Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!
Yesterday, I wrote about my first experience at West 15th Street’s new Blue Bottle Coffee. I apologize for having been so interested in the pour-overs that I missed the espresso machine. The other observations and criticisms still stand, including my belief that the coffee was on the thin side, the premises without creature comforts, the usual constellation of milk and soy products not present, and the place, on the whole, pretentious. While looking for somewhere to sit down, I discovered a stranger and more interesting coffee establishment above and behind the one I’d just patronized, approached by a narrow stair. You have to know it’s there, because there’s no sign. (And no, I didn’t read the press release.)
Here’s your free palate cleanser.
The upstairs establishment does provide seating, along a short bar where coffee is brewed by one of two methods by a barista who has become half counselor and half chemist. The first method involves putting grounds in a small muslin bag, and using the drip method, making something that tastes like espresso, only more copious.
The other utilizes a glass lab-ware apparatus invented by the Japanese that shoots water from a globe up into a beaker, after which the barista stirs the coffee grounds in, and then turns off the strange glowing burner underneath. Once the air in the bottom chamber cools, the coffee is drawn rapidly downward through a filter. Then the beaker is removed and the coffee poured from the flask.
These coffees are both roughly twice as expensive as the downstairs brews. On the other hand, you first get a “palate cleanser” consisting of a weak tea made with — if I understood the explanation correctly — the skins of coffee berries. It tastes faintly like one of those fruit-flavored teas. You also get a tiny marshmallow that, the barista will inform you, has been infused with bourbon. For the committed drinker of strong normal coffee, this prelude to caffeination may cause you some alarm. The restaurateur will recognize it as a “value added” feature, justifying a higher price.
The upstairs siphon bar at Blue Bottle
Here’s your $7 (or $7.75) worth of coffee, brewed by the Japanese method.
I liked the bag-brewed coffee, and would probably get it again were it not so expensive ($6.50). I made a point of trying one of the three Japanese apparatus coffees offered (Cerro Gacho C.O.E. Honduras) on two different days to test consistency. I’d tried coffee made by that method 10 years ago at Hasaki, a Japanese sushi bar in the East Village. I liked it a lot, and the coffee was strong.
Yesterday, I paid $7 for the coffee; the price had risen to $7.75 when I had it again this afternoon. On the other hand, the brew yesterday was notably thin. But the flavor was good. And I enjoyed sitting and talking with the baristas, for whom I have the greatest respect. (My experience is that they, too, relish the irony of the priest-like roles they’ve been assigned in Coffee World.)
On the second day, despite the extra 75 cents, I enjoyed the coffee a lot more. The brew was more stout, strong enough that I wish I’d had some milk to dump in it. I like my coffee strong, but mellowed by milk. Is that a crime? Upstairs, in the siphon room, it is. No milk or sugar is available. Though I guess you could sneak some in.
Nevertheless, as a piece of culinary theater, Blue Bottle is unsurpassed. And yes, despite the price, I will probably go there again. In my coffee utopia, all arcane practices and rituals are encouraged. Besides, drinking a siphon is like a little vacation to San Francisco.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 23, 2012