Until yesterday, Jan. 24, it was difficult to find a Morningside cappuccino with heart, or a heart, or a rosetta for that matter. But starting on a five-degree Monday morning, baristas at Joe the Art of Coffee bring their foam designs and crafted artisanal drip coffee to the recently opened Northwest Corner Building.
The cafe, which, according to owner Jonathan Rubinstein, is part of Columbia’s attempt to make the newly opened Northwest Corner Building a campus life center, also looks to fill a new niche in the Morningside coffeehouse scene which has always been met with mixed reviews.
“They [Columbia] wanted us to be a general hub on campus and attract a lot of energy from the moment it opens to the moment it closes,” Rubinstein said.
The small chain’s downtown reputation seems to have preceded its opening—students and faculty members crowded the cafe and sitting space at every transitional time period on Monday while a few quiet readers and snackers populated the cavernous room in between.
A warm and inviting Rubinstein surveyed the developing social scene as his sister, Gabrielle Rubinstein, operated the order-taking, future-is-now iPad and explained the drip bar philosophy to curious undergraduates. The duo’s parents also lent moral support, chatting up customers as early as the 8 a.m. opening time.
Nate Bice, a second-year philosophy Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, spoke on behalf of the graduate student community: “I think our department will be here quite a lot.” However, Margot Kulkarni, SEAS ’11, had her doubts about the scene. “I like their coffee more [than other Morningside cafes] but I don’t know how much I’d actually study here,” she said, citing the possibility of noise.
The Northwest Corner spot seats 60-70 people—a departure from Joe’s other intimate, 20-person capacity locations. The atmosphere is Apple-Store-meets-federal-building, with an overwhelming marble interior, a modern panoramic window, and a white-on-white color scheme. The intimidatingly large five-person tables and lack of easily accessible outlets, in addition to the austere atmosphere, make Joe unlikely to supplant Butler Cafe or even Hungarian Pastry Shop as a friendly haven for those studying alone.
The architecturally and thermally chilly interior misrepresents the cafe’s warm, neighborhood-oriented approach to business. More in line with this, Rubinstein aims to incorporate Joe into the Columbia community with a unique focus on coffee education. “Introduction to Java” takes on a new meaning with the cafe’s free cupping classes for proper coffee preparation—the first of which is this Friday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m.
“We feel like it’s a really great opportunity to teach a new population about what sustainable practices are and what artisan coffee is,” Rubinstein said. “That should be part of our mission as well, not just be a for profit business, but also be a part of our community.”
This location also features a number of innovations in the New York chain’s repertoire: a savory menu for the first time ever and a prominent drip coffee bar. In addition to its mass-brewed house blend, Joe offers hand-crafted, single-cup drip coffee in four blends.
“Espresso’s hugely important to us by all means, but we think this is equally as sexy and important,” Rubinstein said.
As for the savory menu (to be rolled out next week), Rubinstein called upon Iris Cafe owner Rachel Graville to curate a selection to beat the expectations of cafe food. “My biggest nightmare when I think about coffeehouse food are pre-wrapped turkey sandwiches,” Graville said.
The sandwiches range from $4 to $8 and recall a lunchbox flavor scheme—but with a twist of sophistication. “My general style is doing classics, or things that people know of,” Graville said, “but doing them with really high-quality ingredients in a way they may not have thought of.” One of her favorites is a simple tuna salad sandwich that uses olive oil instead of mayonnaise and a chopped-up egg. “It’s sort of like a salad niçoise on a sandwich,” Graville explained.
The breakfast and pastry menu Graville envisons is based around simple flavors that pair well with Joe’s distinctive blends. She points to a simple, not-too-sweet brioche bun aimed at highlighting the nuances of a simple cup of black coffee.The cafe’s oatmeal also follows this logic. “A lot of times people talk about picking blueberry flavor in coffee ... so our oatmeal will be a blueberries-and-cream oatmeal with honey and steamed milk,” Graville explained.
Though the cafe has yet to reach its full morning munchies glory, it already seems on its way to establishing cult status among a sector of Columbia’s population. Should the University’s vision of Northwest Corner as a thriving campus center come to fruition, it would represent the slow uptown crawl of Columbia’s focus.
But for now, Graville is primarily concerned with planning Joe’s spring menu: “Jonathan and I see eye to eye on a lot of things, and we like to have fun with it,” Graville said.