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21 May 2018

Book Review: Lonely Planet's Global Coffee Tour

I couldn't have imagined a better book launch than the one I attended last week for a book about coffee and travel from my favourite travel guidebook publisher at one of my favourite coffee shops in London. The event was for Lonely Planet's Global Coffee Tour and took place at the original branch of The Gentlemen Baristas on Union Street, which I've been visiting for almost four years.


After enjoying a natural Ethiopian pourover coffee courtesy of The Gents and watching a latte art demo with one of the baristas, I talked with some of the friendly Lonely Planet team, including editor Karyn Noble, an Australian in London who was as delighted as I was to discover The GBs, which features in Global Coffee Tour, of course. I also got the chance to browse through the book, which is organised by continent and country and includes numerous coffee-shop recommendations, ordering tips (if I ever make it to Ethiopia — and I hope I will — I know now to say: "Nē buna ibakiwo ifeligalehu") and insights into coffee production, café culture and home-brewing.



It was a good sign when I opened the book at random on the Hungary section and came up with several coffee-shop suggestions to add to my list of cafés to visit when I go to Budapest next month. And I've already visited 23 of the listed countries on four continents, which meant I could compare their suggestions against some of my own lists. I concluded that the recommendations are very well curated, with some really great speciality coffee spots in cities from Paris and Mexico City, to Melbourne and Saigon. One thing I particularly like is that rather than just listing cafés throughout the world that will serve a high-quality but identikit flat white, the guide includes locations that will give you a real taste for the local coffee culture. There's a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, for example (not the farm I visited), while in Tokyo, the wonderful and historical Café de l'Ambra, features in the guide.


Lonely Planet's guides are usually my first port of call when I'm planning a trip (unless the region's guide happens to be very out of date), and I find the inclusion of cafés and coffee shops convenient for key sights in their 'pocket' city guide range very useful. Global Coffee Tour flips that around: several coffee shops are presented for each city, along with a few suggestions for other things to do nearby. This is perfect for people like me, who often plan their travels around the coffee (NB: I always do a lot of research when seeking out a city's best coffee spots), but feel like it would be a waste to visit a new city without seeing anything but the coffee scene. So if you're visiting Tim Wendelboe in Oslo (and you should), you'll know to visit the Munchmuseet and take dinner at Markveien Mat & Vinhus when you're all coffeed out.


The book has lots of photos and it's enjoyable both to browse for coffee-destination inspiration and to search for places for a specific trip. Colombia, Nicaragua and Ethiopia jumped even higher up my travel wish list. One small point for anyone hoping to visit Supercrown in NYC: alas, the wonderful Bushwick coffee shop and roastery has now closed. The only trouble now is that there are even more coffee destinations for me to visit. #coffeebloggerproblems

Disclaimer: Global Coffee Tour was published by Lonely Planet in May 2018. I received a free copy at the launch. The decision to write a review was mine and all opinions here are my own.

8 May 2018

The Oxford Caffeine Chronicles: Ratio Café

When I was back in Oxford over the Easter weekend, as usual, I tried to visit a couple of my favourite coffee shops — on that occasion, Colombia Coffee Roasters and Jericho Coffee Traders. But then when my parents and I went for a pre-cinema pizza at Franco Manca, I realised that a new speciality coffee shop had opened recently on George Street. I spent a regrettably large amount of time in the rowdy bars and chain restaurants of George Street as a teenager and although the street's character has changed a little since then, it was still a pleasant surprise to find a new coffee possibility. Unfortunately, as it was the evening, Ratio Cafe was closed and wouldn't be open again until after the Easter bank holiday.



But I found myself visiting my parents in Oxford again at the end of April and this time, I headed straight from the X90 bus stop on the High Street to Ratio Café, down the unlovely — but more pleasant than it once was — Cornmarket Street. On my first failed visit, I had been particularly excited by the single-origin V60 pourover options (lovers of speciality tea also seemed to be particularly well-catered-for). I found out later, however, that the 'senior coffee room (SCR)' — an acronym that plays nicely on Oxford's 'gown' side — is located in the basement and at the moment, has shorter opening hours while the staff get fully trained up. Although I was disappointed not to try a pourover coffee, it's definitely a good sign that Ratio are waiting until more staff are trained up rather than serving potentially underwhelming hand-brewed filter coffee. (NB: I photographed the SCR menu below on my first visit and opening hours may no longer apply.)



After chatting to the friendly, knowledgeable barista, I ordered a piccolo. The coffee is from Round Hill Roastery, a favourite of mine, and Ratio serve an exclusive El Salvador variety from Finca El Aguila. All of the usual espresso-based drinks are on the menu — I didn't notice at the time that both cortados and piccolos are listed, the former 10p cheaper than the latter. There is also a batch-brew filter coffee and various teas.



