22 April 2015

The Oxford Caffeine Chronicles: Quarter Horse Coffee

The second stop on my most recent Oxford coffee tour was Quarter Horse Coffee on the Cowley Road, a fifteen-minute stroll from the city centre. I had driven past Quarter Horse a few times and noticed the huge blue 'coffee' sign, but didn't add it to my coffee to-do list until the friendly folks at the Keen Bean recommended it.

Quarter Horse roasts its own coffee at its newly opened second location in Birmingham, and several varieties were on offer when I visited the original Oxford cafe on Saturday. It's cosy inside — even on a bright, sunny day — with long wooden tables and exposed-brick walls. I was impressed with the breadth of the coffee menu: as well as the usual espresso drinks, they serve an espresso flight, batch- and hand-brewed filter coffee and a selection of iced coffees, including cold brew.

I selected an Ethiopian Sidamo coffee brewed in an Aeropress (£3.50) and sat down to read and to people-watch. It was pleasing, although not too surprising, to see a constant stream of customers in such a nice cafe, from local DJs to European tourists and students. My coffee was really good with a smooth but refreshing fruity flavour. I hadn't quite reached my caffeine quota for the day, though, so I ordered a cold brew (£2) too. The cold brew had a sweet flavour, but could have been a little stronger.

I also bought a bag of coffee to take home to my parents. I picked a bag of Colombian La Joyeria beans, which my dad and I both tried at home and which we agreed was excellent (it has a rich, chocolatey taste). As I had been staring at the brownies on the counter for the past 20 minutes, I also bought a raspberry brownie (£2.20, but it was so big and rich that I had to share it with my parents. It was super-tasty and the other cakes looked delicious too.

Quarter Horse is well worth the short walk away from the Starbucks- and Nero-dominated city centre. You will be rewarded with a cafe that offers a great selection of really tasty coffee, a relaxed vibe and friendly staff.

Quarter Horse Coffee. 76 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JB. Website. Twitter.

20 April 2015

The Oxford Caffeine Chronicles: Joseph Perks & Co

Last summer, while riding into Oxford on the bus, I spotted a promising-looking venue on St Clement's, which turned out to be a soon-to-open coffee-and-cocktail bar called Joseph Perks & Co. I've been back to Oxford a couple of times since then, but only got the chance to visit J. Perks Esq. on Saturday.

St Clement's is a 15-minute walk from Oxford's historic city centre, but is quite close to the lovely South Park and to the city's main alternative drag, the Cowley Road. It was a gorgeous sunny day on Saturday and I arrived just in time for brunch. A series of brunch-themed cocktails including a 'Bloody Good Bloody Mary' and a bacon-and-egg martini were on offer, but I decided to get stuck into the coffee.

The Perks crew don't currently serve hand-brewed filter coffee, but their espresso-based drinks — made with coffee from Oxfordshire-based roastery Ue — are pretty darn fine. I ordered a macchiato (£2) made with the current Yirghacheffe variety (always a favourite of mine) and took a seat at one of the tables near the very cool day-to-night bar.

The macchiato was very good with a pleasant fruity acidity and just a dash of foam. While I waited for my food to arrive, I chatted to the friendly staff, who told me their bar is named for a famous 1970s bartender who went missing and whose whereabouts is unknown. Joseph Perks & Co is the bar  they like to think he would have opened. And with great coffee, brunch, BBQ food and cocktails, what's not to like?

As for brunch, I stuck to fried eggs on toast (£4), which was good. I would have liked to try to the pulled pork sandwich, but I was going out for dinner and didn't want to ruin my appetite. Another time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, when I was asked if I knew about the current coffee special — a corretto, which is an espresso shot with sambuca — and although I haven't tried it, I did mention a coffee soft drink I tried at Saint Frank in San Francisco in February: the Kaffe Tonic, which involves Fever Tree tonic with an espresso shot poured over the top. It sounds wrong, but is really good and very refreshing.

The game Joseph Perks staff decided to give it a go and although initially dubious, I think they were impressed, so maybe it will join the menu soon. I hope it does!

Joseph Perks & Co. 76 St Clement's, Oxford, OX4 1AH. Website. Twitter.

9 April 2015

The NYC Caffeine Chronicles: April 2015 Update

As I was staying in Midtown on my recent trip to New York, I didn't get the chance to visit as many new coffee bars as I had hoped. Near to our hotel — the Shoreham on 55th Street — there are a few options, all of which I've been to before. My favourite is Little Collins, an Aussie import on Lexington, which serves a mean pourover and a damn good breakfast. The Colombian pourover I tried was really good, and although I still haven't tried the avo smash, the PBJ with coconut was very tasty.

