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Pacific Northeast Beat by Liz Clayton
NYC Cafe Scene Report: March 2008
Posted: March 27, 2008
Article rating: 8.7
feedback: (22) comments | read | write

Let's not be shy about the overplayed metaphors here: the city that never sleeps (which recently adopted me, likely because I do not myself sleep) has more reasons for insomnia daily with New York's continually expanding, excitable and occasionally extreme coffee scene.

Though the city's cafe landscape was already thriving as we barreled into 2008, the beginning of the year sparked a couple of notable newcomers — Gimme! Coffee's second NYC location, in the fashionable (if expensive handbags are your fashion?) Nolita neighborhood, and El Beit, in Brooklyn's fashionable (if skinny jeans and ironic athletic socks are your fashion?) Williamsburg.

Gimme! Nolita (228 Mott Street, Manhattan) is the Ithaca-based chain's first entry into Manhattan: a sleek standing-room only bar in glossy black and classic Gimme! red. A La Marzocco FB/80 is the focal point — there's one of the city's few Clovers, too, or at least was a week before it turned into Starbucks equipment. They were storing it inconspiculously near the basement stairs....

The introduction of high-quality coffee (Gimme! has been pulling my favorite shots in NYC, of their Ithaca-roasted house blend Leftist, for months now) south of Houston is much-welcome — and the new shop has come out of the gate running, designed with an eye for events and complete with a training lab in the basement.

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Inside the new Gimme! location at 228 Mott Street in New York City.
New York Coffee Society cupping at the new Gimme! location.
An attack fish guards the E61 at Gimme!'s Manhattan training lab.
New toys at Gimme! Nolita.

Gimme!'s new space has really been a springboard for NYC manager/kind-of-a-big-deal Mike White and his crew to do a lot of work continuing to unify and promote the city's coffee scene. The New York Coffee Society (NYCS) — currently helmed by seasoned city pros Daniel Humphries and Anne Nylander — has held a few public cuppings there, providing the general coffee-loving community a chance to taste all kinds of interesting selections before retreating to a nearby taqueria.

Recent NYCS tastings have included Gimme! roasts, selections from Intelligtentsia, R. Miguel, and even some of Humphries' home roasts. While some nights are more formal, others are casual, educational, "Bring Your own Bean"-grade affairs. Food industry events and private functions are also happening from time to time in the classy little space, but Gimme! Mott Street is also just a tremendously welcome addition to lower Manhattan; a little neighborhood walk-by appealing to the coffee-nerd-receptive as well as the already converted.

Across the river you can stay up even later at El Beit (158 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn), which opened at the beginning of February on busy Bedford Avenue. El Beit (which is Arabic for "home") is already bustling to serve the cutting-edge hipster/dog-owning community that's eagerly latched onto the shop's quality focus and stylishly cozy feel.

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The already-busy El Beit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Dan Griffin lattein' at El Beit.
El Beit cup'n'Clover.
Macchiato at El Beit.

The brainchild of three designer brothers and one notorious barista-consultant-bear enthusiast, El Beit was clearly conceived with equal parts aesthetic vision and coffee focus. The store itself is a mixture of the modern and reclaimed — the Lamborghini orange FB/80 sits atop a bar faced with wood from an old barn — and the space is airy and long.

Open late and already overflowing on weekends, El Beit is currently offering a rotating menu of single origins on French press and Clover, and always pulling an interesting shot or two on that sexy orange espresso machine. They are now serving sandwiches, along with stupendous poached eggs and toast in the mornings. And behind the bar you might even see some faces you've seen working somewhere else...

Not to be overlooked in the six-months-and-under category either is Abra็o (86 E 7th St, Manhattan), the sweetheart of the East Village. This walk-up kiosk, in the spirit (and lineage) of Blue Bottle's Hayes Valley store in San Francisco, is manned under the spirited eye of ex-Blue Bottler Jamie McCormick. Jamie's ebullient personality nearly takes up all the square footage in this tiny spot, which makes going there all the more pleasurable. Currently serving Counter Culture espressos — and it could be anything from La Forza to Toscano to Aficionado — you might also find other unusual things in the grinder from Ecco, or who knows?

Abra็o has also made a name for itself as a spot for unique and special small-foods, including possibly the best cookie in New York City, a long flat kalamata olive shortbread cookie that manages to combine all the best characteristics of butter, sugar, salt and surprise. Don't miss this one — it goes splendidly with one of Jamie's cortados.

