Thursday, May 27, 2010

New York coffee break: Iris Cafe

Iris Cafe is a perfect little neighbourhood cafe. Situated in a pretty corner of Brooklyn Heights, with tree-lined streets of beautiful old brownstones, Iris's little shopfront windows almost blend into the surroundings.
Although the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is just behind this residential pocket, it is a quiet area and the traffic noise is just a low buzz in the background.

Inside, the French-accented decor is perfectly suited to the pressed metal ceiling and exposed mellow brick walls. Gilt frames hold blackboards featuring the menu, while the subtle yet pretty burgundy-brown striped laminate on the tables proves that practicality doesn't have to be ugly. Artworks includes artisan black-and-white photos of busy hands, kneading bread and holding grapes or quiche.

The simple menu focuses on breakfast and lunch dishes. Maple granola is crunchy and sweet, while the egg salad baguette is stylishly wrapped in brown paper tied with string. The salad is fresh, with plenty of egg mixed with tangy mayonnaise and lettuce. A highlight is the sticky cinnamon bun: soft bread loaded with plenty of cinnamon flavour but it is not tooth-achingly sweet.

Cafe lattes are served in huge cups almost the size of soup bowls. Thankfully, the lattes are made with double shots, so there is a good taste of strong espresso, which is not overwhelmed by the milk.

Iris Cafe is a perfect little neighbourhood cafe. Another homely touch is added by the "Please place your dishes here" sign in the corner (where patrons dutifully deposit their dirty crockery). If I could replicate one New York cafe in its entirety back home in Melbourne, it is this one. If you're planning on walking the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, allow an extra hour and come here first for breakfast or lunch. You won't be sorry.

Iris Cafe
20 Columbia Place (Joralemon St)
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn

Monday, May 24, 2010

New York review: Bubby's

Honest home-style cooking might not sound like the best enticement for a cafe but Bubby's proves there is a market for food that combines the best of home cooking with a chef's flair.

Brunch is the main attraction at Bubby's in Tribeca (there is also an outlet in DUMBO, Brooklyn). With just 100 seats, chef Ron Silver says Bubby's still manages to serve brunch to more than 1400 people each weekend, whether they are locals, celebrities or tourists.

The menu's focus is on American cookery from every region. Ron Silver says he has collected recipes over the years, many of which are family heirlooms handed down for generations. "My goal has been to create, with a few changes, home cooking the way I remember it from my childhood," he writes in his Bubby's Brunch Cookbook.

The breakfast menu includes Bubby's famous sour cream pancakes, wild Maine blueberry pancakes, egg dishes using free-range eggs from Shady Maple Farm, Anson Mills whole hominy organic Carolina grits and homefries.

We opt for two plates of Bubby's Breakfast: two eggs, homefries or grits, bacon and toast. The servings are huge, with four pieces of toast, but the food is well-cooked and delicious. The grits are satisfying smooth while the homefries are tasty and crispy. It is an excellent way to start the day and it's easy to see why Bubby's has been embraced by locals since it opened in 1990.

Best of all, you can buy Bubby's Brunch Cookbook or Bubby's Homemade Pies on your way out and recreated your own little piece of Bubby's at home.

Bubby's, 120 Hudson St, Tribeca
Tue-Sun open 24 hours (Sat and Sun brunch 9am-4pm)
Mon open until midnight

Friday, May 21, 2010

New York coffee break: Maialino

If you want glamour with your coffee, Maialino is the place to go. Located inside the Gramercy Park Hotel, opposite the fenced, pretty and private Gramercy Park (only people residing around the park have a key), Maialino is a Roman-style trattoria that is winning plaudits for its food.

The long angular space, which opens off the hotel's lobby, has bay windows overlooking the park. There is an elegant bar, with rustic wooden tables and weathered floorboards, while things are a little more upmarket in the back section, where the tables are covered in cloths. The separate stations for bread, salumi, cheese and dessert are buzzing with busy waiters.

Although more known for its food, Maialino takes its coffee seriously. There is a pour-over drip bar set-up in the morning, while espressos and cafe lattes are served all day. Late on a Thursday afternoon, the bar area is filled with suits drinking wine, and the back restaurant section is almost full.

While we wait for coffee, a waitress brings us a complementary basket of grissini, olive rolls and sourdough bread, along with a bowl of fruity olive oil. The cafe lattes, served in large mugs, arrive shortly afterwards. Adorned with a perfect rosetta, the lattes are creamy but have a strong and chocolatey afterkick of caffeine.

