June 7, 2005
The times are a-changing: ask around, look hard and you can find good coffee.
The Big Apple shines. But a good coffee is hard to find, writes Jacqui Taffel.
New York, New York. Every time I come here I'm astounded - by the energy, the architecture, the shopping, the nightlife, the people ... and how hard it is to find a decent cup of coffee.
How can a sophisticated city that prides itself on being a global trendsetter be so far behind in the coffee stakes? Why are New Yorkers still content to slurp down oceans of tasteless, hot brown liquid, sloshed from bulbous glass jugs and giant silver flasks?
Some blame Starbucks, which has spread across the world like coffee lantana (one Australian living in New York calls the US chain "the cane toad of coffee shops - if cane toads cost $3.47").
But the Starbucks-as-scapegoat theory doesn't stick. The coffee in New York has always been awful, at least since I started coming here 20 years ago. Starbucks arrived in NYC in 1994, having opened in 1971 in Seattle, where by all accounts good coffee is still widely available.
No one seems to have an explanation, including Mike Ferguson of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Statistically, he says, people from the north-east "are more likely to buy coffee in a donut shop or convenience store than a coffeehouse". In other words, they just don't know any better.
I'm neither a caffeine addict nor the kind of snob who enjoys debating perfect crema consistency but I hit rock bottom recently with a "cappuccino" at an East Village cafe. It had cinnamon on top - ugh! - and delving below the froth I found the hot liquid was white.
"Um, this doesn't seem to have any coffee in it," I said to the waiter.
"Is that the cappuccino?" he asked, as if to say, "Yep, that's how we serve 'em here."
And so began my quest to find the best coffee in New York. As I canvas locals, Australian expats, industry bodies and online coffee forums, certain names are repeated, mantra-like. Ruby's. Joe. Jack's. Does good coffee come only on a first-name basis?
But others emerge. Cafe Gitane. The Soy Luck Club. Cafe Angelique. The Mud Truck. It seems there is hope, and it isn't all centred on Greenwich Village, Soho and Nolita (though these areas are the most coffee-friendly in Manhattan). Brooklyn throws up some names too, in particular Gimme Coffee in Williamsburg.
My quest begins at Ruby's, Australian-owned and full of familiar accents, customers and staff alike. This is the only place, say expats, to find a "proper" flat white, which is not a recognised coffee term in the US (only ask for one if you want to create a diversion). The closest in New York tends to be a cafe latte, a cross between our latte and a flat white. It is not to be confused with a cafe au lait, which is so-called "fresh-brewed" coffee, ie, the dispenser stuff, with lots of milk in it. For my quest, I order lattes.
At Ruby's the flat white is made by a young blonde who looks straight out of Bondi; turns out she's three years out of Bondi (former waitress at Skinny Dip). The coffee is Segafredo. And, by gum, it tastes like real coffee. Not the best flat white I've ever had but compared with New York's average dross, lovely. (For the homesick, Ruby's also has Vegemite toast and burgers named after beaches including Bells, Bronte and Blueys.)
Next stop is Joe, subtitled "the art of coffee". When owner Jonathan Rubinstein, a former talent agent, opened the store two years ago. "I had only met two Australians in my life before I opened this shop, now I meet 50 every day," he says.
His tiny cafe is packed, smells like coffee beans and I finally see some barista technique here, with a fern-shaped rosetta poured into the authentic crema. Though a bit milky, this latte definitely qualifies as a decent coffee.
Moving on. After a 15-minute wait on the footpath outside Cafe Gitane, full of Soho trendsetters, I am seated at a table sandwiched between more Australian accents. There's no latte on the menu; I'm not sure what a cafe creme looks like; so I order a cappuccino. It comes in a smallish Lavazza cup with no cocoa (or cinnamon) on top and tastes just like coffee, a short, strong blast. The baked eggs with smoked salmon and potatoes are good too.
These top three recommendations haven't disappointed but none has delivered my ideal coffee - smooth rather than strong.
I try lesser-known places. An Australian photographer points me to Panino Giusto, a small, rustic West Village cafe/bakery, where the latte is generously sized and strong but the baked goods are better.
My local cafe, Doma, also in the West Village, is always packed, but I realise that's due to the free wireless internet access.
The Mud Truck, a big orange heap that parks near Starbucks at Astor Place and Wall Street, is a great counterculture concept with groovy staff,
T-shirts and take-away cups, but the coffee just ain't happening.
Last stop is Brooklyn. At Park Slope, Gorilla Coffee has a huge red roaster in the corner. The latte is not bad but slightly bitter for my taste and has too much froth. So I take the G-train to Williamsburg and Gimme Coffee, a funky space off the beaten track that you smell before you see.
This latte is well worth the trip, rich and smooth. The barista knows his customers so well he starts making their order before they get through the door. He also recommends the coffee at St Helen Cafe, closer to Williamsburg's trendy heart of Bedford Street, and he's not wrong.
Yet as is often the way with quests, I find my favourite coffee when I'm not really looking. After wandering the Chelsea gallery district on a Saturday afternoon, I am attracted by the lush display of French baked goodies at La Bergamote. Hmm, baba au rhum or mousse framboise?
Coffee-wise, it doesn't look promising - the room doesn't smell of fresh beans and the staff don't look like refugees from Seattle. But there it is, for $2.65, a latte that makes my taste buds beg for more. There is good coffee in New York; you just have to know where to find it.