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.