Friday, September 24, 2010

Empire State of Mind

The espresso machine at Ost Cafe.

These streets will make you feel brand new,
Big lights will inspire you,
Let's hear it for New York.

The message on my Facebook page was plain and simple: "better see you at Ost."

Guess I need to visit.

Truth be told, I've come to a point where I'm never too excited anymore to go out and visit coffee places. Too many times I've gone to a place that didn't live up to their hype. These supposedly "best" places were doing things like "the Chicago Chop" or using multi-gallon batch brewers or some other compromise - all while supposedly being the "best" or most "cutting edge" coffee place on the planet.

And while New York Coffee has improved, I hardly consider it to be the center of the coffee universe as the New York Times seems to imply. Yes, there are some nice, hard-working shops but are they doing it any different or better than places, say in Oklahoma? Hmmm, I'm not sure.

Almond croissant and french pressed coffee by Josip Drazenovic at Ost.

One thing is for sure: with the plethora of fine-dining in New York, the coffee scene certainly can propel itself to greater heights - should the baristas and owner desire such.

Since I'm in New York to attend the Star Chefs International Chef Congress, I've limited my coffee crawling to the morning hours and I'm not hell-bent on checking out every shop in the city. Heck, I'm barely motivated to get out of my bed overlooking the East River.

The last time I was in the city, we checked out a few shops and there's no plans to hit those again. Some were disappointments because of the lackluster staff (read: Ninth Street Chelsea Market and Cafe Grumpy Chelsea) while others were fun surprises (read: Bluebird and Abraco).

The one thing I'm aware of is that my experience as "Jay Caragay, the barista" is vastly different than "Jay, the anonymous guy hanging in your shop." When you're known by the staff, your experience tends to be very different than "normal" people. I know this and prefer to visit coffee shops incognito. Of course, this is difficult when you know the owners and/or baristas, but that didn't stop me from trying to obscure Humberto Ricardo's view of me while standing in line at Third Rail Coffee.

Cappuccino by Sam Penix at Everyman Espresso.

Because of this notoriety, it's difficult to maintain a level of objectivity when visiting most coffee places. But when I do manage to remain incognito at a coffee place, the experience tends to be very enlightening. That nasty Third Wave mentality rears it's head and roars while chopping yours off.

On this trip, I would only manage a couple of places incognito. Everywhere else, I knew someone at the shops, like Josip at Cafe Ost.

Josip was the one sending me Facebook messages demanding that I visit. With the flat in Murray Hill and the conference on the Upper East Side, I'm really not in the mood to venture down to Alphabet City, The Village or anywhere below 38th Street for coffee. Irritatingly enough, the entire New York Coffee Scene seems to be concentrated below 30th Street in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. It's a Pain In The Butt, to say the least - therefore, the coffee better be damn good.

Ost is a bright and airy corner coffee place that's just over a year old. I know it's just over a year because I asked. I asked because certain spots in the place looked much older. A bit worn, a bit torn and quite a bit uncleaned since the day they opened.

Perhaps this seems a bit much. Perhaps this seems unfair. And maybe I am nitpicking. But attention is in the details and what I'm seeing is in the customer's sightline - and certain places in the shop need a good scrubbing.

Pretzel Croissant by a green bakery at 1st Avenue and 13th Street.

But I'm not here to concern myself with how worn the facility is, I'm here to visit Josip and try his coffee. Ost serves Intelligentsia and they do a decent French Press service that's reminiscent of Stumptown's program. Large presspots into Fetco Lexxus dispensers. The coffee served to me is tasty and decent - though I did notice that their brewing methods leaves lots of room for inconsistencies due to uneven dosing and water ratios.

Espresso is on the menu and Josip is eager for me to try a shot of Black Cat. I warn him that I'm traditionally not a fan of Black Cat. Truth is, I've only had one shot of Black Cat that I found halfway decent and then it was only good for 3/4 the volume.

The thing about Black Cat is that I think it has an identity problem. It just doesn't know what it is and I wonder if Intelligentsia knows what it is. The new evolution is the Black Cat Project where they've embraced the notion of Black Cat radically changing from time to time. Personally speaking, I'm not a fan. I like an espresso blend to be relatively consistent from year to year. Black Cat can and usually is all over the place.

In the cup, the shot looks nice. In fact, it looks perfect. On the palate it's bright with notes of citrus, lemon and hints of ginger. I think Josip pulled a great shot of espresso. Problem is, I'm not a big fan of citrus tasting coffees.

On the move Chemex Ethiopian Adado from Third Rail Coffee.

Truth be told, I like fruitier, chocolate-y and nutty coffees. Give me flavor and give me depth. Give me citrus and I'm not so excited.