I had hoped to go to the 55th Street branch of Gregorys Coffee (the mini-chain that looks like Starbucks but has a brew bar to rival any good independent coffee shop), but they are closed at the weekend, so my other back-ups were the Ninth Street Espresso in the Lombardy Hotel (pictured below) and the Blue Bottle nestled deep in the bowels of the Rockefeller Center, both just a few blocks away.

I also visited new branches of a couple of other favourites — the Upper East Side branch of Joe (the first espresso bar I discovered in Manhattan, way back in 2007), which provided a morale-boosting pourover, a chocolate-chip cookie and a wee bit of respite on a long walk. Meanwhile, in Williamsburg, we happened upon the original branch of of Toby's Estate. The roastery is on the Williamsburg site and on a Saturday brunchtime, the cafe was heaving. We barely found enough room to perch amid the sea of MacBooks. Still, the coffee was worth the wait: my Bolivian Amor De Dios pourover was great, and it was fun to people-watch in the buzzing cafe.

Chicago-based coffee roastery Intelligentsia has had a location in the High Line Hotel for a while, but they've opened a second New York branch in the unlikeliest of locations: inside the Urban Outfitters on Herald Square. You step outside the chaos of Macy's shoppers and tourists on 35th Street into a calm, chilled-out place to refresh and recaffeinate. The coffee bar wasn't too busy when I stopped by, but the stools that overlook the store do seem to attract lingerers so you may need to wait a while to get a seat.

I tried a Zirikana coffee from Rwanda ($4.50), which was quite fruity, and just what I wanted on a sunny afternoon. As well as espresso-based drinks from the shiny new La Marzocco, Intelligentsia serves a big selection of teas, cold brew coffee and something intriguing called a Sugar Glider — an espresso drink served with sugar, mandarin orange and maple syrup — which I noticed too late. If you are in the relative coffee desert of Herald Square, definitely stop by Intelligentsia (or Culture Espresso, perhaps).

Finally, for something completely different, I went to Hi-Collar, a Japanese coffee bar in the East Village. There are only ten or so seats at the shiny, brass bar in the zen-like cafe, and I had to wait a while to get a seat (I had obviously arrived during the afternoon-cake-time rush). While I waited, I perused the extensive menu. You choose your brew method — they offer pourover, Aeropress and siphon techniques — and then you pick your beans from a long list, including some single-origins.

As I rarely get to drink siphon-brewed coffee and as it seemed in keeping with the elegant surroundings, I went for the Misty Valley beans from 1000 Faces, brewed with a siphon ($6.80 — prices vary depending on your bean and method). While I waited for my coffee to drip, I tried to brush up on my rusty Japanese — I think it needs more work. The coffee was great, and although Hi-Collar isn't the place to go if you're in need of a swift caffeine hit, it is a beautiful shrine to the preparation of excellent coffee and certainly half a world away from most of the other coffee bars in the city.

Ninth Street Espresso. 109 East 56th Street nr Park (Midtown East). Website. TwitterOther locations.
Gregorys Coffee. 551 Madison Avenue nr 55th St (enter on 55th St; Midtown East). Website. Twitter. Other locations.
Blue Bottle Coffee. 1 Rockefeller Center Concourse Level, Suite D (Midtown). Website. Twitter. Other locations.
Toby's Estate. 125 North 6th nr Berry (Williamsburg). WebsiteTwitterOther locations.
Intelligentsia. 1333 Broadway nr 35th Street (Herald Square). Website. TwitterOther locations.
Hi-Collar. 214 East 10th St bet 1st & 2nd Ave (East Village). Website.

6 April 2015

Easter on the East Side

This morning, I was able to complete my usual Central Park run without too many kilt-clad runners getting in the way. It was a beautiful, sunny morning — crisp and clear — and I even had an iced coffee from Ninth Street Espresso on my way back to the hotel.

My shopping plans were curtailed by various Easter Sunday closures yesterday, so instead we wandered up Museum Mile to the very east of the Upper East Side. First, though, we stopped to peek at the bonnets, bunny ears and other festivities in the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue.

We wanted to visit the Frick Collection, my favourite New York museum, but it is pay-what-you-wish there on Sundays from 11-1, so there was a big queue. Instead, we headed for the Guggenheim, which I haven't visited in over a decade. There was a fun postcard exhibition, and I also enjoyed a collection of geometric prints and mirrored designs, but the building itself is one of the main reasons to visit the Guggenheim.

My mum wanted to stop by Carl Schurz Park by the East River around 85th Street, and we all enjoyed a bit of dog-watching at the puppy park.