Maialino is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area; next time we'll allow more time and make sure we stay for food as well.

Gramercy Park Hotel
2 Lexington Ave, New York

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Absolute Bagels - an absolute must in New York

Although bagels were invented in Europe, they are synonymous with New York and it's worth seeking out some local examples while visiting.

While many bagels are just baked, New York bagels are boiled first, then baked, and they come in many varieties: plain, poppy seed, sesame seed, cinnamon and blueberry are just some of the versions on offer.

Debate over where to get the best bagels in New York is fierce and H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side is usually named as one of the contenders. We did visit H&H and got a cinnamon bagel to munch on as we headed to Joe's for a coffee and then to Central Park. The downside at H&H for us was that their bagels are served unfilled (all the better to go with the feast of goodies available from Zabar's across the road), but we wanted ours ready to go.

Absolute Bagels at 2708 Broadway (between 107th and 108th Streets) on the Upper West Side was recommended to us. A short subway ride from our Midtown hotel got us there at 9.30am, where we found all nine tables packed, along with a queue and a regular stream of take-away customers. Fortunately service is quick and turn-over is high and we snagged a table before we even had a chance to order our bagels. I chose the quintessential New York bagel: a lox smear (cream cheese mixed with smoked salmon), while Adam opted for bacon and cheese.

The bagels have great vertical height and are evenly balanced between the bagel layer and the smear, which is a misleading name - this was a huge hunk of smooth cream cheese, mixed with very finely chopped smoked salmon. The bagels have a crispy surface but are soft and chewy inside and a delight to eat. Adam enjoys his bacon and cheese bagel, but I found the orange-coloured small dices of cheese off-putting.

Service is brisk, bordering on curt, and it pays to know what you are after before you get in the queue, but the dumb questions from bagel novices such as ourselves were answered patiently and our bagels were ready in double-quick time. The internet is littered with reviews naming Absolute Bagels as the best bagels in New York. We didn't try any others to compare but we were completely satisfied and this will be one of the first visits on our next trip.

Absolute Bagels
2708 Broadway (between 107th and 108th Streets)
Upper West Side

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New York coffee break: Think Coffee

Think Coffee is a cafe that many university students would love to have as their local. Open from 7am to 11.30pm weekdays (from 8am on weekends), Think's three outlets offer so much more than good coffee made from Fair Trade organic coffee that is roasted in Brooklyn. Wine and beer, cheese platters, a good range of teas, baked goods (including muffins, cookies, brownies, pies and cakes), and a menu featuring sandwiches, salads and soups are all part of Think's package. Events, including art exhibitions and bands, are also held, while barista classes are offered at the Think Lab.

Think's outlet at 248 Mercer Street in Greenwich Village is large and packed with students from nearby NYU, many who are busy tapping away on laptops. Others are enjoying a glass of wine at the marble bar area or a coffee while they discuss homework. French club music is playing and the lighting is low, even at 5pm.

The barista is slow to make the coffee but he is very careful and precise in his brewing and our cafe lattes are sweet and nutty, with a thick, creamy texture and crema. The atmosphere here is as much an attraction as the coffee and you may find yourself lingering much longer than you planned.

Think Coffee
248 Mercer Street (West Fourth Street), Greenwich Village
1 Bleecker Street (the Bowery), NoHo
123 Fourth Avenue (East 12th Street), Greenwich Village

Monday, May 17, 2010

New York institution: Katz's Deli

Some places become famous and then turn into overpriced tourist traps. Listed in guidebooks, they still pack in the tourists but locals shun them.

Katz's Deli, which has been operating since 1888, is famous and touristy (especially since it was the venue for Meg Ryan's famous scene in When Harry Met Sally - the table where the scene was filmed is marked with a sign) but there's also a large number of locals who visit here too.

When you arrive, you are given a little ticket that you need to hang onto, as you'll need to show it to the cashier when you exit. You can line up at the long cafeteria-style bench, where up to 10 men are kept busy slicing and chopping meat and preparing sandwiches, or you can sit at a table and get wait-service. The room is vast and the decor is minimal: stark white lighting, plain laminated tables and walls adorned with photos of celebrities who have eaten here over the years.

We sat at the wait-service tables and were very quickly served with a complimentary plate of pickled dills and cucumbers. Adam opted for the half-sandwich (pastrami) and soup (split pea), while I chose the Reuben.