I tell Josip this and he's a bit disappointed. And I feel terrible. I'm not trying to burst his bubble. I'm not trying to make a comment on his barista skills. I'm just not a fan of citrus-y coffees. Like any barista, he wants his guest to be blown away by the coffee. I feel terrible that my preferences don't align perfectly with the coffee. Sorry.

The next morning, I'm back making the commute down Manhattan. First stop, Everyman Espresso to see how Sam Penix is doing. When I arrive, business is brisk and I quickly order a cappuccino. I no longer remember the specifics but that usually means that I liked it. Balanced and well-executed with latte art. I want to hang and chat but they're slammed.

In-between shots and steam, Sam tells me they've recently redecorated with new chairs, table and some cabinets. The look is a mish-mash of French cafe meets The Office. Everyman is located inside a theatre and just off 13th Street. Waves of people come in for coffee and the regulars discuss computers and something called a Pretzel Croissant.

Pretzel Croissant? I'm intrigued and head off in search of this mysterious concoction. I find it at some green (meaning eco-friendly and vegan) bakery and try one. It's tasty but the only difference I discover is that they add sesame seeds to their multi-grain croissant. No lye. No bath. Nothing really making it a "pretzel" per se. However, it is good and I finish mine greedily.

Croissant and chocolate eclair at Francois Payard Bakery.

From there, it's back to my old stomping grounds of NYU/Washington Square Park. Back in 1991, New York was a different animal. Rastas used to sell marijuana in what seemed like an open air market and I used to watch Puerto Rican girls with there curly hair and orange Champion t-shirts in Washington Square Park in-between shoots and classes.

Third Rail is a small-ish place and I'm dodging Humberto by moving to keep the head of the guy in front me between his sightline. Humberto is a great guy and he's got a great little coffee shop on Sullivan just south of 3rd Street. The place is hopping and is jammed to the walls. He makes me a Chemex of Intelligentsia's Adado Ethiopia and I manage to get a seat by the window.

But the place is so packed that it's claustrophobic and I grab a paper cup to get out of there. I would enjoy spending some time hanging with Humberto and talking shop for awhile but it's just too darn busy and I head off in search of new adventures.

Which leads me just down the street onto Houston where I find the newly opened Francois Payard Bakery and an assortment of delectable pastries. Being of two minds, I decide on the croissant and a chocolate eclair. The coffee at Payard looks suspicious and luckily, I still have some of my coffee from Third Rail.

The coffee accompanies the pastries nicely and the squeeze bottle of chocolate sauce on the table is a refreshing change of pace. Not enough chocolate in the eclair or perhaps you want to make it a chocolate croissant? Simply squeeze the chocolate from the bottle. You're gonna have to squeeze hard because this cool bottle of ganache is thick and difficult to squeeze easily from the bottle.

Macchiato and biscuit with Luis Fernandez at Blue Bottle Coffee.

Wednesday morning I'm facing a bit of a dilemma: stay in Manhattan or venture out into Brooklyn and sample the stuff out there in the boroughs?

I have to admit that I'm a bit of a Manhattan snob. I lived there and, to me, The City is where the action is. Gotham City is Manhattan. The Center of the World is Manhattan. I like it there and I prefer not to leave. But everyone, their mother and the New York Times raves about the coffee at Blue Bottle and I have been remiss to miss visiting Blue Bottle on each of my visits.

My first experience with Blue Bottle was way back in 2005 when Dismas Smith and I went to see the then new Blue Bottle cart in Hayes Valley. This was back in the day when industrial plywood was the rage in design and I remember the experience being a good one.

As I emerge from the subway in Brooklyn, I find Colombia's Luis Fernandez Velez standing at the corner eating a fruit cup. Of all places to run into Luis, it's at a Brooklyn street corner. We head off to visit Blue Bottle together.

It's probably been said before and I'll be the one to say it again: the interior design of Blue Bottle Brooklyn is excellent. Like their main location in San Francisco, they've spent some money doing this place and it shows. The millwork, the steelwork, the equipment - it's all top notch.

Front and center at Blue Bottle are the lever and La Marzocco espresso machines and the very long Bonmac pourover drip bar. Across the floor is the bank of Oji cold brew coffee towers. These things cost nearly two thousand dollars each and there's four of them in a row. In the back is a well-designed coffee roastery and the place looks amazing.

But what hasn't been written before is that the coffee is not very good.

All the hype, all the expense, all the hoopla - and the coffee is downright terrible.

I ordered a macchiato and a Bu Honduras Cup of Excellence from the pourover bar. The Honduras was nice and pleasant, but the macchiato? God, it was the worst macchiato I've had in a very long time. I drank half. I couldn't drink the rest.

