Not too many newspapers do good coffee the justice it deserves, which is why I was so happy to see the New York Times get things mostly right with their recently created coffee section. While the articles can lean towards the trendy and are (appropriately) geared towards a wider audience, the writing usually reveals real insight into the coffee industry and a passion for the product. On September 10th, however, a line was drawn. Oliver Strand asserted the following in his “first look” at the Ace Hotel Stumptown Coffee in New York:
The Manhattan Stumptown is more polished than anything on the West Coast, including the other Stumptowns. And the style is distinctly its own – it isn’t evoking Milan or Marseilles. It feels like New York.
While the latter might be true, it struck me that the former almost certainly was not. At the very least, there is Intelligentsia Venice, Blue Bottle Cafe, and LAMILL, all of which sport equally well-dressed baristi, offer as refined interiors and additionally provide multiple brewing options. The latter two locations even have wait staff.
Still, I couldn’t speak first hand. I hadn’t actually visited Stumptown’s newest, and only East Coast, location, while plenty of other people clearly had. But my lack of first hand experience is not for a lack of trying. Stumptown failed to open as scheduled during my most recent Spring and Summer visits. It seems that cafe openings do have a way of getting delayed. Fortunately, I was able to visit in late September where Stumptown was the sole focus of my coffee attention.
Let’s start off with design. Manhattan Stumptown is gorgeous. Like all things affiliated with the Ace Hotel chain, this cafe mashes up old and new, serious and ironic in a slightly pretentious, but thoroughly enjoyable stew. The wood paneled bar, marble floor, shelves of (mostly) antique coffee equipment and baristi outfitted in dapper dress conjure up images of an apothecary from a previous century. Many of Stumptown’s key elements, however, do not strike me as entirely unique. The establishments in the Frankie empire – Spuntino, Prime Meats and Cafe Pedlar – all exhibit a similar, days-of-yore look, and Four Barrel Coffee came to mind when I saw Stumptown’s retro-playing record player and pastry case, which is inset similarly into the bar. Of course, these connections aren’t that far fetched. The Franks are a wholesale client while Four Barrel partners with Stumptown on green bean purchases and used to be a client before their roaster was up and running.
If you order a cup of coffee, you’ll get whatever coffee was recently french pressed on a frequently rotating schedule. Over two days, and four trips, I tasted three different, single-origin coffees. None were blends, but I’m assuming that any blend on the bean menu might also work its way into the rotation. The Panama Carmen Estate (light, floral, chocolate, lime) was my favorite. But this was followed closely by the Guatemala Finca El Injerto (bright, herbal, earthy and spicy) and the Panama Duncan Estate (rich, chocolate, raisin). All were quite good. Each was full-bodied and nicely balanced, if perhaps just a hair too silty, even for French Press.
For espresso and espresso-based drinks, you’ll get a shot of the Hair Bender (with water if straight espresso), which Stumptown’s attentive and courteous baristi pull from one of Stumptown’s two, three-group Mistrals. My visits resulted in two espressos with slight variation, one being brighter, but both with intense citrus marked with notes of caramel and chocolate, a slight fruitiness and something just slightly smokey. These were very tasty shots and some of the better ones that I’ve had in New York, which was enough to prompt me to take some Hair Bender home.
While Stumptown appears to have gone for an ultra-simple menu, I would have appreciated a bit more choice. Stumptown offers one of the largest menus of third-wave, whole bean coffees in the city, all of which are extremely fresh. Most bags were only 2-4 days from roast, which is a real benefit of Stumptown recently opening a roasting facility out in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. The fact that you can purchase any one of Stumptown’s coffees, so freshly roasted (and with good tips from the friendly staff and a free cup of coffee included), is one of the most compelling features of this store. I wish, however, that I could have selected any bean from the menu, brewed-to-order. I also wish, following the suggestion of all that wonderful equipment on display, that I could have ordered coffee brewed via a method other than just French Press. Finally, I would have loved a single-origin espresso. I’ve had good luck with Stumptown single-origin shots at home; it would have been nice to see what the professionals could have done.
All in all, Stumptown’s newest location should certainly be added to your list for a New York coffee pilgrimage. The coffee is quite good and the staff do a wonderful job. It deserves a wide detour from coffee consumers, as if there was any doubt. It does, however, fall short as a roaster’s flagship cafe compared to counterparts on the west coast – a lack of brewing selections, and because of it, a lack of opportunities for sommeliering. Interestingly, Oliver Strand toned down his original claims in his September 16th dining brief of Stumptown, stating the far more agreeable line: “Serious coffee has already conquered the West Coast. When delivered with this much style, it could win over New York, too.” This line reflects the proper order of things.