The split pea soup arrives quickly. It's a huge bowl - a meal in itself - and is impressively thick and full of flavour. Katz's boasts that its sandwiches are "the largest and best you'll ever try ... we dare you to finish one." It's no idle boast: even a half-serve of the famous pastrami sandwich is almost too much. Two thick slices of fresh rye bread are kept apart by a 10cm stack of thick, juicy pastrami slices. The Reuben is even bigger, piled with corned beef, melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.

This is not the world's greatest food but it does not aim to be. It is well-cooked and well-made deli food and it is a New York experience. We enjoyed our meal and it was great fun to eat at a place we felt we knew because of its reputation (and its film cameo). Of course the serving sizes are totally over the top but that is part of the deal and you can always get your leftovers packed into a doggie bag (although I think they taste best when eaten fresh at Katz's). It's definitely worth placing Katz's on your "to do" list.

Katz's Deli
205 East Houston St

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New York coffee break: La Colombe Torrefaction

Coffee is unashamedly the focus in the streamlined and minimalist La Colombe Torrefaction store in SoHo. There's no merchandise and little branding - just slick walls that point customers towards the coffee counter. As owners Todd Carmichael and Jean-Philippe Iberti point out on their website: "[We have] an unapologetic devotion to tradition not trend - a place where taste always trumps novelty."

La Colombe Torrefaction is a coffee roasting company based in Philadelphia, with a focus on medium and dark roasts. There are two outlets in New York: one in Lafayette St, SoHo, and the other in Church St, TriBeCa.

In the SoHo store, there are a few seats along one wall but most of the traffic is for take-away. A lot of customers were opting for a coffee that seemed a strange concoction to our eyes: a tall plastic glass filled with black coffee that is topped up with milk and lots of sugar sachets by the customer. We opted for cafe lattes, which were well-made and creamy, although the coffee was surprisingly light for a medium-to-dark roast and is perhaps more suited to an espresso than a milk-based coffee. This area of SoHo seemed a little quieter to us than the areas between West Broadway and Broadway streets, but it is worth seeking out this little shop, especially if you are in the area visiting Balthazar's or the MOMA Design Shop.

La Colombe Torrefaction
270 Lafayette Street (Prince Street), SoHo

Friday, May 14, 2010

New York breakfast: Clinton St Baking Company

In a city of 8 million people, queues at peak times are not unexpected. But at mid-morning mid-week? This is normally a quiet time where diners can be almost guaranteed a table the minute they walk in.

At 10.30am on Wednesday, it was almost impossible to get in the door of Clinton St Baking Company for the amount of people milling around waiting for a table. A waitress quickly took our name and told us there would be a 30-minute wait. This suited as, we could visit Cafe Pedlar for coffee (situated in the same street at no 17) or the nearby Thompson Park, which apparently featured in Die Hard 2.

When we returned for our table, the crowd had not lessened and hopefuls were still putting their names down for a table. Clinton St Baking Company does not take reservations for brunch, and seats just 32, so this is the only way to get a table. I can't imagine what the queues are like on weekends!

If you do queue, don't despair as the wait is definitely worth it. Clinton St Baking Company has won a slew of awards and recognition, including "Best breakfast or brunch" by Time Out NY and "Best Pancakes" by New York Magazine, as well as being nominated for "Top 10 brunches" by the New York Observer.

The inside of the cafe is light and airy, with sunlight streaming in from the large windows looking streetside. It is busy and the place is buzzing with satisfied diners. Waitstaff whisk past with plate after plate loaded with meals and turnover is quick. As enticing as the brunch/breakfast menu sounded - buttermilk biscuit sandwich, truffle fried eggs and asparagus, southern breakfast or Spanish scramble, anyone? - pancakes was always going to be our choice.

But first up, to get us in the mood, was a decadently rich classic extra thick chocolate milkshake, made with ice-cream from The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.

It was a short wait for our plate of heaven: three pancakes drizzled with Wild Maine blueberries or banana and walnuts, with a dish of warm maple syrup butter on the side. The pancakes, almost the size of the serving plate, are paradoxically fluffy yet substantial: the texture is delicately light but it will be a very hungry diner who will be able to finish all three. The thick warm maple syrup butter has a dulce du leche flavour and is just as good being dipped into as it is drizzled over the pancakes.

So popular are the pancakes that they're on the menu all day - dinner is also served here. The cake display cabinet and dessert menu is also loaded with treasures that we unfortunately did not have the appetite to sample: an impressive-looking black and white layer cake, blueberry cheesecake, sour cherry lattice pie and classic hot fudge sundae.