Mid-afternoon on an unseasonably cold Saturday in term time and there wasn't much seating available but I found a small table at the long that runs the length of the wall. I also ordered a chocolate and hazelnut cookie to keep me going, and it was very tasty. My piccolo arrived, but I had hardly even taken a sip before the barista whisked it away and made me another one with less foam. The second coffee was very good indeed and I appreciated the attention and the service — especially in such a new establishment.



With elegant, minimalist interiors and was a lively ambiance — the customers a mix of laptop-bearing students, tourists and locals — Ratio was a lovely place to spend time. I look forward to returning again to visit the 'SCR' once it's fully up and running. In the meantime, if you have time to kill while waiting for a bus at Oxford's Gloucester Green bus station, you'd be much better off walking five minutes along George Street and seeking refreshments at Ratio Café.



Ratio Café. 4 George Street, Oxford, OX1 2AF. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram.

For more Oxford speciality coffee suggestions, please check out my Oxford coffee guide and Oxford coffee map.




4 May 2018

New York Speciality Coffee Update — Spring 2018

Just over a year ago, I created a comprehensive guide to all of my favourite speciality coffee shops in New York City. Since then, a couple have sadly closed, but on my recent visit to New York, I managed to visit 11 new-to-me coffee shops. The two themes of this trip turned out to be: beautiful design and coffee spots that serve more than coffee. I've posted more coffee photos from this, and other, NYC trip on Flickr.

I was staying in Midtown this time, close to Central Park, and took the opportunity to explore some of the coffee shops in the neighbourhood — once a speciality coffee desert, but now not a bad location for a coffee lover to stay. I will be putting together a separate Midtown Manhattan coffee guide soon, but in the meantime, here are the coffee spots I visited last month.

Midtown
Birch Coffee
The original branch of Birch Coffee in the Flatiron District has been a favourite of mine for years now. I hadn't quite realised how much the company had grown, though, and its New York coffee shops have now reached double figures. The Ninth Avenue branch near Columbus Circle was conveniently located for me to get a coffee to keep me going on my subway ride down to Brooklyn. The coffee shop is small with just a trio of seats in the window but the coffee menu punches above its weight, with a variety of espresso-based drinks and four single-origin coffees available as a V60 pourover. The coffees are roasted in small batches in Long Island City.


I ordered a macchiato to go and whipped out the mini KeepCup I bought at London Coffee Festival for precisely this purpose. The coffee tasted great, the barista was friendly and I always love the tip-jar trivia questions all of the Birch Coffees offer.


884 Ninth Avenue bet. W. 57th & 58th St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Blue Bottle Coffee
Another of the speciality coffee 'mini-chains' that has expanded deeper into Midtown is Blue Bottle Coffee. I first discovered the Chelsea location in 2012, and have also visited the Rockfeller branch a number of times, as well as their Bushwick roastery. The Midtown East branch (the address is on 53rd Street between Fifth and Madison, but it's part of the ground floor of an office building and located closer to the 52nd Street entrance). As it was so close to my hotel, I went a couple of times, taking a post-run macchiato each time. There is, of course, a brew bar too for single-origin pourovers. Sadly, they were long since sold out of Port of Mokha coffee.


10 E. 53rd Street bet. Fifth & Madison Ave. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

The Jolly Goat
I sometimes forget how wide the east–west blocks in Hell's Kitchen — the Midtown neighbourhood that spans 34th to 59th Street, west of Eighth Avenue — until I desperately in need of coffee and have to walk all the way over to Eleventh Avenue from Sixth. The Jolly Goat is worth the walk, however, with well-brewed Stumptown coffees that will soon make even the grumpiest customer as jolly as the animals tended by Kaldi the goatherd. Located on a quiet stretch of 47th Street, the coffee shop has a trio of seats in the window that make for some excellent people-watching. They also serve bagels from H&H and a few other breakfast items too.


515 W. 47th Street bet. Tenth & Eleventh Ave. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

REX
Further north into Hell's Kitchen is REX, a coffee bar located on Tenth Avenue, a couple of blocks west of Columbus Circle. We went on a busy Friday morning and although there is some seating, the coffee shop was completely full. We decided to get our pourovers to go — between us sampling both the Colombian Cueva de los Llanos and the Ethiopian Micheta from Counter Culture. I thought the former was particularly good, and making three good pourovers at once while also dealing with a queue of customers is no mean feat. There seemed to be lots of regulars there, making it a wonderful little neighbourhood spot.


