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Ninth…Er…Tenth Street Espresso

9thstreetoutside19thstreetwall1

Name: Ninth Street Espresso
Location: 341 East 10th Street (between A & B), New York, NY (3 Manhattan Locations)
Rating: 3+

I still remember my first visit a few years ago to the original Ninth Street Espresso at Ninth and C. It was my first ever exceptional cup of New York coffee and my first piece of hard evidence that the New York coffee tide was turning. It was also the first time I had encountered Counter Culture’s coffee, which Ninth Street used to use before their switch to Stumptown’s coffee. I don’t recall clearly if that first cup was a cappuccino or a macchiato, but whatever it was, it was certainly very good.

I’ve visited the original Ninth Street on other occasions as well – post Stumptown conversion – so on this trip to New York, I thought I’d try out one of Ninth Street’s other, newer locations. The Tompkins Square shop, although only a handful of blocks from the original location, fit most easily into my plans and promised some interesting interior design based on some other photos I’d seen.

The inside of Ninth Street’s Tompkins Square cafe, like so many of New York’s other new shops these days, is sleek and stylish, full of modern design with an acknowledgment to its historical past. The painted over old bricks and repeated black create a somewhat chilly contrast that is warmed slightly by the honey brown wood. I may have found the contrasts particularly stark largely due to the fact that the cafe was nearly empty, the inauguration was just getting under way after all. The seating consists of industrial looking stools lined up underneath one enormous wooden bar stretching the length of the narrow shop and a couple of stylistically similar benches lining the other wall. Near the bar is an inset frame-o-coffee, nicely displaying their handful of Stumptown beans for sale, while the nearly coffee-only menu in dark slate hangs above the espresso machine.

9thstreetmenu9thstreetespresso

That machine in Ninth Street’s case is a Synesso (a Cyncra and not the groovy new Hydra) from which the barista pulled a tasty shot of Hair Bender, but one less impressive than I was getting recently at Four Barrel and Dynamo Donuts (I should clarify that Four Barrel is now serving their own Friendo Blendo – update soon). My shot was thick and full-bodied with lots of chocolate and tobacco notes and some of that wildly crazy complexity that seems signature to the Hairbender, but it was also slightly harsh and a little too bright to really wow me.

I’ve been drinking a lot of Stumptown recently so I wasn’t too disappointed to find the staff brewing Hairbender instead of one of Stumptown’s other single origin coffees. Still, brewing an espresso blend as coffee is never a winning move in my book even if they were brewing it as a French Press. Espresso blends can perform decently as coffee, but rarely compare to coffee roasted for brewing as coffee. The resulting coffee usually comes across as either a bit too flat or way too dark. I’m hoping/guessing that their brewed coffee choice was actually a product of the MLK Jr. holiday weekend mail order hold-up and not the standard practice these days at Ninth Street. I’m imagining this might have been the case given the limited selection of beans displayed in the embedded coffee nooks.

All in all, while far from disastorous, I can’t shout praises about my experience with this Ninth Street on this particular day. Fortunately, I have had better past experiences with their other shop which explains the 3+ rather than a slightly lower rankng 3. I’m certainly hoping that this was a case of multiple variables converging in the perfect storm rather than the new norm. Please weigh in below.

(3/17/09 update: Please see comments below for updates to Ninth Street’s roaster…)

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10 comments to Ninth…Er…Tenth Street Espresso

  • This afternoon I swung by Dynamo for a revisit and got to sample some of their espresso now that they are pulling shots of Friendo Blendo.

    Let me just say this much: Four Barrel deserves time to work out the kinks. Because the experience left me with a jones for Dynamo’s previous shots of Hairbender. The crema wasn’t quite as good (it sort of sat on top rather than emulsify), but the mouthfeel was weaker and the whole flavor profile tasted like Hairbender put through a low-pass filter.

    I never much thought of myself as a Hairbender groupie. But after tasting some of the turnover to Four Barrel thus far, I’m hoping some other cafés in the area can pick up the slack.

  • Skip

    I also give a big “meh” to 9th Street, though I haven’t been to that location. It’s good, but not as good as you’d expect.

  • The times they are a-changin’. It seems that Ninth street has just announced a change of roasters as reported here. http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/16/fresh-intelligentsia/ I can’t tell from this piece if they’ll be switching to Intelligentsia fully or just for espresso although I assume the former. This switch now makes Ninth Street the first of NY’s cafes to cycle through the countries most well known macro-micro roasters, having used Counter Culture, Stumptown and Intelligentsia.

  • Steven Weiss

    I just visited 9th St. today, and indeed, they were pulling Intelligentsia shots. I asked about the espresso, assuming that it was Black Cat, but was told by the barista that it was a blend that was based on Black Cat but was tailored to the wishes of 9th street. As an espresso, I was a bit disappointed–nice sweetness up front, but I wasn’t thrilled with the slight off-putting burnt flavor in the finish that left a noticeable unpleasant aftertaste. The barista told me that he was working on dialing in his shots, but it seemed to be more of the characteristic in the coffee that I found slightly unappealing.

  • Jade Cichy

    As a Stumptown native I had to check out 9th Street when I was in NYC in 2007. I was not impressed, the coffee (Stumptown) was bitter and so was the barista.

    But oh man I had a great cup at Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea.

  • [...] Ninth Street Espresso – Their cafe at 9th and C was the first coffee place in NYC that I really loved. They’ve expanded since then, but they still do a great job. [...]

  • As a newbie coffee snob and would be coffee purveyor (we’ll be opening soon in Jersey City with a LaMarzocco FB80), I’ve been trying every roaster I can get my hands on so we can offer the best coffee and espresso in our city (can’t have just any bean through my expensive Italian friend, can we?).

    Counter Culture VS STUMPTOWN…I was on the fence…I went with STUMPTOWN as they roast right here in Brooklyn, and I can drive there in under 20 minutes and chat up Ryan, the roaster there.

    I will try Intelligensia, but as they don’t roast on the East Coast, it’s a much less compelling proposition for me. On a “green” note, the beans barely spend any time en route. And I can get beans the day they are roasted, if I want.

    Eric Fleming
    Cocoa Bakery & Bistro
    http://www.cocoabakerycafe.com

  • Kberg

    With some many shops using intelligentsia, one must question whether they lose a bit of focus on technique, ninth street seemed to be the gold and then silver standard back in 2007 as late with ken in the shop, perhaps I am learning that baristas go great and dial certain beans better than others, it seems ninth worked best with counter culture, decided to try stumpdown for a more intense flavor in a different profile, hate to say it but when you smell certain erasers, you get the sense of stumpdown, a bit more earthy less chocolately or orangy with counter culture, not a fan of fruity espresso blends, but counter culture seems to just add a hint of a note with afficionada, so naturally they decide to join inteligentsia , expected but not happy.

  • Well. My 3+ is hardly a “meh” but disappointment was in the air. I really do have to get back there next time to compare the present with my positive memories of the place and whether the rating goes up or down.

  • Interesting. I imagine it will take them some time to iron out the transition. Good to get an early report though. In the mean time, you can also check out Liz/Twitchy/confusedbee’s photostream on Flicker (http://www.flickr.com/photos/latteart/3376266467/in/photostream/) or her Intelli vs. Stumptown map (http://twitchy.org/?p=267)

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