Thursday, February 5, 2009

Best Brew, Through and Through, by Celest

For me, coffee is an everyday luxury.

By “everyday,” though, I mean Simple. Pure. Uncomplicated. I don’t mean that it’s a daily indulgence. First, I can’t drink coffee every day because I love it too much. I need to ration, so as not to take it for granted. Gotta keep it special. Second, I’m too picky about the quality—I only want the good stuff. And third, I’m too broke (like most these days) to justify spending $1500 a year on it (that’s right, do that scary $4 cup of coffee x 365 days in a year math!!).

I don’t even own a coffee maker. That’s right, I love the stuff, but I don’t own a coffee maker because I know that if I did, I’d drink, like, ten cups a day. And while I actually believe it has some good health benefits , I’m pretty sure ten cups a day wouldn’t be a great choice. And my breath would never be right. And I’d have the shakes. So, while I’m not always the best at moderation (frankly, I think the concept’s pretty overrated), when it comes to my cup of joe, I take it light, I take it without sugar and I take it seriously.

Here are my top picks for Best Brew in Manhattan. Lucky for me, most are pretty nearby because I live in a neighborhood that’s hooked on café in a major way.

Top 20 Manhattan Coffee Sips

1. Best Overall: Ninth Street Espresso
Brings coffee to a new level—like you’ve never drunk coffee before. Orgasmically good espresso drinks—hot or iced—perfect texture and a rich flavor that never tastes burnt. The baristas are scruffy enthusiasts whose nonchalant expertise and easy conversation really make the place special. Since the original’s all the way over on Ave. C, you know the folks who come here are in the know. Take away or sit for hours, but even though there’s now wireless(!), bring a book or a good friend and savor your cup.

Location: 9th St. @ Ave. C (also, 10th St. btw. Aves. A & B, and Chelsea Markets)
Standard Order: anything and everything; iced latte ($4.75)

Best Espresso Bar: Abraco
The most authentic espresso bar (no seats) I know of in NYC. The grey mop of hair atop (owner) Jaime’s head bobs up and down reassuringly as he greats patrons who stuff themselves into the tiny spot (they pour out the front side of the bar when the weather is nice). He always seems genuinely disappointed when you order drinks to go, as if he wishes you’d stay and be part of the neighborhood party over which he’s presiding at his special place. It’s his Bay Area vibe; I hear he’s Blue Bottle alum. Whole, organic milk only here. Coffee is absolutely top-notch and the food is also very good—made on site in the teensy, open kitchen. Single drawback: no neighborhood party on Mondays; they’re closed. Take away or stand.

Location: 7th St., btw. 1st and 2nd Aves.
Standard Order: a flat white (a cappuccino with milk all the way to the top) ($3)
and a slice of frittata ($4) or pain perdu with sweet ricotta ($4)

3. Best Atmosphere: 71 Irving
This is a gem of a coffeehouse; “cozy” doesn’t begin to describe it. A place I love to go to solo, or with a date who likes sweets. They have decadent deserts and pastries. Like an old, shabby/elegant house, complete with wooden windowpanes, a rickety staircase that ascends to God knows where and a non-working fireplace. I like to sip a mug and read a classic novel in the corner. The conversations that surround are usually of the play/concert/art exhibit review sort. Just the kind on which I love to eavesdrop! Take out or curl up.

Location: 71 Irving Pl. nr. 19th St.; 56 7th Ave nr. 14th St.
Standard Order: café au lait ($2.40)

4. Best Because they Act Like It: Joe The Art of Coffee
Joe on Waverly Place is an institution. It’s the kinda coffee shop that makes you feel like you could write The Great American Novel within it’s confines. It seems its coffee might hold the key to unlocking your creative genius (if you can tune out the parade of crying babies carted through the front door). There’s hardly ever a place to sit when you first walk in, (the location on 13th St. is, by comparison, sometimes virtually empty and pretty soulless feeling—lots of metal and soaring ceilings make it feel too “slick”). The baristas know how to pour a cappuccino with just the right hand flick to create a beautiful heart of foam on top (guess that’s the “Art”—but it’s a pretty pretentious name). The whole place has the attitude of being a great coffee shop and I’m a sucker for attitude, so the drinks taste all the better for it. Take out or wait patiently for someone to give up a coveted seat.

Location: 141 Waverly Pl; 9 East 13th St.; 405 W. 23rd St.; Grand Central Term.
Standard Order: espresso granita ($4.75)

5. Best Amenities: Think Coffee
The deals and draws of this coffeehouse: Free wi-fi (W. 3rd St. location only)! If you put $20 on a gift card, you get a medium hot or iced coffee for free. 10% of profits go to local charities. Milk is from local farmers only. All coffee is organic, free-trade, shade grown. Free performances (also W. 3rd location)—music, readings, etc. Huge space compared to most other Manhattan coffeehouses, including plenty of outlets to plug in your laptop. Late night hours—open ‘til midnight. Also serves food (good but pricey—grilled cheese sandwiches around $10) and wine and beer. Quality coffee, taken pretty seriously. Take away or hang out for days.