In good news for New York visitors like me, who can't pop down for a regular fix of the best pancakes I've ever tasted, Clinton St Baking Company is scheduled to publish its own cookbook in November 2010.

Clinton St Baking Company
4 Clinton St (between East Houston and Stanton Streets)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New York coffee break: Cafe Pedlar

For most of its history, the Lower East Side has been a poor, working-class neighbourhood, providing the first home in the United States for generations of immigrants.

But in the past 10 years, the Lower East Side, like many inner-urban areas of major cities around the world, has undergone gentrification. And with gentrification comes coffee.

Cafe Pedlar's Manhattan outpost is in Clinton St, which is sandwiched between Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Clinton St itself is well-known for its dining establishments (including Clinton St Baking Co, famous for its pancakes). The street (which is easily reached by catching the F subway line to East Broadway) has a nice neighbourhood feel to it and there's an eclectic mix of shops. The street hasn't been taken over entirely by stylish cafes: little neighbourhood shops, such as a dry-cleaner, a newsagent and a hairdresser (advertising for braiders with experience) still fulfill the needs of local residents.

Cafe Pedlar has a very Melbourne feel. It is long and narrow, with exposed brick walls, but it's not dark, as light streams in from the large front windows. Shelves holding bottles of wine speak of its other life as a wine bar.

The cafe uses coffee beans from Stumptown (an independent coffee roaster and retailer based in Portland, Oregon) and all drinks are made with double shots - which is just as well, as the cups are twice the size of a standard Australian cup.

Intricate double rosettas on the cafe lattes make a pretty touch. The latte is quite milky but there is a strong, dark cocoa undertone that rounds out the creamy milk nicely.

Danishes, rolls, pretzels, tarts, muffins, cookies and cakes feature on the simple pastry-based menu. This is a great neighbourhood cafe, perfect for locals, but well worth a visit if you're in the area.

Cafe Pedlar
17 Clinton St (East Houston St), Lower East Side
210 Court St (Warren St), Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The perfect neighbourhood bakery

You can smell Levain Bakery before you see it. The unmistakable odour of fresh yeast and hot-out-of-the-oven cookies wafts up from the underground bakery and out into the street.

Located in one of the Upper West Side's many leafy streets, Levain is an artisanal bakery that opened 15 years ago. Its French-style sign at the 167 West 74th Street site is understated but the delicious smells mean you won't miss the subterranean bakery. The bulk of the shop is given over to the kitchen, and you can perch at the little counter and watch the bread and cookies being made.

Levain Bakery is best known for its divine six-ounce (approximately 200g) cookies but it offers a full range of bakery goods, including bread - sourdough loaves and rolls, ciabatta, wholemeal walnut raisin rolls and olive bread - pizza slices, muffins and cakes (sour cream coffee cake on our first visit).

Pizza slices ($7.75) make a fabulous late morning breakfast. We chose the caramelised onion with parmesan reggiano. The crispy, flat bread base was generously layered with sweet dark onions and melted drops of parmesan. The staff thoughtfully cut it into four pieces for us and we ate it in raptures on the park bench outside the bakery.

A sweet treat was next and we chose a sourdough brioche stuffed with Vahlrona chocolate ($3). The dense and chewy texture of the brioche perfectly offset the richness of the dark chocolate. It is served either hot or cold - we chose it cold but next time I would try it warmed.

While the breakfast was delicious and I was keen to return to sample more goods, the real reason for our visit was the Levain Bakery cookies ($4), which are justifiably celebrated. They come in four varieties: chocolate chip walnut, dark chocolate chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter chip and oatmeal raisin. Each cookie is at least an inch thick and about four inches in diameter. The biscuits are decadent - each chewy mouthful delivers a chunk of chocolate and walnut, or a nutty undertaste to the rich chocolate. The double chocolate version was extremely rich and we definitely could not devour it in one sitting. In fact, the cookies were perfect for all-day nibbling - a piece here and a piece there were often enough to satisfy any sugar cravings.

Unfortunately, but understandably, Levain Bakery does not publish its recipes but many people have tried to come up with their own version, which is available on the bakery website (

While in New York, we tried to visit as many new places as possible. But we returned several times to Levain Bakery for its cookies. I only wish I could have brought lots home with me!

