Of all the cafes I planned to tour while visiting New York, my trip to Joe the Art of Coffee had me most excited. For one reason, I was eager to try the coffee from Barrington Coffee Roasters. While Barrington is hardly a local roaster (it’s located in Massachusetts), I do love trying coffee not otherwise easy for me to get. Besides, the very grounded tone of the two owners in a recent interview I read made me all the more intrigued to try their product.
The important point here, however, if you read between the lines is that although Joe is arguably the “Mitochondrial Eve” of New York’s thriving “third-wave” coffee community – much like Blue Bottle is to the Bay Area – I had somehow managed to never try their coffee. What’s more tragic is that I can’t even blame some scheming plot of the Gods to keep me away from this coffee. It’s not as though I had been trying to go for ages and had simply been thwarted at every turn. No, dear readers, I must confess that for reasons I don’t fully understand – a lack of Oxygen to my brain, perhaps – I somehow visited the Waverly place Joe twice, on previous New York trips and yet never ordered the coffee (although I did at least consume a couple of tasty donuts from the Doughnut Plant).
Having come to terms with my past mistakes, I was now committed to righting past wrongs, especially now that Joe saw fit to open a kiosk in Grand Central, making it easily the best coffee in close proximity to my New York office (Sayonara Dunkin’ Donut!). Having arrived in New York via red-eye, I stopped by my in-laws to freshen up, see the family, gaze longingly at my bed, and then head to Joe to fuel up for my morning meeting. A couple of days later, I made it down to the 13th Street Joe, which is what is pictured above. I was simply not functional enough that first morning to be taking pictures – even if I was armed with a brand new camera.
Grand Central Joe doesn’t have a lot to offer in either aesthetics or room. It’s a plain, simple, mostly white, standing-room-only space with a tasteful, etched glass front wall that separates this coffee kiosk from the bustle of the station outside. The most ornate item here is the La Marzocco GB/5, which is also the machine of choice at the 13th Street shop. That location, while nothing fancy, is tastefully done with a throwback, 50’s diner aesthetic suggested by the ridged, chrome-edged, yellow-topped tables and aluminum deck chairs. Both locations brew their coffee in commercial brewers although, 23rd Street Joe now brews coffee via pour-over, which I imagine should work particularly well given Barrington’s trend towards somewhat darker roasting.
Grand Central Joe offered just a few bags of beans for sale, but surprisingly brewed three coffees – their decaf, a Kenyan (bad note-taking, but I think it was this one) and Joe’s House Blend Vienna Roast. I ordered a cup of the Kenyan which was surprisingly nice despite (or possibly because of) my 8 block walk through frigid temperatures: fruity, red berries, currant, rhubarb and a touch of brown sugar in a moderately full-bodied, darker roasted coffee.
At the 13th Street Joe, I ordered a shot of the Barrington Gold Blend, which came out dense, almost chewy with dark, somewhat golden, very textured crema. I caught notes of tobacco, bitter chocolate, wisps of smoke, earth and a mild, meyer lemon-like acidity. Oddly, this location, at least when I was there, only brewed the house blend and decaf. No delicious single origins.
I regret not trying the house blend, but I did get to try a cup of Barrington’s Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (maybe this one) out of a bag I took to friends. I should add that this cup was brewed under highly technically flawed conditions – prepared as a pour over, but ground primarily in a blender due to the grinder being submerged in water! Still, it was a very nice, darker roasted version of a floral and fruity Yirgacheffe.
Overall, I’m impressed with Joe’s understated but plentiful presence, serving wonderful espresso and better than average (for their caliber of cafe) brewed coffee. I also appreciate that they offer a different product than many of the other cafes now popping up over Manhattan and Brooklyn (i.e. not Intelligentsia, Counter Culture or Stumptown). Their decidedly individualized approach, preference for coffee roasted on the darker end of the light-roasted spectrum, and their pioneering spirit amongst cafes in New York, continues to evoke visions of Blue Bottle in my mind, and that is very much a good thing.