Location: 248 Mercer St. (nr. W. 3rd St.) and 1 Bleecker St. (@ Bowery)
Order: iced coffee (free with deal mentioned above; otherwise $2.31)

6. Best Fancy Coffee: Café Sabarsky
Though I’ve not yet traveled to Vienna, I’m told this traditional kaffeehause is a fantastic approximation of one of that city’s famed spots for eating pastry, drinking caffeine, and philosophizing. It’s quite a grand room, different from any other in New York. Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner serves a full lunch and dinner menu, but the coffee and sweets are the real draw (especially if, like me, you are confused about the supposed charms of Austrian cuisine…). Coffee is served in the traditional style: on a silver tray, with a small glass of room-temperature water. Café dressed up. Full table service only.

Location: 1048 5th Ave nr. 86th St.
Standard Order: café mocha ($5) and a slice of sachretorte ($7)

7. Best for a Kick Before the Show: Everyman Espresso
Apparently, this little spot of coffee goodness was started by some Ninth St. Espresso alumns, which explains the quality of the drinks, the organic milk and the minimalist aesthetic: blackboard explanations, classic drinks only. It’s convenient to Union Square, and I personally love its location, since it’s in the lobby of one of my favorite off-Broadway theatres, Classic Stage Company. I always go a few minutes early to get an espresso before the show. Hopefully, the performance won’t put you sleep, but a triple ristretto shot before modernized Greek tragedy is never a bad idea. They offer free wi-fi. Note: seating is stools and high tables. The lobby atmosphere feels like a lobby. Take away or take a seat. They should take a bow.

Location: 136 E. 13th St., btw. 3rd and 4th Aves.
Standard Order: macchiato ($2.75)

8. Best Sip While Window Shopping: Gimme! Coffee
Gimme! is modeled as a real espresso bar and is a place that’s serious about its café creations. I don’t think it’s as good as Abraco or Ninth Street, but it’s certainly better than most and highly regarded amongst a lot of enthusiasts. My favorite thing about the place is the location—smack dab in the middle of Nolita. It’s ideal for picking up a cappuccino-to-go (no seats inside; one bench out front provides the only seating option) when you’re admiring the wares of the neighborhood boutiques. Chic coffee for chic shopping trips.

Location: 228 Mott St. (btw. Prince and Spring)
Standard Order: cappuccino ($3)

9. Best for Beans: Porto Rico Importing Co.
Nice selection of beans from around the world, labeled as “fair trade,” “organic,” etc. The staff are surprisingly helpful and the feel of the stores is comforting: well-trodden floors and giant bags of beans infusing the air with amazing coffee perfumes. Decent drinks to go, including a couple of different flavored coffees each day. Surprisingly strict about No Pictures! taken inside the store—why ??? Take away only.

Location: 40 1/2 St. Marks Pl; 201 Bleecker St.; 107 Thompson
Standard Order: bag of organic French Sumatra, ground for a French press ($8.99/lb.)
I do occasionally make some at home with this. Once in a while…

10. Best Flavored: Grey Dog
I abhor sugar in my coffee. I feel even more hostile toward “flavored syrups,” which I think are the ruination of every drink they touch. But, I happen to like hazelnut coffee on occasion, which is harder to find these days, now that the syrups have become ubiquitous. It must be more cost-effective to just stock those and regular coffee than brew high quality, flavored ones. Grey Dog has hazelnut coffee, unsweetened, just the way I like it, every day. They even have it iced, which I think is a real coup. Food is also tasty and I like the “New England barn” feeling of the place. Take away and self-serve seating.

Location: 90 University Pl.; 33 Carmine St.
Standard Order: iced hazelnut coffee with plenty of ice and milk (they put it in for you) ($2.75)

To be continued

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3 Responses to “Best Brew, Through and Through, by Celest”

  1. Duncan Gilman

    Couldn’t agree more about the flavored iced coffee as opposed to the iced coffee with syrup, which is why I brought a 1/2 pound of Cafe Brazil’s Southern Pecan Cream back to LA with me. Since I usually drink mine iced, I just put the whole pot in the fridge. Of course the quality of my homemade cup that’s been sitting in the fridge isn’t quite the same, but it does help curb the $4/day tendency.

  2. gianmarco lorenzi

    Hi! I know this is kinda off topic however I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa? My site covers a lot of the same topics as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other. If you happen to be interested feel free to shoot me an email. I look forward to hearing from you! Awesome blog by the way!

  3. Kimberly Belle

    Ciao Gianmarco, thanks for your comment on my blog and for reaching out. It’s always WONDERFUL to hear from my readers and learn about their food lives. I’d welcome the opportunity to take a peek at your blog…Please send me the link!

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