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Ninth Street Espresso

Name: Ninth Street Espresso
Location: 700 East 9th Street, New York, NY
Roasters: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea

Rating: 3

As any article on third wave coffee in the Big Apple will tell you,  Ninth Street Espresso occupies a special place in New York City’s coffee history. Ken Nye opened this cafe back in 2000. Along with the two shops he’s opened since, Ninth Street staff have helped introduce New York City citizens to both quality coffees and a purist sensibility about what shops focusing on coffee should be like. Not to dwell to nerdy, but over the years, I’ve come to envision Ninth Street as a kind of Paul Atreides, riding on top of a giant bag of coffee through the desert wasteland that New York City’s coffee scene used to be.

Of course, Ninth Street Espresso also holds the privileged position of having worked with each of the “big three” American  indie roasters. By the time I first visited Ninth Street’s original location (long before this blog), the baristas were making coffee with Counter Culture Coffee.  Later, by the time I visited Ninth Street’s 10th Street location, they had switched to Stumptown. And just before Stumptown started roasting locally, Ninth Street made the move over to Intelligentsia.

While in New York over the holidays, I realized that it had been far too long since I’d been to the original Ninth Street, and the passage of time and switch of roasters made this pilgrimage long overdue. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a little difficulty getting there as planned, but after a slight detour to the Bluebird Coffee Shop, I headed north to visit this mecca of New York coffee.

The decor inside the original Ninth Street Espresso is no longer what it was a few years ago as you can see in these photos from 2006 by a visit from Food GPS. The dramatic, trending punk, look is consistent with Ninth Street’s current black-and-white color palatte. I personally,  however, don’t love the heavy use of black, which somehow highlights the dingier elements of the shop and obscures the intricate details like the wainscoting and pressed tin ceilings. I find myself prefering the more stark, more modern, white-heavy design of the 10th street shop.

I ordered a shot of Ninth Street’s Alphabet City blend and cup of coffee of the same. Ninth Street does brew various Intelligentsia single origin coffees as their regular coffee, but I was told that due to the holidays, their supplies of these other coffees were low. Although the brewed coffee is freshly French Pressed (and stored in thermal carafes), I find it rare that an espresso blend works well as brewed coffee.

The issue here is that espresso blends, or any coffee roasted for use as espresso, tends to be roasted a bit darker than those same beans would be roasted for drip. For reasons that I don’t fully get but having something to do with the violence of espresso extraction, the darker roast helps maximize flavors that are desireable when the coffee is brewed as espresso. At the same time, this darker roast does the opposite for these same beans when brewed as non-espresso.  Sure enough, my cup of coffee was roasty, dark and full-bodied. I got some nutty notes and found it a pleasant enough cup of coffee for a French Pressed espresso blend, but to me, it leaned towards burnt and wouldn’t be a coffee that I would necessarily steer people towards. (2+)

The espresso blend, pulled as espresso on Ninth Street’s custom paddle, two group La Marzocco Linea, fared much better. It was very creamy, much more so than the recent shots I’d had of Black Cat, with grapefruit and light floral notes as well as a lot of caramel and cocoa. It was a nice shot of espresso, but suffered from a roasty aftertaste. (3+)

The bottom line is that Ninth Street deserves tremendous credit for the contributions its made to New York’s coffee scene. Given a choice of brewed coffee other than the espresso blend, I’d say it’s on par with many of New York City’s better shops and, of course, it’s leagues above the dismally low standards still adhered to through much of the city.

I guess the shame is that I don’t see Ninth Street as quite up there with the best of the current bunch, especially given its use of Intelligentsia coffee. I’d like to seek them offer a less narrow menu that still highlights the coffee bringing in a brew to order option or perhaps a second espresso.  Simplicity has been the right message so far, but there are other ways to simply focus on the coffee.

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9 comments to Ninth Street Espresso

  • Yep. On a recent visit to NYC I stopped to pay homage to the original 9th St. Aside from feeling a bit piratey with the black color scheme, I enjoyed my espresso and visit. The shot I had was one of the most balanced I had in the city on this visit, which was both en/discouraging at the same time, for reasons you mentioned.

  • Adam

    Hey there … Nice assessment of Ninth Street and their use of so many different roasters.

    Wondering though, which shops do you think are at the top of the pack these days? You said Ninth isn’t quite the leader it used to be (albeit, still good), so just wondering.

    Thanks for the great coffee coverage … always enjoy it.

    • I don’t want to avoid answering the question, but I figured this was a good opportunity to point out some useful features of this blog – if only I had one of those clever corporate videos to insert here. Take a look at the filters at the top of the screen. Unfortunately, you can’t do a complex search, but you can look up cafes by rating and or location. Check out the full listing of all the reviews for New York cafes.

      That said, and it’s been a while since I’ve been to some of these so I can’t fully attest to their continued ability to deliver, but the cafe’s I’ve given 4’s to are: Third Rail, Kaffe 1668, Gimme!, El Beit, and Grumpy. And of course. There are also several with a 4-: Joe (I’m still debating the switch to Ecco), Stumptown, Lucky Shot and Sit and Wonder (the last partly for the bargain). And the 3+’s plus some reviews to come.

      There are probably others out there as well that I just haven’t been to yet.

  • Sara

    I second Adam, New Yorkers want to know your local coffee recs! Please tweet, if you can, when or if you post.

  • Ravi

    I visited Ninth Street Espresso when I was in NYC back in november, I was not impressed by the guys working and their lack of knowledge of the coffees they were offering. The other thing that bothered me was the roasting date on the coffees they were selling were older than I have come to expect (over a week). May be thats something Intelli should look into. I bought some of the alphabet city blend and the espresso/cortado’s I made at home were very interesting and tasty with notes of cocoa, nutmeg and gooseberry flavors.

  • I’m from Wellington NZ and in the few visits I’ve had to New York in the last 5 years, Ninth Street Espresso has always been a favorite, especially their bar in Chelsea Market. Wellington is a coffee city so we’re quite particular about the strength and temperature of our coffees! I just returned from living in New York for 4 months, working out of an office in Soho and my daily cup was from Saturdays Surf in Crosby Street – great bunch of guys making really good coffee in a surf shop! (beans from La Colombe Torrefaction)

  • Kris

    The owner of Ninth street is a bit of a hypocrite in that he says that espresso should be pure and no syrups, additives, fancy sizes but still serves mocha, correct me but while I am not a purist if he says he is why does he service mocha perhaps its a business decision nothing wrong with that but he keep preaching and doesn’t serve anything else that isn’t coffee and milk, I find the milk is textured well but it is overpowering in the sense of wow great texture but too milky even in the smaller size.

    I am not fond of intelligentsia coffee but their echo and black cat is not too bad even still however ken has an attitude issue and so does the staff. It may have been great to have an original started for new york but its time to move on.

    I would love a response from him as to the mocha, after all new Orleans chicory, vanilla , and other flavors are probably much less neutral than a mocha.

  • […] street espresso (1 av — l train OR 2 av — r train) i found the ninth street espreso on the man seeking coffee blog, according to the author of this blog this café  raised the bar for coffee quality in new york […]

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