Category Archives: Cafes & Shops

Bird & Branch NYC

Ever since my son was in the cast of Matilda on Broadway, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with coffee in New York.  There’s a bunch of great spots, but there’s also a ton new new places that are trying to capitalize on the coffee bandwagon and have good looking shops but make crap coffee.  My stop on this trip was Bird & Branch.

Flat White @ Bird & Branch

Every time I go back, I make it a point to try the new places and patronize the smaller shops.  Bird & Branch is on 45th near 9th (across the street from Schmackary’s).  The owner is a nice young guy who cares about what he’s doing.  My wife had visited the store 6 months before, and apparently was talking about my home roasting, and the guy recognized my son and asked if I was the home roaster!

They don’t roast their own, rather serve Saint Frank, a San Francisco based roaster.  The Espresso is 3rd wave-ish, but not overly acidic and pairs well with Milk.  They are using a “Slayer Steam” for espresso extraction, and it’s a beautiful machine.  If you’re a pour-over fan, the Guatemala is excellent with hints of milk chocolate.  The shop is small. clean and bright and I will go back.

Starbucks Blonde Espresso?

So, in a very interesting development, Starbucks has introduced what they call Starbucks Blonde Espresso. Which, supposedly is a true “light” roast. Anyone that has ever looked at the Blonde Veranda beans can see that they are clearly what the SCA defines as “medium”.

So, we’ll ignore the light roast comment and move on to something more interesting.

Andrew Linnemann, vice president of Global Coffee for Starbucks, describes the Blonde espresso blend as “bright, with sweet citrus notes and a smooth body.”. This seems to be hinting at what most early reviews are saying, that it is less bitter. An article at Fortune used the term “hard stuff” to refer to the Signature Roast Espresso.

What is ridiculous about this is that Espresso should NEVER be bitter…ever. What Andrew Linnemann called “boldly roasted” in the Fortune article is plain burnt, which is why it’s bitter. Also, Espresso is NOT a roast, it’s a brewing method.

Did Starbucks really just introduce a roast because they realize their signature roast is burnt, nasty and bitter? Is this a marketing move like “New Coke”? Time will tell, but I will still spend my money on the smaller shops that have people behind the counter that can actually tell you what 1st and 2nd crack mean.

Twin Peaks Coffee & Donuts

The moral, for those of you that want the quick version; Just because a place has green beans and a nice Diedrich machine does not mean the coffee is good.  Twin Peaks Coffee & Donuts in Tannersville, NY has such a machine, and had the lure of quality.  It failed to live up to the promise.

There’s even bags of greens out front next to the machine.  But, alas, as I see all too often, people jump on the specialty bandwagon without fully understanding what that really means.

Roasting is only part of the equation.  You can screw coffee up at every step of the way.  Even the best roasted coffee can be brewed like crap.  I can’t really speak to the roasting because the machine was not in action when I visited.  But, the barrista (once she eventually ambled over) did just about everything wrong.

First, the coffee was pre-ground.  Seriously?  You have a big roaster that you proudly show in the front of your shop, and you pre-grind your coffee?!  Secondly, the shot poured in about 12 seconds.  That is just way to fast…period.  And, third, she steamed the milk first, and then just let it sit, without any agitation while she ran the shot.

Gourmet Cup & Pastry Shop

If you happen to be driving to Hunter Mountain NY, and need coffee badly somewhere near Saugerties, DO NOT stop at Gourmet Cup & Pastry Shop.  Do not let the word “gourmet” deceive you.

Starbucks would actually be a better choice.  And, for me to say that, the coffee really has to be horrible.

The coffee in the doser of the Mazzer was clearly stale, and the girl behind the counter burned the crap out the milk…which in turn burnt the crap out of my mouth.  This was just an awful, horrible cup of coffee.  Stay away.

Voodoo Doughnut

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had to kill several hours at Universal City Walk.  There are only 2 options for coffee.  And, when faced with a choice of Starbucks or Voodoo Doughnut…well…that’s not actually a choice.

First, let’s get this out of the way.  Voodoo Doughnut is NOT a coffee shop.  But, they proudly advertise Stumptown coffee, and they have a bad-ass pink, 3 group La Marzocco espresso machine.  So, I grabbed a sugar bomb and then hoped for the best with the coffee.

A Flat White?  I don't think so.

A Flat White? I don’t think so.

Voodoo is pulling their shots with Stumptown Hairbender.  It’s a decent blend, but this not being a true Stumptown shop, the dice are rolled.

I asked for a flat white.  Warning #1 is the guy asked me what size I wanted.  Any true barrista knows a flat white is a 4-5oz drink, so choice of size in this case already flagged a problem.  I looked at the cups and asked for the smallest one (which was 6 oz).

Now, while warning bells were going off like crazy, the end result was actually not terrible.  I wasn’t great, but it was something drinkable and suited my need at the time.  It was much better than anything at Starbucks.  I realize that’s not saying much, but still, I was surprised.  This was a case of a well trained employee clearly using calibrated equipment.  So, while equipment alone does not make great coffee, in this case, it helped to make adequate coffee.

If you are at Universal Studios (or City Walk), this is the place to get coffee if you are in need.  Oh…and the donuts?  The doughnuts are not the best in the world, but they are quite good.

Kuma Cafe

Also, found during my recent Jury Duty adventure in downtown San Diego is a small place called Kuma Cafe.  There’s small signs on Broadway with a cute little bear face on them directing you to their somewhat hidden location just off Broadway. They are serving coffee roasted by local San Diego roasters, The Westbean.