It was, however, a bit of a long yomp to get back to the closest decent cup of coffee — the Upper East Side branch of Joe on Lexington near 75th Street. Recharged by a chocolate chip cookie and a Colombian pourover, I mustered the energy to hike back across Central Park to the more familiar territory of the Upper West Side. Many of the shops were closed, but happily, Shake Shack was open, and I finally had my first burger of the trip — the ever-excellent Shack Burger — and a peanut butter shake.

The sun seemed to disappear along with the Easter bunnies, but you don't need sunshine to have fun in Manhattan. We took a cab down to the West Village for a wander and a browse in the — open! — Three Lives & Co, an excellent independent book store, and then went for a pre-dinner cocktail at the gin den known as Madam Geneva (a sister bar to Saxon & Parole, which is next door), near the Bowery. We only had time for one drink, so I went for the Bleecker Fix, which involved Aviation gin, St Germain, lime, chilli and cucumber and which was refreshing and delicious.

For dinner, we only needed to dash across the Bowery to the Bowery Meat Company on East 1st Street. They serve steaks but they aren't a steakhouse. We had a lovely time! The food and service were both great. I started with a cauliflower steak — mainly because it sounded so interesting — and it was really good: char-grilled with almonds and raisins. After a cheeky oyster and a borrowed king prawn, it was time for the main courses: I had the burger, which came with raclette and fried onions, and a huge bowl of salt and pepper fries. I also tried a bite of the côte de bœuf, and everything was delicious. I didn't have room for pudding, but managed to share the PB & J: peanut butter mousse with peanut brittle and strawberry jam. Oh yes, we will be back!

The Empire State Building was all lit up in pretty pastel shades for Easter, so when we got back to the hotel, I took a little stroll down Fifth Avenue to take some photos. Despite the lack of shopping, it was a pretty good Easter Sunday.

5 April 2015

A Sunny Day in Windy Williamsburg

The sky had run out of rain by the time I woke up yesterday morning, and the sun had come out instead. We headed into Central Park for a quick leaping session, and then for a run. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to complete my usual 10K circuit of the park as 8,000 kilt-wearing, Caledonia-loving runners were taking part in the 10K Scotland Run. It was quite surreal to run against the tide of runners spurred on by the sound of bagpipes.

After breakfast, we got the subway down to Williamsburg. First, we popped into the Artists & Fleas craft market, where I picked up a pretty, turquoise microbe-inspired (!) necklace from Stern Design Works. I was pleased to discover that the giant, river-front street food market known as Smorgasburg had just reopened after its winter hibernation. The beards and plaid shirts were out in full force, and so was the sun, but it was seriously windy; so windy that I had to use both hands to eat my (amazing) lobster roll to stop the lobster being blown off the top! I also tried a couple of delicious oysters and an egg-and-bacon roll from Rise & Swine. Puns + bacon + sunshine = win!

We walked back towards the main drag — Bedford Avenue — and sought shelter from the wind in Toby's Estate, a fab roastery and cafe. I've visited their Flatiron branch before, but it was my first time at the hipster-packed Williamsburg location. It was pretty busy inside, but we managed to find a table to perch at while we drank our pourovers (I had the Bolivian Amor De Dios, which was delicious) and flipped through today's New York Times.

After a bit of shopping on Bedford Avenue, we caught the East River Ferry back down to South Street Seaport. Fortunately, it wasn't any windier on the boat than on land, and sailing down the river is both an efficient mode of transport and a great way of viewing the New York skyline and it's three most famous bridges.

Later in the afternoon, I walked for a while along the High Line, which was also super-windy. I visited the new-ish concept store Story, which changes its collection of wares every four to eight weeks or so. The current story is 'the story of you', although it seemed mainly to be the story of various YouTube personalities' favourite things. Nonetheless, there were some cool lifestyle goods on sale and I picked up a couple of gifts. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped off at Intelligentsia's newest NYC branch, which is in the unlikely location of the Herald Square Urban Outfitters. I had a Rwandan pourover, which I drank while resting my aching feet and people-watching. All of that walking was hard work and so I felt I had also earned a peanut butter and jam doughnut from Doughnut Plant, which was seriously tasty: the doughnut was coated in delicious peanut butter and contained just the right amount of strawberry jam.

In case I hadn't already eaten enough, dinner was a Mexican feast at Rosa Mexicano. We've been to the Lincoln Center branch a few times, but this was our first visit to their Union Square location. The guacamole and the frozen pomegranate margarita were both so good that by the time my main course (the budín de pollo) arrived, I wasn't very hungry. Still, I managed to make a respectable dent in the dish, which layered chicken, peppers and grilled corn with soft corn tortillas and cheese. Yum!