with Intelligentsia’s Alphabet City Blend cappuccino. The pirates were did a solid job with Hairbender, and they’re even better now. A month and a half ago, they switched from Stumpton to Intelligentsia, which led to a sweeter, more nuanced sip.
Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea wasn’t nearly as pleasant as the Brooklyn original. They had similar raw materials, including the aforementioned beans from multiple roasters, but the space was more cramped and the coffee wasn’t as satisfying.
My shot of espresso ($2.25) was made with Novo’s Heartbreaker blend. The shot had a gorgeous rust-red color but the finish was bitter. Maybe I should have chosen a proven commodity: Ritual Coffee Roasters‘ Sweet Tooth espresso, which recently lived up its name at Spring For Coffee in Los Angeles.
Gimme! Coffee in SoHo delivered my most disappointing NYC coffee experience.
It probably didn’t help matters that Gimme! resides in a retail corridor that’s flooded with tourists. Still, even if the table-less space was more inviting, nothing could have helped their macchiato, which had a bitter body and a rough finish.
Kaffe 1668 edged Ninth Street Espresso to take Manhattan’s coffee crown, and it had nothing to do with the furry flock of sheep that dotted the sleek double-decker space.
Kaffe 1668 featured coffee from Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Plowshares Coffee Roasters from New York’s Rockland County. The coffeehouse brews five Clover coffees, each from a different country: Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Rwanda. Interesting enough, none of the coffees were identified by roaster on the menu, which spurs interaction with the baristas. I’d consider that a positive.
Kaffe 1668 delivered a fairly sweet Black Cat cappuccino. Unfortunately, the Clover-brewed Plowshares Ethiopian Yirgacheffe didn’t have enough body.
My second visit yielded a very good mocha, well balanced, silky and not too sweet.
Once again, I looked to the Clover for brewed coffee salvation. Unfortunately, Counter Culture’s Kuta didn’t provide it.
Manhattan provided some solid coffee experiences, but not a single elite coffeehouse. In my opinion, Portland is still outpacing New York City, but the potential for greatness is clearly there, especially with Stumptown on the way and a possible Intelligentsia coffeehouse in the future. Los Angeles is also gaining traction, especially with the recent opening of Intelligentsia Venice, which could be the single best coffeehouse in the U.S. by year’s end, if it isn’t already.