864 Tenth Avenue nr W. 57th St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Flatiron
Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen
I've always loved the Flatiron district (parts of which — those North of Madison Square Park — are now sometimes dubbed NoMad) and it is also an exciting neighbourhood for speciality coffee. I had several coffee shops in the area on my list and made it to three. Blank Slate, a spacious and attractively decorated coffee shop and all-day eatery, lies a few blocks north of Madison Square Park. Etch-a-Sketches adorn the walls, in case you really do need to find a way to return to the titular blank slate.



Although the brunch menu looked excellent — and late morning on a Sunday, there were very few free seats — I had a date with an Impossible Burger and so stuck to the coffee, which comes from Colombia-via-Brooklyn roaster Devoción. Espresso shots are pulled on the Faema E61. I ordered a cortado, which I promised to drink at the counter until a server found me a seat in the window — kudos to the barista who managed to find me again! The coffee tasted great and I loved the Madison Avenue people-watching. And if you're more of a tea drinker, Blank Slate also have a stylish speciality tea café right next door.


121 Madison Avenue nr E. 30th St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Paper Coffee
It's not bad going to land at JFK at 1 pm and be drinking an excellent Camber Coffee pourover at Paper Coffee, a cool but relaxed coffee bar in the lobby of the MADE Hotel, by 4:30 pm. After a transatlantic flight, I was in urgent need of caffeination and after checking into my (less cool) hotel, marched down Sixth Avenue to 29th Street. Most of the seating is around a large wooden table that backs onto the coffee bar, and I was keenly eyeing up the Kinto ceramics.



The espresso comes from Devoción — they must have some kind of Flatiron connection! — and they also serve two single-origin pourovers from the guest roaster of the month. I tried the Rwandan Shyira from Camber Coffee, which had really sweet, juicy pomegranate notes. The friendly barista also let me smell the next month's guest roaster — an Ethiopian from Slate Coffee (based, like Camber, in Washington State) — which wasn't quite dialled in yet. He brewed me a sample anyway and it smelled fantastic, and tasted very nice too. Unfortunately, I didn't get chance to go back to try the fully dialled-in brew. Finally, if you're at Paper in the evening, they have some lovely-sounding barista cocktails — and I don't just mean your average espresso martini.


44 W. 29th Street bet 6th Ave. & Broadway. Website. Instagram.

Patent Coffee
Speaking of coffee bars that also serve cocktails, the newly opened Patent Coffee, two blocks south from Paper Coffee on 27th Street, was an excellent find. With minimalist decor accented with orange flowers throughout the shop, including in Chemex 'vases', and a few seats at the edge, Patent looks like a fairly typical — if beautifully designed — coffee shop. Their coffee is roasted in Brooklyn and there were three single-origins on offer when I visited: a Colombian for espresso, a different Colombian on batch-brew and a Lugmapata from Ecuador available as a Kalita Wave pourover.



The coffee was really well-brewed and I couldn't resist picking up a white chocolate cookie too. The friendly baristas also gave me a sample of the batch brew while I waited, which was great. I'm not sure how much longer they will be doing this, but during my visit, there was a daily $2 cappuccino happy hour from 10:30 to 11:30 am — a nice touch! Late in the afternoon, though, the coffee shop closes and the cocktail bar hidden through a door behind the coffee menu opens up. I did not have time to visit the speakeasy but hope to do so next time.


49 W. 27th Street nr 6th Ave. Website. Instagram.


Chelsea
Intelligentsia
Just as soon as I managed to visit Chicago-based roaster Intelligentsia's second New York City location, inside in the Herald Square Urban Outfitters, they closed it down. And somehow, despite my frequent visits to the High Line, it has taken me another three years to make it to the original — and only remaining — NYC location inside the super-cool High Line Hotel. It was a sunny, and sometimes even warm, day and after clocking up many miles walking around Manhattan on my last day, I ended up in the cool, calm lobby of the High Line Hotel.


I ordered a cortado from the barista working at the beautiful, tiled coffee bar, and took a seat on one of the comfy sofas. The drink was well-brewed and looked rather nice next to the vintage typewriter on the marble coffee table. Although it is a *few* minutes' walk from the High Line, it's definitely worth the short detour, especially if you're an Intelligentsia aficionado.


180 10th Avenue bet. W. 20th & 21st St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Little Italy
Nickel & Diner
When you think of the words 'New York diner', what comes to mind? I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be Nickel & Diner, an ultra-modern, ultra-stylish take on the concept. From the building's facade, to the Kees van der Westen espresso machine on the counter, to the highly Instagrammable booths, a lot of thought has gone into design at Nickel & Diner.