Sad. Really sad. The baristas were nice enough. They were friendly. They seemed to make our drinks with the appropriate amount of diligence and care. The coffee was just bad. Heavily roasted and terrible tasting. I wanted to like the coffee, but it was... well, you get the point.

The other part that disappointed me were the cold brew towers. These Oji units are the best in the world. They're sexy and beautifully designed and they cost a fortune, but they can make some beautiful slow brew coffee. The disappointing part is that they're not even being used.

Scratch that. They are being used but based on the weird amounts of coffee, water and brewed coffee in the towers, I can't imagine how they're being utilized.

That's when I spied the six large containers in the distance sitting on a table in the roastery. Six containers filled with toddy style coffee. I asked the baristas if I indeed was seeing what I thought I was seeing. They confirmed that those were iced coffee brewing containers that they leave overnight.

Okay, I'm an understanding kind of chap. I understand that it can be difficult to keep up with iced coffee during the hot months. I know, we run similar towers at Spro. But to put up cold brew towers and then run toddy brews in the back seems suspicious to me. Is it all style and no substance?

Ryan The Goodrow at Stumptown's roastery coffee bar.

I leave Blue Bottle disappointed that the coffee hasn't lived up to the hype. Disappointed that the industry scuttlebutt must be true. I'm finished with coffee for the day. It was so bad that I couldn't fathom any more coffee.

With the conference finished, I'm free Thursday morning to do whatever I please. The problem with the Stumptown Roastery in Red Hook is that it's not easy to get there by transit. The nearest subway stop is several blocks away, which means a car is the best way to get there.

Luckily, Brooklyn is no Manhattan and parking is easy in this industrial section of town where I find a spot right in front. Inside Ryan Goodrow and Ed Kauffman are roasting and packaging coffees. The roastery sports a large 45 kilo 1950s era Probat. It's a lovely roaster and the facility is humming along.

One of the first things that are immediately apparent to me is the design. Like any of the Stumptown locations across the continent, Duane Sorensen spends a serious amount of money on the design and design details - even in this backwater roastery that most people will never see. Reclaimed wood, reclaimed carts from the early 20th Century and absolutely gorgeous 1940s era General Electric double-door refrigerators.

But the highlight of the facility is the five method brew bar that's slated to open the day after this visit. Somehow, Stumptown has decided to create this multi-brewing method brew bar to feature their coffees. It's an interesting proposition and quite frankly, the only coffee program in America that I've found interesting in the past nine months.

The bar itself is simple. Just a long reclaimed bar and a back bar with the brewing devices, a grinder, Fetco water tower and one of the very few Marco Uber Boilers in America. Based on my previous experiences with the Uber and my own knowledge of Spro's by-the-cup brew operations, I'm skeptical on how usable it will be for Stumptown's brew bar. So I ask.

Ryan tells me that he's not too impressed with the Uber. It's got some serious usability limitations and even he can see that they will probably run into problems. Evidently, the Uber installed at Peels restaurant in Manhattan is already demonstrating its limitations. I'm interested in hearing more about the Uber's performance in the coming weeks.

In fact, I'm interested in hearing anything about the Uber's usability other than the ridiculous hype that's the only source of discussion so far about the boiler in the barista community.

"Coffee" and a blueberry muffin at Blue Hill Cafe at Stone Barns.

I hang with the guys and am fed the last bits of the Hacienda Esmeralda made in a Chemex. It's a lovely, flowery coffee that's slightly bright and rather enjoyable. Overall, I like the Esmeralda and have been drinking it since Duane and John Sanders bought the first record-breaking lot five or six years ago - back when $21.75/pound was astonishing.

However, I've always wondered if the Esmeralda would have garnered such accolades and prices had it come from anywhere else in the world. Or was it lauded simply because it was just so different than the common Central American coffee?

After lunch from a local sandwich shop, I bid my friends adieu and head north in search of fabled lands. Rolling through the New York countryside, the term "Idyllic Americana" comes to mind as I cruise through Tarrytown. The houses, the setting, it's all very American. Classic American. I envision myself in khakis, Polo button down and suede saddle shoes, with tight ass cheeks, drinking cocktails as I hang out with the neighbors and the children play Cowboys and Indians.

What I didn't know is that this area is the home of the Rockefellers. Rich People Country. The kind of place where people belong to Country Clubs and either sail or own wood power boats. These green hills are where money is made. Literally.

But I'm not here in Tarrytown as a domestic worker for the Rockefellers, I'm here to visit Blue Hill at Stone Barns where Dan Barber is holed up amongst farmland, pasture and gardens.

I've been to farms. I like farms. They're down home country kinds of places. Not Stone Barns. Or should I say: The Stone Barns Center For Food & Agriculture.