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street, Upper West Side
Mon-Sat 8am-7pm, Sun 9am-7pm
There is also a Hamptons outlet, open seasonally - see for more details

Monday, May 10, 2010

New York coffee break: Joe's

Mention the words "New York" and "coffee chain" in the same sentence and serious coffee drinkers will shudder, expecting weak, watery drinks or, worse, coffee disguised with sugary syrups.

But Joe's, a boutique coffee chain of five stores, is different. This is a company that treats coffee seriously. First, the beans are sourced from Ecco Caffe, an artisan coffee roasting company based in California. Second, coffee classes, including espresso fundamentals, milk steaming techniques and a cupping series, are offered at Joe's University (13th Street, Waverly Place and Columbus Ave stores). Private classes and home visits are also available.

Joe's opened as Joe the Art of Coffee in 2003 but renamed itself to plain Joe last year. It also opened its fifth store, on the Upper West Side, "bringing serious coffee to an underserved neighborhood", according to the New York Times, which nominated Joe's as one of its 10 outstanding coffee bars that "not only produce extraordinary coffee at the highest standards, but also do so with consistency day after day."

The Upper West Side store is at 514 Columbus Ave (West 85th Street).

It is small but has a great vibe and makes good use of the limited space available - a tiny office alcove is hidden behind one of the blackboards behind the counter, reached by a small pull-up ladder. About a dozen people can be seated at the tiny tables, just big enough for a laptop and a coffee cup. There's also two park benches out the front that adds some extra seating - best on warm days only. Central Park is also nearby if, like us, you find Joe's is filled to capacity when you visit.

Coffee is made with a house blend or single origin blends are available. The house blend makes an excellent cafe latte - a nutty aroma gives way to a smooth and creamy drink that slips down effortlessly. Despite the coffees being larger than Australia - the smallest one is served in a 12oz cup - there is still a strong caffeine taste and the espresso is not overwhelmed by too much milk.

Our second visit to Joe's was at 11am on Sunday and we had to join a queue stretching out the door. Parents with prams, babies and dogs dominated the park benches out the front and there was barely room to move inside, which was crammed with joggers from nearby Central Park fuelling up after a run. But the baristas worked overtime and, despite there being at least 10 people ahead of us, we waited only 10 minutes for our coffee, which was just as excellent as our first cup.

Another Joe's outlet is in the Graybar Passage of the Grand Central Terminal (89 East 42nd Street). It is a tiny little shop that serves take-away only, but the quality across Joe's stores is consistent and our coffee from this store also hit the spot.

Joe's can be found at five locations:
514 Columbus Avenue (West 85th Street), Upper West Side
89 East 42nd Street (Grand Central Terminal)
141 Waverly Place (Sixth Avenue), Greenwich Village
9 East 13th Street (University Place), Greenwich Village
405 West 23rd Street (Ninth Avenue), Chelsea
See for more information.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Where to eat? Our first night in New York

On a cold and wet Monday, Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village is looking far from the appealing, vibrant area that was described to us. Students mill around neon-lit entrances to pubs that reek of stale beer. Minetta Tavern, our planned destination, looks closed but the door opens to reveal a venue too crowded to fit us in anyway.

But, a few doors up MacDougal Street, we find Hummus Place. It's small and dimly lit but it looks inviting: the "Zagat Rated" sticker and only one empty table seal the deal.

It is tiny inside: barely three metres wide and a kitchen area that is almost the same size as the dining room mean that this place truly fits the cliche of "shoebox-sized". It seats about 24 people, with two-person tables dominating. The simple decor - just a few coloured platters on the wall - mean there is little distraction from the excellent food.

As the name suggests, this is a specialist venue. Of the eight entrees (mains), four are hummus-based. But don't be put off - this is hummus like you've never had before. It is gloriously thick, with a rich, complex layering of flavours that puts supermarket versions to shame. It is served with a basket of puffy, home-baked pita bread that will be replenished as often as you need. Hummus masabacha ($6.95) is plain hummus, topped with whole chickpeas and a dusting of paprika. Other hummus dishes come topped with whole fava beans and a boiled egg, tahini or sauteed mushrooms and onions. The unadorned version allows the pure flavours to shine through, but the caramelised mushrooms and onions add an extra layer that offsets the richness of the creamy hummus.

Before you get to hummus though, be sure to sample some of the five appetisers (entrees) on offer. Labane ($3.95) - a dish of strained yoghurt cheese with za'atar and olive oil - is a dish that sounds simple - perhaps even off-putting to some - on paper. But the description does not do it justice: the texture is similar to that of thick, whipped cream without the heaviness, and there is an underlying flavour reminiscent of spring in its fresh lightness. This sublime dish is perfect in every way and it is impossible to stop at just one scoop.

