Update: Simon Sips has closed. Blue Bird Cafe, still using Counter Culture has opened in the same space.
There’s a reason I tend not to hob-knob with coffee industry folks, and it’s not just because I don’t know that many. It’s the kind of awkward situation I found myself in when visiting the highly touted Simon Sips last month. On bar was Neil Oney, who I had met at a Tamp Tamp gathering the night before. I really enjoyed speaking to Neil, but it was a bit surreal and slightly uncomfortable to find myself reviewing a cafe the next morning with him behind bar. My awkwardness alone may not have presented a definitive reason to recuse myself but it certain was enough to give me pause, but then the big bombshell hit: Simon, himself, has quit Simon Sips. The bottom line is I have no idea what to make of the facts or the opinions you are about to read, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.
It turns out that Simon Sips was more or less exactly what I expected (and hoped) it to be given all the hype it’s received from various food reporters. This tiny shop, with a handful of seats, inside and out, reminds me of a slightly more spacious Abraco or a variation of San Francisco’s Farm:Table. All three cafes prepare quality coffee from a reputable roaster while specializing in cleverly assembled, original menus for agoraphobic epicureans.
On Neil’s recommendation, I ordered the Gruyere fritatta panini. I was glad I did. This smallish, warm panini ($6) struck the right ratio of filling to bread and was reasonably priced as Manhattan places go. I was able to enjoy it while taking in the carefully crafted interior. The front of the bar is comprised of the original wood from the wainscoting, pulled out in an act of 3-D wall sculpting. The wine case on display is impressive even if I’m unsure about the decision to expose the wine to light. Overall, it’s the kind of spot you wish for as a tourist or a local that is original and delicious, quick and won’t break the bank.
Like Abraco, the coffee at Simon Sips is from Counter Culture Roasters (at least until Abraco starts roasting their own coffee as this Grub street article, via Shot Zombies, reports). While good, it didn’t make as strong an impression as the food. I ordered a cup of the Papua New Guinea Kuta, which was prepared as a pour-over with a commercial size filter into a thermal carafe. Perhaps it was the brewing or the age of the coffee, but it seemed a little weak to me, lacking the wonder one might expect from both this coffee’s interesting history and the 93 rating given to it by Coffee Review. It was nutty and smooth, but not particularly notable.
Simon Sips uses Counter Culture’s Toscano blend for its espresso, which, like many of Counter Culture’s Coffees, I’m still learning. We get far too little of their coffee here on the west coast.
Espresso shots are pulled on a tiny 2 group, red La Marzocco FB/80,which is a fitting choice for a cafe of Simon Sips’ magnitude. The uncharacteristic brightness and lack of cocoa made me think that this espresso might be the Aficionado blend. I did detect something of a deeper, smokey quality but my shot was a tad punchier than the Toscano’s usual dark tone. Neil explained that the 4th of July weekend had delayed coffee shipments meaning that the coffee was a tad older than it would be under normal circumstance. Quite sadly, this fact meant that there were also no beans for sale.
So what’s the verdict: good, but not great when it comes to coffee; some uncertainty in store with one of two co-owners leaving; and a slightly confused and overwhelmed reviewer. I suggest you check the scene out yourself to be sure. Oh, and when you do, be sure to order a sandwich.