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


Gastronomy Gal said...

nice to know about this little place- will recommend to one of my friends who is frequently in New York

Melinda said...

Hi Gastronomy Girl - we found some great coffee places in New York, which I'll be posting about over the next few weeks, so feel free to pass recommendations onto your friend. I'm so jealous of anyone who gets to go to NY frequently - I just loved this amazing city!

Bec Brown said...

Great post Mel!
Nice to know where to receive a decent coffee injection when we visit NY. I can't wait to read more of the upcoming coffee places you promise to write about!

Sherini said...

Wow - thankyou for these posts!! Was just talking to my local cafe baristas today about how worried I am about finding some "Melbourne-standard" coffee as good as they make it while I'm over in the states...will definitely try out some of your recommendations! Culture Espresso was already a MUST as it's 2 blocks from where I'm staying - plus Aussie owners was a draw card ;)