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.
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…)