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Stumptown coffee hits the East Coast via Ninth Street Espresso — a foreshadowing of things to come?

With all these newcomers raising the bar, New York City's other cafes are stepping up their game. Old guard and rockstar-attitude cafe Ninth Street Espresso startled everyone in NYC this week by abandoning longstanding roaster Counter Culture for PDX's Stumptown.

Hairbender espresso arrives in New York after all, long in advance of the business-section gossip about the Portland chain's planned incursion into the city via the Ace Hotel.

That rumor's still far in the offing, but for now, you can drink Stumptown coffee at one of the finest joints in the city. Or should I say three of them — Ninth Street (700 E Ninth Street, and 75 9th Avenue, in the Chelsea Market, Manhattan) is poised to open a third location this spring — just blocks from their first location, the newest Ninth Street will be on 10th street, between Avenue A and Avenue B.

At three stores, owner Ken Nye is going to have to cop to Ninth Street becoming a bona fide chain. And at two stores a five-minute walk apart, Nye may yet prove to be a crazy genius. Will both shops do high volume simply because New Yorkers are just too lazy to walk those extra three blocks? I know I'm that lazy, so I bet Nye's hunch is right. Coming soon.

Speaking of franchises, in great news for commuters and, well, anyone north of 23rd street, the rapidly expanding machine that is Joe — The Art of Coffee  is motoring uptown: a new store on 23rd street (405 W 23rd St, Manhattan) opened this week, while another satellite location in Grand Central Station will be open this spring. The new Chelsea location, in the London Terrace building, may be the ambitious chain's most stylish spot yet.

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The bar at Joe—The Art of Coffee, 23rd Street location. Photo by Anne Nylander.
Inside Joe's new location in Chelsea. Photo by Anne Nylander.
Illuminated merch at Joe 23rd Street. Photo by Anne Nylander.

Also rumored to be branching out, in a direction that would surprise no one, is successful Cafe Grumpy (224 W 20th Street, Manhattan, and 193 Meserole Ave, Brooklyn), who are heard to be looking at space in Brooklyn (Park Slope? Red Hook? Gowanus?) to roast with a retail storefront early this summer. Watch this space for updates...or just follow your nose.

These established cafe owners are but a fraction of the ambitious, clever people looking to open interesting cafes across various boroughs in the coming months. (Hell, someone even opened up a decent place in Queens!) Coffee here is for sure happening — in fact, it might be nice for you to book a plane ticket before these places all get too crowded.

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Abra็o's orange glow warms the East Village.
Coffee measured out for a cupping at Cafe Grumpy Chelsea.

What's nicest about the vibe in New York City right now is that coffee culture continues to expand far beyond simple retailing. Through continued media interest and enthusiasm for public events, the climate in NYC right now is one of receptivity and curiosity from coffee enjoyers of all levels of knowledge. Regular cuppings are happening, whether through the good work of Daniel and Anne and the NYCS or via roasters who cup regularly around town like Counter Culture Coffee, there are more and more ways for people on all levels of coffee industry and enjoyment to participate. And within the barista community, friendship and beers and tacos continue to be exchanged — Cafe Grumpy's Ed Kaufmann dragged out staffers from Grumpy, Gimme!, Ninth Street and El Beit recently for a little early spring get-together — no word yet on the reprisal of that kickball tournament fantasy, though.

And...what about the coffee? When I hit this town last fall, the city was pretty well gripped in a Counter Culture Toscano headlock — which has now loosened somewhat to accommodate a wider variety of roasters, which is great. After all, in the biggest city in the country, isn't there room for nearly every kind of taste? Look for more fine coffees from Ecco Caffe and Vancouver's 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters around town to complement the regular selections from Counter Culture Coffee, Novo, Intelligentsia, Ritual Coffee Roasters, Barrington Coffee, and the other big names in this town.

The rest of 2008 will see New York City's coffee scene extend far beyond the cafe, as two of the country's best known specialty roasters begin work on regional training labs (can you guess which ones?) Unique events — such as a tasting with Brazil's Daterra in May — are becoming more frequent. And last but not least, the big question looming remains — who'll be NYC's first local specialty roaster? Stand by for updates.

Article rating: 8.7
Posted: March 27, 2008
feedback: (22) comments | read | write
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