I arrived too late for lunch (a menu filled with contemporary twists on classic diner fare) and too early for dinner, but just in time for coffee. The coffee comes from Brooklyn-based roaster Nobletree (read on for more information) and my cortado was well prepared. And after a hectic day of walking tours and shopping, I welcomed the peaceful respite in such a beautiful spot. The food and cocktail menus are such that I'm sure I will be making a return visit during a mealtime next time I'm in the city.


1 Howard Street nr Center St. Website. TwitterInstagram.


Brooklyn
Golda
Well worth the long-ish subway ride from Midtown (hence the need for the Birch coffee I mentioned above), Golda is a small but beautifully designed café and coffee spot in the Bed-Stuy neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Currently open until 5:00 pm every day, they will soon start serving dinner too, but the Middle-Eastern-influenced all-day food menu is tempting enough as it is. Worried about having to queue, I arrived relatively early on a Saturday morning to find sun streaming in through the windows and several empty seats at the counter.




The coffee is from Brooklyn-based Parlor Coffee and after I had taken a moment to admire (and photograph) the coffee menu, I ordered a cortado. It looked great and tasted even better — bravo to the barista. The locally produced Calyer Ceramics cups lovely too. Although the pastries looked excellent, I decided to treat myself to a big breakfast, ordering the chicken-sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich, with kashkaval cheese, mast-o-khiar (a yoghurt and cucumber dip) and pickled chilis. This was both tasty and filling. Combined with the warm welcome I received from the friendly staff, this made for a thoroughly enjoyable visit. Unfortunately, it was a little too early in the day to visit the cherry blossoms in the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden.



504 Franklin Avenue nr Fulton St. Website. Instagram.

Nobletree
Last but not least, comes Nobletree. After sampling their coffee at Nickel & Diner, I wanted to visit one of their own locations and happened upon the newly opened DeKalb Market Hall on my way from Golda to Brooklyn Heights. Nobletree have a concession inside the large, subterranean food market, which I visited, although they will soon be opening a cafe on the ground floor (they also have a location in the Financial District).


There was a big queue at Nobletree on the Saturday I visited — it was the only speciality coffee vendor I found within the market hall. They serve espresso-based drinks from the Modbar unit on the counter and batch-brew filter coffee. As I'd reached my milk quotient for the day, I ordered the day's single-origin espresso, which was a fruity Brazilian. My mini KeepCup caused a bit of confusion in the line-up (mainly because I hadn't realised only single-use cups were available), but the espresso tasted good, even if the poor lighting and neon colours of the cup rendered it unphotographable.

DeKalb Market Hall, 445 Albee Square West. Website.

For more New York speciality coffee recommendations, please see my guide; I've also included below an updated version of my New York speciality coffee map:

  

27 April 2018

Snapshots from a New York Spring Break

April is one of my favourite times to visit New York City, although even a late April visit doesn't guarantee clement weather in the cruellest month. On our recent family trip, we were extremely lucky and apart from the rain that greeted us on our arrival, we were treated to clear blue skies and bright sunshine for the rest of our stay. The blossoms were out too in all the parks, making the city particularly pretty.

During the trip, I visited a number of new-to-me coffee shops (and a few old favourites) and will be writing about these in a separate post (my NYC speciality coffee guide is here in the meantime). I've included below a few of my other favourite experiences, sights and foods. Spoiler alert: the real highlight of the trip was when I got to see PACEY (Joshua Jackson, to non-Dawson's Creek fans) on Broadway.

Food and drink


Motorino in the East Village is the perfect spot for a quick but delicious jet-lag-beating supper. The Neapolitan pizzas are fantastic, as are the contorni.


I've done several tours from the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, each of which has been fascinating. This time we took the Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour, a two-hour walk around the neighbourhood with plenty of stops to sample foods from diverse immigrant cultures. Highlights were the pickled pineapples from the Pickle Guys, chocolate pretzels from Economy Candy and the amazing dumplings from Vanessa's. You will probably need to book a ticket in advance.


After the tour, I met some friends at the Flower Shop, a pretty bar located just across from Vanessa's Dumplings on Eldridge Street. The cocktails were fab and the $1 happy hour oysters were also a great bargain.


While wandering from my Brooklyn coffee and breakfast spot, Golda, to Brooklyn Heights, I came across DeKalb Market Hall, a new-ish subterranean space filled with food vendors. I had coffee at Nobletree, and wished I had room for some pierogies or a unicorn churros ice cream sandwich.  


On a sunny Saturday, brunch tables are hard to come by in Greenwich Village. We couldn't face the two-hour wait at Buvette but managed to score a cancellation at Dante, a family favourite cafe-bar on a particularly pretty block of Macdougal Street. With brunch cocktails, delicious food and a terrific ambiance, this is a fab place to spend your Saturday.