I've been to farms before, but never to farms like this. This farm is gated. With security guards. And a parking fee of five dollars.

Man, this place is fancy. And beautiful. There's no farm vehicles or old cars to be seen anywhere. The grounds are gorgeous. The Stone Barns are immaculate. Am I at a farm or at the Opus One Winery in Napa?

It's nearly two in the afternoon and the place is busy. I see Dan Barber walking around but everyone looks harried. Casual women in suits wearing lapel pins laugh together in the corner, talking to staff. The grounds crew are raking the pathways. Florists are busily creating centerpieces - all over the place. Michelle Obama is coming tomorrow for lunch with 31 of her closest First Lady friends from around the world - who happen to be in town for the United Nations General Assembly this week.

No wonder this place is hopping.

The First Lady of the United States coming to visit means one thing: a Secret Service Advance Team. I decided to keep a low profile while here...

The Stone Barns not only has the restaurant but also the Blue Hill Cafe. It's a pretty standard cafe: espresso, brewed coffee, pastries and some sandwiches. I'm hoping to find some sort of transcendental food offered by a world class chef, instead I find nicely prepared food using fresh ingredients. It looks like good stuff, just nothing super extraordinary.

As I browse the shelves, I want to buy something to take home with me. The t-shirts are kinda cool but I know I'll never wear one - with the exception of Panavision and my uniform Polo t-shirt, I almost never wear other companies logos. The baseball caps are cool, but I've got too many already.

I notice cans of fennel pollen and wonder if they were grown on the farm. That would be cool to take with me: something actually grown and processed here at the Stone Barns Center. The packaging looks nice and then I notice the "packaged by Vanns Spices, Baltimore, Maryland."

So much for taking a piece of Stone Barns home with me.

Based on visual observation of the espresso machine and its station, I decide against an espresso drink and opt for the brewed coffee instead. Add a blueberry muffin and a table outside in the beautiful sunny weather and I'm set.

The muffin is excellent. Nicely crusted on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside with blueberries aplenty. It's easily one of the best blueberry muffins I've ever eaten.

Then came the coffee - and that's where the whole thing fell apart. Watery and disappointing. Again, anther bad coffee with poor brew ratios. Simply disgusting and a waste of money.

Once again, another excellent product, from a leading chef, ruined because the coffee was complete and utter shit. What a shame.

Coffee and a chocolate chip cookie at Coffee Labs in Tarrytown.

As I leave Stone Barns, I'm still impressed. Even though the coffee was bad, I'm impressed. The place is gorgeous and immaculate. This is a place tied to the Rockefellers and it shows. Serious money has been put into this center and serious results (other than the coffee) comes out of the center. I fancy being part of a center like this in Baltimore someday.

Leaving the Idyllic Americana of the Stone Barns, I venture into downtown Tarrytown to call upon Mike Love at Coffee Labs. Located next to the old theatre, Coffee Labs is a throwback to another era in the coffee business.

Coffee Labs is decidedly a "coffee shop" much in the vein of "Central Perk" in the television series Friends. It's casual, comfortable and homey. Dogs are welcome. Coffee is roasted in a Dietrich smack dab in the middle of the shop. Drinks come in sizes all the way up to 20z and the staff is typically collegiate and friendly.

Mike's not "in" today and the staff isn't very forthcoming on whether or not he's going to return. I think about inquiring further but the staff here doesn't know me and I'm afforded that rare luxury of being anonymous in a coffee shop. The roaster walks in wearing a Mid-Atlantic NorthEast Regional Barista Jam t-shirt and I try to avoid his gaze, just in case.

I grab a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie made by a local woman. The coffee is nice enough and goes well with the twangy tasting cookie. I spend a few minutes simply enjoying the relative anonymity and watching the locals come and go as they happily banter with the staff.

To me, it's this kind of thing that I enjoy most about the coffee business. That personal interaction with other people. That approach to service. Those few minutes a day we have to connect with each person.

Regardless of my experiences with the coffees I've drank in New York this week, I've constantly and consistently watching the staff at each shop interact with their customers. No place that I went to had the attitude so "normal" in coffee's "Third Wave." Even at Blue Bottle, where I thought the coffee was horrible, the baristas were friendly.

Everywhere I went, I found people connecting with people. Asking about their lives. Sharing their knowledge. Offering their help.

In our end of the business, it's too easy to get caught up in the trap that is the pretense of who's coffee is "best". I'm glad to see that's not what's most important. But rather that personal connection we have the opportunity to make with others each and every day.

As I head off into the sunshine and cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, I'm refreshed by my visit to New York and her coffee spots, and I look forward to visiting again.