This French Wine Bar Is a Surprising Spot for Spam Musubi and Cold Brew
Lunchtime options at the café include Spam musubi and salmon poke.
All photos by Adam Robb
If you just spent the night sleeping on Lafayette Street so you don't miss the latest Supreme sneaker drop, La Colombe's got your caffeine fix covered, and if you really need to use the bathroom you're already reading this in line at the Spring Street Starbucks. But what if you want good coffee in Soho? What if you want better than good coffee, poured over a rock of ice typically found in a well-made negroni, topped with frothy grape-sweetened organic milk that streaks a real glass, where there's no wait for a table, and no craving too obscure that it can't be satisfied by a lunch of Spam musubi and butter mochi?
If that seems farfetched, it's because no one's discovered the perpetually unoccupied, daytime pop-up cold-brew coffee bar inside La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels (249 Centre Street; 212-343-3660), the year-old Parisian natural-wine bar where sommelier Caleb Ganzer brews naturally processed Ethiopian and Colombian single-origin brews inside a sun-dappled bohemian parlor room, the kitchen turning out hefty plates of a homesick Hawaiian bartender's favorite baked goods. "He's from Kauai, and literally every night he works, he ends up talking about Hawaii with customers, and it's not something I know a lot about," says Ganzer. "He's always talking about opening a Hawaiian shop in New York, so I said let's experiment with pastries for the café, tease it out. So now he's consulting for us."
That consultation began with coffee-break-friendly sweets like double-chocolate macadamia cookies and a chewy butter mochi. "Mochi is very popular there in flavors like taro root, but I thought butter mochi was good for the New York palate while still true to the island," says Ganzer, who recently expanded the menu to include on-the-run lunch bites like a treacly Spam musubi, which binds the crunchy spiced ham product to sticky white rice with a nori wrapper. And while these menu additions won't feature in the bar's evening offerings, the iced-coffee program soon will.
Hawaiian-inspired sweets include chocolate macadamia cookies and butter mochi.
"We never offered coffee, and when I first started here a few month ago people started asking for it. We were treating the place more as a restaurant before, so we were confusing people who were treating the menu as a three-course meal and expected it," recalls Ganzer. After considering the time, money, and effort an espresso machine required, Ganzer found cold brew the embodiment of high quality and low maintenance. He also sees coffee as new territory in wine bar hospitality, filling a void left by customers who wanted to finish the night with a cigarette — now illegal — or cigar service, now passé. "Coffee and tea are filling that realm, and coffee on a fundamental level is more utilitarian, so more sommeliers embrace it; it's natural we're going to try to learn more about it."
Ganzer is still learning, saying "it's just a matter of tweaking what we do during the day. I don't want to have Sweet'N Low on the tables at night — that's why I wanted to pre-sweeten the milk."
Forgoing the rich-bodied milk from Battenkill Creamery favored by most of the city's premium coffee bars, he settled on Trickling Springs organic milk, which produces a more ethereal froth, and he's naturally sweetening that with raisins until he can get his hands on the good stuff: industrial-strength rectified concentrated grape must (known in the industry as MCR). "The original goal was, and still is, to get MCR, which a lot of champagne makers are now using in their champagnes. Classically you had to add a secondary sweetener to a champagne to get the secondary fermentation going, and often it was cane sugar. But why add cane sugar to a pure product when you can use clarified grape juice?"
Sommelier Caleb Ganzer pours cold-brew coffee from behind the bar.
Whichever of the bar's two offerings you order — an Ethiopian yirgacheffe best poured black on the rocks, or the Colombian El Breton that inspired Ganzer's interest in naturally processed coffee at the start of his career in downtown Miami — don't expect him to readily hand over a lid for your go-cup. Ganzer is still a sommelier and wants your nose hitting every note, even the froth. If you're there to stay, he's a little more generous with the Wi-Fi password. Adam Robb is a dining and travel writer and photographer based in Jersey City. Follow Adam on Twitter, @lifevicarious, and on Instagram, @adamrobbatlarge.
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