New York has become a prime place for outstanding coffee. Roasters and coffee bars that originated in other states have done much to develop the specialty coffee market here, but we are also witnessing an influx of concepts from a more mature and possibly superior coffee city — Melbourne, Australia. Little Collins (667 Lexington Avenue, 212-308-1969) is the most recent arrival, joining fellow Aussie-owned or influenced cafés Bluestone Lane, Fiend, and Bluebird Coffee Shop. However, Little Collins ups the java ante with three distinguishing features: a full-service food menu, a range of Australian and American drinks, and several shiny new Modbars.
Last week, I paid a visit to Little Collins, named after a narrow alley that contributes to the warren of bars, restaurants, and shops that give life and buzz to Melbourne’s central business district. The café now brings espresso and pour over brews to the underserved Midtown East neighborhood. Also in keeping with the Melbournian custom of matching specialty coffee to superlative food, Little Collins serves up a range of items, including The Smash, a riff on a Melbourne café staple of creamy avocado and feta mash on toast with chili flakes and pepitas. (New York coffee shops tend to focus either on coffee or food, but rarely excel at both.)
The space is small, spare, and faintly industrial. Staff come adorned in ties and are engaging rather than reserved, counter to the stereotype of the aloof barista. They offer several Australian mainstays — the flat white and the piccolo latte — in addition to what you’d expect from an American coffee bar: espresso-based drinks, pour overs, drip coffee, and cold brew. But what you can’t fully see may be the most noteworthy feature — three modbar installations.
Short for Modular Espresso Bar, a modbar is a configurable espresso and pour over counter that stands at waist-height, opening up air space between customer and barista. Instead of hiding behind a yard of gleaming, hissing Italian machinery, baristas can interact with customers while the modbar brews the coffee. Owners of the equipment can even teach the modbar software to replicate their desired “house” pouring technique. However, baristas cannot simply push buttons and forget the brew; they are still involved in selecting and describing the coffees, choosing specific grind settings, and determining which presets to use with which type of beans. The modbar enables them to add precision without being completely replaced by automation.
Little Collins was the first café running this system, though the Counter Culture training center also has an installation, as does Gorilla’s Bergen Street café, which just opened on November 15.
During my last visit, Little Collins had a selection of beans from Kenya, Colombia, and Papua New Guinea. After making my selection (Papua New Guinea pour over), the barista had only to grind the beans and initiate a sequence of water infusions through a push button on the modbar. A nozzle sprayed out six micro-streams of water at the programmed temperature, volume, and timing until the brew was completed several minutes later. A blue button near the base of the nozzle fixture, illuminated during the brewing process, turns off to alert the barista that the coffee is ready. I found the result to be as well-brewed as any I have experienced in scores of pour overs around the city. Thus, the modbar doesn’t supplant the barista so much as let him or her serve customers differently.