A year and a half ago, when the Underground Gourmet adapted this magazine’s five-star restaurant-rating system to our own purposes (eating every inexpensive thing in sight) and applied said stars to various falafel shacks, taco carts, and pizza joints, the thought of ranking coffee bars never crossed our minds. And for good reason: How do you review a coffee bar? Or rather, why would you? Although the Joes, the Jacks, the Ninth Street Espressos, the Gimme!s, and the Grumpys have raised the level of coffee connoisseurship in this town, even the most exacting bean fiend might find the process futile. A barista either knows what he’s doing or he doesn’t. The beans are either sustainably grown, fair trade, and freshly roasted or they’re not. Beyond that—and the presumptive niceties, like free Wi-Fi, refill policy, blueberry-muffin source—what else is there?
Well, as of six weeks ago, there’s Abraço. To call the minuscule East Village storefront a coffee bar is both an overstatement and an understatement. It’s smaller than a Starbucks bathroom. There’s nary a table or chair, never mind Wi-Fi. With two slender ledges and mere inches to maneuver, Abraço is a coffee bar in the strictest sense. But it’s also much, much more. Factor in relatively ambitious food, some congenial barista banter, and a design so bright and sunny it could cure seasonal affective disorder, and you’ve got an instant neighborhood institution and the U.G.’s favorite new hangout.
Places like Abraço (“embrace” in Portuguese) don’t just pop up out of nowhere. This one traces its lineage back to San Francisco, where partner Jamie McCormick gained a following pulling shots at Blue Bottle Coffee Co., a micro-roaster known for brewing each cup of drip coffee to order. It’s this Bay Area pedigree, this ingredient-fetishizing DNA, that sets Abraço apart, and not just in terms of the rich, nuanced drinks that issue from McCormick’s La Marzocco espresso machine (more on that below). You can go to Abraço just for a bite (and maybe a Sanbittèr, the bracing Italian soda that McCormick serves, suavely, with a glass of ice and an orange twist). Chef Mario Hernandez’s grilled cheese is a toothsome melt of Fontina and roasted poblanos, grilled to a golden crisp and sided with a vibrant avocado salsa. His frittatas are moist and custardy, almost quichelike, and his poached eggs come with buttery fried bread strewn with slivered garlic and chiles. There’s usually a seasonal soup (celery root and butternut squash, recently) and salads like carrot-tarragon or a julienned radicchio di Treviso topped with chopped egg. Hernandez shops daily and writes the menu according to the availability of purple potatoes for his fried-to-order chips, or leeks and beets for his antipasto plate.
Baker Elizabeth Quijada’s pastries are equally seasonal and artfully inventive, a coffee-bar anomaly in these days of outsourced Balthazar scones and Blue Sky muffins. Roasted pears are stuffed into tarts, and quince cooked into taffylike candy. There are persimmon tortas, superb ricotta fritters, and shortbread scented demurely with lavender or studded, daringly, with briny cured olives.
And the coffee? McCormick’s beans come from North Carolina’s acclaimed Counter Culture Coffee, and his drip, like Blue Bottle’s, is ground to order and individually brewed straight into your mug. It’s super-fresh, aromatic, and lively. His espresso drinks are expertly balanced, the foam properly inscribed with high-level latte art. Although you can tell it pains McCormick to serve a serious ristretto espresso in a paper takeout cup instead of the proper demitasse (“But it’s so quick!”), he will do it if asked. In fact, despite the confident construction of his cappuccino and the measured control of his macchiato and cortado, McCormick will make just about whatever you want (as long as it’s not decaf). He’s out to please, not to preach. And in its unpretentious, free-spirited elevation of New York’s coffee-bar culture, Abraço does just that.