By REA Designer Mark Thrapp
In my opinion there is but one thing that serves as the ultimate vehicle for artistic expression — food. And, by extension, the restaurants that serve it.
Why is food the ultimate vehicle? It’s about the only creative work that can stimulate every sense all at once and do so on both a visceral and heady level. The aroma. The plating. The texture. The flavor. Even its sound (e.g., fajitas). Then add to that the ambiance of the restaurant. The décor. The music. The service. The vast possibilities in combining these elements into an inundation of all the senses, all at once, gives the artist (i.e., chef) greater sway over the emotions of the observer/eater of their art than Picasso or Rembrandt ever could. But the food need not be haut cuisine of a world-renowned chef to elicit a rapturous response. Goulash served in a dive can do just as well.
Coffee is my current realm of cuisine snobbery. I tend to be hardcore when it comes to coffee — finding myself only enjoying espresso or ibrik coffee preparations. It is in these preparations that the barista becomes more than a pusher of caffeine, and becomes an artist of great sensitivity and skill. A barista can make or break a cup of espresso or ibrik coffee, even if the perfect bean, roast and equipment were used. I’ve noticed that for as much coffee as New Yorkers drink, there just is no quality in the average cup. I’ve searched NYC for good coffee and could find nothing. Then just in the past five years, slowly but surely, quality coffee shops started to crop up here and there. I’ve tried well over 100 restaurants and coffee shops in the city and have found only three to be of the best quality. Here’s my list:
1) The best cup, by a significant margin, is O Café located on the corner of 6th Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan. Drinking their espresso is like drinking chocolate. I don’t even need to add sugar to my macchiato; the caramelization and the créma from the extraction are so sweet on their own. From the bean to the barista, O Café knows their coffee. The downside to O Café is that its ambiance is a bit rigid and uncomfortable. Still, I regularly commute to the city all the way from Astoria on the weekends specifically to have just one macchiato at O Café and then head back home. I’m quite lazy, so that’s saying something.
2) A recent discovery for me was 71 Irving Place Coffee & Tea Bar located on Irving Place near 19th Street in Manhattan. I have not had the chance to test their consistency, but the few times I’ve gone for my espresso the results were quite good. Their ambiance is considerably better than, and their coffee came in a close second to, O Café. The neighborhood is also quite inviting.
3) New in Astoria, Queens is Kickshaw, is located on Broadway near Steinway. They serve the best espresso-based coffee in Astoria and are a close second to O Café. Their baristas are definitely artists, with methods and a style that are more refined and precise than any place I’ve witnessed on the East Coast. I go there quite often.
Honorable mention goes to Terrizzi’s Bakery in Astoria, who made the best espresso in Astoria until Kickshaw opened its doors. At Terrizzi’s the quality was more in the bean than in the barista, but still very good, and their espresso complemented their quality pastries quite well.
Joe The Art of Coffee, having several locations in the city, used to be my favorite a few years ago, but has since been overshadowed by those mentioned above. They still make a good cup, though.
It all comes down the artistry of the barista and the quality of the bean, roast, water and equipment. Coffee is an art.