The roasted eggplant ($3.95), topped with tahini and lemon dressing, is also worth trying: the eggplant melts in the mouth, while the tahini topping adds a subtle smokiness.

Another specialty of Hummus Place is the shakshuka ($7.95), a rich stew of tomatoes, roasted capsicum, onions and eggplants topped with two fried (organic) eggs. This is a hearty and satisfying dish, yet it doesn't leave you feeling heavy or full afterwards.

There is a dinner special served Sunday to Thursday, with two appetisers, two entrees and a bottle of house wine (from Israel) for $39.95, which is a great way to sample the menu.

A place that is essentially a one-dish show might not sound lucrative but Hummus Place is now a mini-empire with five venues. But small can be good: this is a place that has its eye firmly on its product and has perfected it to the finest degree.

Hummus Place
99 MacDougal St (Bleecker St)
West Village
Also at four other locations: see for more details.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Good coffee in New York - does it exist?

Our mission: could two caffeine addicts, spoiled for choice in their home city of Melbourne, find a decent cup of joe in New York?

Friends warned us to prepare ourselves for a week of disappointment and deprivation, saying that drip or percolated coffee abounded. Although I generally deplore travellers who want to eat food just like they have at home, coffee is different. In Melbourne, we take excellent coffee for granted and I find it difficult to get my daily hit from weak, milky pretenders.

But a few weeks before our departure, the New York Times came to the rescue, featuring an article by Oliver Strand on “New York is finally taking its coffee seriously”. “New York used to be a second-string city when it came to coffee. No longer,” Strand wrote. “Over the last two years, more than 40 new cafes and coffee bars have joined a small, dedicated group of establishments where coffee making is treated like an art, or at least a high form of craft.”

The article listed the 40 best coffee places around Manhattan and Brooklyn and this list became our bible for the next week. Some days we planned our itinerary around coffee shops we wanted to visit but generally we found it useful to refer to when we were already in a neighbourhood and needed a caffeine hit.

On our first morning in New York, thirty-six hours after we left Melbourne and with only weak, tepid aeroplane coffee to sustain us in that time, we set out to blast away the jetlag with some good coffee. Our destination was Culture Espresso Bar in West 38th St, the closest cafe to our hotel that had been rated by the New York Times as “one of the few serious coffee bars in Midtown.

As noted recently by both the New York Times and The Age, Australian baristas are teaching New Yorkers about great coffee. Culture Espresso Bar is part of what the New York Times dubbed the “Australian coffee diaspora”, as one owner is Australian, as is Ross the barista who made our coffees. Overhearing our order for two cafe lattes, he asked, in an accent as broad as our own despite his 10 years in New York, whether we wanted our lattes served in glasses.

As he expertly made our coffees, we asked Ross about his experiences with coffee in New York and he laughed but conceded that things were getting better, especially as the US has easy access to some of the world's greatest coffee beans.

Culture Espresso opened in mid-2009 and has proven to be an oasis in Midtown, which locals deplore as an area deprived of decent food or coffee places. It uses beans from Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea and Four Barrel Coffee. An espresso is $2.50, and a latte is $4.

Our lattes look good, with textbook-perfect latte art on top. The aroma is nutty and the first sip transports us to coffee heaven: dark cocoa undertones to the creamy milk and a good hit of caffeine (as all drinks are made here with double espresso shots). This was a seriously good coffee that would easily rank highly in Melbourne.

The decor here is funky and the most is made of a small space. With just 22 seats, it can be difficult to snag one of the small tables (on our three separate visits, the cafe was always busy), although there are worse seats in the world than one here at the window bar overlooking a busy street in the heart of Manhattan. Purple-patterned wallpaper, a sparkly chandelier and modern artwork add to the ambiance.

Breakfast staples of granola, muesli and eggs are supplemented by more exotic dishes such as a Tuscan breakfast platter, and sweet-tooths will be satisfied by jumbo muffins, cookies and croissants. Sandwiches predominate on the lunch menu.

Culture Espresso Bar is a cafe that easily ranks highly on its own merits. But in an area of Manhattan that is lacking in decent coffee places, it is even more of a beacon.

Culture Espresso Bar
72 West 38th St (Sixth Avenue), Midtown
Monday-Friday 7am-7pm
Sat-Sun 8am-4pm
(212) 302 0200