At first, when I saw the barrista clean the shower head prior to pulling the shot for my cappuccino, I had high hopes.  That shows an attention to detail often not seen.  The shot even looked like it poured well.  Sadly, the coffee just wasn’t that good.  The coffee was mostly lost in the milk (which was steamed fine).  What flavor there was didn’t pair well with the milk.   Also, I’m not a huge fan of The WestBean anyway…I’ve had their beans at other cafes in town.

But, The WestBean has recently scored a really great review on Coffee Review.  So, statistically, the fault here lies with the preparation.  The espresso machine isn’t a big name brand, but knowing what you can do with a Gaggia Classic, I can’t fault the machine too much.  The grinder was a Mazzer doser style.  So, my guess here is that the coffee was sitting in the doser for way too long and went stale (yes folks…freshly grinding does make that big a difference).  Cafe Kuma was almost empty when I was in there about 3pm on a Wed.  If you aren’t serving the volume to clear out the doser, you are better off with an “on demand” style grinder.

Kuma Cafe also has smoothies and acai bowls, which I didn’t try.  But, if you are in this area near Santa Fe Depot and looking for coffee, Copa Vida is a better choice.

Copa Vida San Diego

I got called in for Jury Duty.  Ugh

There’s a new coffee shop 3 blocks from the court house.  Yippie!

Copa Vida, based in Pasadena has 2 locations in San Diego now.  The newest is on Broadway very close to Santa Fe Depot (for you Trolley and Coaster riders) and 3 blocks from the county courthouse.

The cafe is HUGE and very nice inside.  There’s also a very nice open counter facing Broadway to sit and enjoy the breeze blowing up Broadway from San Diego Bay.  The bar has some very nice gear including a big Alpha Dominiche Steam Punk machine which makes watching the preparation after ordering fun.

The coffee is good, not great, but good.  I had both a Flat White and the cold brew.  Both the espresso and cold brew had a typical 3rd wave flavor profile of high fruit acidity bordering on too tart.  Unfortunately, I find this to be a disturbing trend in the coffee world.  Some places keep it mostly in check (like Copa Vida) and others are just way out of bounds.  As, I said, the coffee is good, not great.  But, considering nearly across the street is Starbucks, this is definitely where you want to hang in this neck of the woods.

The staff was friendly and happy to talk about their shop and roasts.  They also have some nice small bites in the cafe which makes this a nice place to hang  on Jury Duty breaks for sure.

St. Kilda Coffee New York

You’ll walk right by it and never know it’s there.  St. Kilda Coffee in New York is just across 8th Ave on 44th St. from the Majestic (Phantom…probably never closing) and St. James (Something Rotten as of right now) theaters.  It’s down under a residential building with the street level sign, literally at street level…as in..your feet.

St Kilda Coffee

With a plethora of Starbucks in the vicinity, it’s nice to have an indie joint so close to the theater district.  They are open 7-7 most days, and are serving up the a pretty standard drink menu crafted from beans roasted by Birch Coffee (local NYC company).

The Flat White I ordered was decent enough, but the espresso didn’t really hold up to the milk.
wpid-wp-1480731528990.jpgThere was a pretty typical 3rd wave aroma to the drink, but the flavor of the espresso was totally drowned by the milk.  I don’t know if the fault was drink assembly, or just that the shot was off near the end of the day.

However, if you want to support an indie spot, and get something infinitely better than Starbucks, and are near 44th St., check out St. Kilda Coffee.

Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Review

Cold brew has passed the “fad”phase.  It is now almost its own food group.  Places like Stumptown, Bluebottle, La Colombe, etc are all touting their cold brew these days.  So, what about low cost competitors?  Trader Joe’s has 2 variants, “black” and a flavored variety (vanilla I think).   Note, I’m not talking about their Cold Brew Concentrate.  I’m talking about the little 8oz Trader Joe’s Cold Brew cans that look like this.

wpid-wp-1479059013022.jpg

The good news is Trader Joe’s Cold Brew tastes like coffee.  The bad news is it tastes like their “brew in bag” coffee only cold.  The can claims to be 100% Arabica, but I’m probably not far off when I say it’s likely 100% cheap Brazilian Arabica.  If you like Dunkin coffee, you will like this.  If you like coffee…not brown dirty water…you won’t like this cold brew.

It was worth the experiment, but cold brew is so easy to make at home.  If you really like cold brew, you should find a local roaster, buy fresh beans, and make it your self.

Laughing Man Coffee & Tea

I finally got down to Tribeca to Hugh Jackman’s place Laughing Man Coffee & Tea.  If you saw his documentary “Dukale’s Dream”, this is the place that came out of the coffee journey he documented.

Laughing Man Coffee & Tea

Laughing Man Coffee & Tea

Located at 184 Duane St (there is now another location further West by the water as well), the place is tiny and had a healthy line on a Saturday at noon.  One might expect this give the fame of the founder, but they make a very good cup of coffee!  And, it seems there’s a good supply of “regulars” as the baristas acknowledged several folks as they walked in the door.

I had a flat white, a favorite in Australia, Hugh’s native land…how could I not (Hugh even has a note on the chalk board behind the bar suggesting it’s his favorite.)

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The espresso, a blend of Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Costa Rica (according to the barrista) shines through nicely.  The winey pop of the Dukale’s Ethiopian comes through the milk very well.  It is honestly one of the better milk based drinks from a bar I’ve had in New York.

Even though the inside is tiny, just outside is a small city project called Street Seats.  If the weather is nice, it’s a wonderful place to enjoy your coffee.  It’s an easy walk from either the 1,2,3 or A,C Chambers Street stops.  If you are in the area, give it a try.