Thursday, April 1, 2010

Quick Queer Coffee Review - City Girl Cafe

Is it my imagination or does the Times run an article every six months to a year about how New York City is finally getting good coffee?

The latest iteration of this theme includes a long list of "The Best Coffee Places in Manhattan and Brooklyn."  I was pleased to find my favorite coffeehouse, Cafe Grumpy, again listed among the best.  If you're in Chelsea, stop in and see them at 224 West 20th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues.

I am a creature of habit and having found Grumpy, I rarely venture elsewhere for a special cup or bag of beans.  After all, only at Grumpy have I actually tasted the alleged flavor notes that every bean claims.  The first time I sipped an espresso that actually tasted like blueberries, I nearly fell out of my chair in amazement and delight.  Why mess with success?

The Times list had me wondering, however, if perhaps I was missing something by confining my epicurean coffee enjoyment to one place.  I had an appointment with my tattoo artist in Soho after work, so I scanned through the Times's list and found City Girl Cafe.

First impressions of the cafe were neutral.  In fact, the whole place is decorated in a neutral palette, with antique-looking busts of women scattered about.  The room was filled by the large counter and seven tables for two.  One table was occupied by a customer and another by a young man who seemed to be an employee.  On the door was a sign warning that their brownies are so popular that they sell out quickly, and none can be reserved for regular customers.  Naturally I immediately wanted to try one of these sign-worthy brownies, but the nice lady behind the counter confirmed that they had long ago sold out for the day.  Instead I ordered a blondie and a cappuccino and took a seat near the front.

Having never reviewed a coffeehouse or restaurant before, I wasn't sure where to start.  I pulled out my phone and began to type notes of everything I observed.  There were window seats with somewhat dirty cushions.  There was fairly loud music playing, but it was enjoyable off-the-beaten-path pop and I was not trying to have a conversation, so I didn't mind.  It quickly became clear that the single customer was familiar with the two employees (one behind the counter and one reading at a table) and they kept up a regular banter, when the customer was not on his laptop.

My cappuccino was ready in a reasonable time and I went to the counter to retrieve it.  I had already started in on the blondie, and while it didn't seem worthy of a sell-out riot, it was full of nuts and had a consistency well balanced between crumbly and chewy.  City Girl Cafe seemed proud to announce their use of Stumptown coffee beans, one of the better NYC suppliers, but overall the cappuccino was only average.  The flavor was smooth to begin, without complexity, and finished with a slight bitterness that was enjoyable with the blondie.  The foam was frothy and fairly light, and broke down within a few minutes.

A bit of peering behind the counter revealed an ordinary-looking espresso machine.  I'm used to the gleaming, custom-made, three pump, three group head Synesso at Cafe Grumpy, so this little machine struck me as a somewhat sad workhorse propped up long past its prime.  Many factors affect a shot of espresso, including the quality and roast of the beans, the consistency of the grind, the tamp of the ground coffee, and the time and temperature used to pull the shot.  It's difficult to say which of these factors was most important, but I think the Stumptown beans were probably of high quality, so the average cup probably resulted from a combination of the older machine and indifferent barista skills.

My friend was somewhat delayed finishing a tattoo, so I spent a few minutes reading in the cafe.  Shortly after 7:00pm, the other customer left and the two employees began cleaning and preparing for closing.  I checked that the store in fact closed at 8:00pm and was reassured that I was not being rushed.  Nonetheless, trying read and enjoy a snack amid the clanging and commotion of closing routines was not very easy or relaxing.

Overall I give City Girl Cafe a B-.  The coffee is adequate and uninteresting.  The baked treat was above average without blowing me away.  The decor was nice but somewhat shabby.  The service started out fine and ended on an annoying note.  The whole experience is certainly a step above what you'd get at Starbuck's, yet falls below the standards of NYC's leading-edge coffeehouses.

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