It was painful to pass so close to Stumptown at the Ace Hotel without stopping, but I was glad I did, finding myself off the lobby of another boutique hotel, the Gershwin, in a different temple to caffeine -- Birch Coffee. I had been wanting to visit after noticing it on The Times's list of the best of the new coffee cafes. It was love at first visit. The decor gave me a warm feeling right away. True, you're not going to find a half-dozen varieties of obscure single origin coffees from as many countries, as you would a couple of blocks away, but there are chairs and stools, something Stumptown eschews. And food. And wine. And beer. And a lending library upstairs. Coffee Birch Blend
Purchased June 4 at Birch Coffee, 7 E. 27th St. (between Fifth and Madison Avenues), Flatiron District
Roasted Within the week by Coffee Labs Roasters of Tarrytown, N.Y.
Description "A well-balanced cup with pleasant smokey walnut undertones, and milk chocolate dipped cherries accompanied by a refined finish." A blend of Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Indian monsooned Malabar coffees.
I started with a shot of the espresso, which was served in the thick, muddy style that has become fashionable.
It was a perfectly fine, with a nutty flavor, and the advertised bittersweet chocolate, with more emphasis on the bitter than the sweet. Then I had a cup of the Birch Blend (no milk), which was a revelation.
Perhaps I had been primed at that point by the cozy atmosphere, but it was a sublime cup of coffee. It certainly delivered a smokey something, in a smooth and light package with chocolate behind it, no bitterness, and a gentle finish. I was ready to buy a T-shirt and move into the library.
As at most high-end coffee shops in New York that take service seriously, the baristas here are fast, friendly and polite, and the owner himself happened to wait on me when I asked to buy beans, telling me the details about the blend and roast. (No special treatment: On trips like this, I never identify myself as anything more than just a customer who likes coffee, which is what I am.)
Before this, I had not focused my attention on "Monsooned Malabar" coffee, one type of bean in the blend.
The name refers to a practice on the West Coast Malabar section of India, where beans are exposed to monsoon winds repeatedly during the curing process. The humidity helps to create a distinctive flavor, including a hint of chocolate, according to various sources.
These coffees are said to be more potent and pungent, sharper, than other Indian coffees, which tend to be mellow. But in this case, thanks perhaps to the Latin American beans, there's no trace of overpowering flavors in the Birch Blend.
The result is something special.
A day later, I am at home, polishing off this blog post and an Americano made from the blend, wishing Birch Coffee happened to be closer to my usual daily travels and thinking of reasons to head back to the neighborhood. (Well, it is a couple of doors down from the Museum of Sex.)