Some hours later, we found ourselves at The Up & Up, which is just a block north of Dante in the heart of Greenwich Village. The pretty underground bar has William Morris wallpaper and serves superb cocktails from a menu so extensive and creative that ordering was a challenge. I went for the Surprise Trip, which contained gin, black trumpet mushroom, three types of peppercorn and unicorn (NB cocktail is not rainbow coloured!). It was delicious and my brother ranked his Zuzu’s Petals (my second choice) as one of his all-time top three cocktails.


For some time, I've been wanting to try the Impossible Burger — a plant-based burger that even carnivores love — for some time. As a former vegetarian, I've eaten a lot of mediocre veggie burgers in my time and as this market has begun to grow in recent months and years, it's been great to see the offering improve so much. We went to the Umami Burger at the Hudson Hotel and although my 'primary' burger was a very meaty (and tasty) Manly Burger, my dad also ordered an Impossible Burger 'for the table'. Although it couldn't quite compete with my Manly Burger, the Impossible was very good indeed — the flavour and texture was very good indeed, although the patty did begin to lose its integrity.


On Sunday evening, the weather was so beautiful that we decided to try to eat by the water. My dad managed to get us a last-minute table at the River Café and we made our way down to City Hall so that we could first walk over Brooklyn Bridge at dusk. The only other time I've been to the River Café was in 2000 when the parents of our group planned to eat there while we teens were going to go Grimaldi's, the pizzeria next door. The epic snowstorm meant no pizza but the River Café were able to accommodate our snowy selves — there was, however, about 2% visibility and so no iconic views of Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan. The sun had set by the time we set down to eat but it was a special experience to dine with the twinkling skyscrapers in the background. The food was delicious too. I had scallops followed by roast chicken and everything was beautifully prepared. The pièce de resistance was the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge I had for pudding. When in Brooklyn... Overall, a wonderfully spontaneous night.


For our last meal of the trip, we went to Mighty Quinn's, an awesome BBQ joint, where I've dined before. We ordered everything, as usual, and the fried chicken sandwich, the brisket and the corn fritters were real stand-outs for me.


Neighbourhoods

Central Park


We stayed near Central Park this time and I ran there almost every morning, enjoying the gorgeous morning light and the cherry blossoms. Talk about motivation for getting out of bed and into the city!

Chelsea


I always try to walk along the High Line at least once during every New York trip, especially when the weather is nice. If I have time, I try to stop at Story or Chelsea Market afterwards for some shopping and/or eating.

Flatiron




I spent a lot of time around the Flatiron Building, Madison Square Park and NoMad on this trip, mainly because there were a few new coffee shops and shops that I wanted to visit in the area. I love the architecture, the views and the park itself in this neighbourhood.

Greenwich Village




If I had to pick just one New York neighbourhood to live in, it would probably be Greenwich Village, or perhaps the West Village. I love Washington Square Park, especially on a sunny day when everyone is chilling out, I love the architecture and I love the shops like the wonderful Three Lives & Co bookstore.

Nolita & Soho


I love to shop and eat in Nolita and its westerly neighbour, Soho. I didn't spend as much time there as usual on this trip but did get to wander through the lovely streets, visiting old favourite shops like McNally Jackson and pop-ups like Everlane.

Brooklyn






Most of my Brooklyn interludes on this trip were spent walking from Brooklyn Heights to Lower Manhattan one sunny morning and the return journey to the River Café and Brooklyn Bridge Park the following evening at dusk. It's one of my favourite walks in the world and one of my top recommendations to any visitor to the city — try to go from Brooklyn to Manhattan, though.

Culture


One of the main reasons I went to New York was to see one of my all-time favourite actors, Joshua Jackson, in Children of a Lesser God on Broadway. The production was originally in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and sadly ended the day before I arrived in Boston last summer so I was really glad to hear it would make the transfer to Broadway. Jackson and his co-star Lauren Ridloff were really terrific and the play — which tells the story of a teacher at a school for the deaf who falls for the school's housekeeper, a deaf alumna of the school — was powerful and moving. It's a story about what it means to communicate, to connect and to love. Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America, signed all her lines while Jackson would also translate her lines for the audience members not familiar with ASL. If you get the chance, do try to go — it is a wonderful production.


The Blue Note in Greenwich Village is one of the most famous jazz clubs in the city — and, perhaps, the world. I'd somehow never been before and we enjoyed an evening set with Kenny Garrett and his band. The food wasn't anything special but we had great seats and it was an entertaining night.