It was at Slate Coffee Roasters in Seattle that Chi Sum Ngai first came across the deconstructed latté – a shot of espresso, a shot of steamed milk, followed by the symphony of the latté in full – and was utterly charmed. After completing her barista training in Portland and moving to New York five years ago, she realized that there was a gap in the market – in the East Village, at least – for something similar.
Coffee Project is the passion project she and her partner, Kaleena Teoh, lovingly built from scratch on East 5th Street. The name refers both to the ground-up nature of the operation (they designed and renovated the space, sourced dark wooden furniture from the Bowery, even built the lamps themselves), and to the playful “projects” that make their menu unique. With “Project 1,” customers can try the latté in three parts: espresso, milk and latté served in three different goblets, presented on a wooden tray with a short glass of sparkling water and a small hazelnut and caramel biscuit. In case you were thinking of enlisting three interns to help you carry your afternoon fix — this one’s for sit-in customers only. Phew.
The idea, Ngai tells me, is that the notes from the coffee and the milk become recognizable in the flavor layers of the latté – a kind of memory game for the palate. In the espresso shot, I was to look out for notes of honey and dark chocolate. And yes, even the milk is special: sourced from Battenkill Creamery and pasteurized at a very low temperature for a very long time, it is safe to drink, while maintaining some of the robust flavor of raw milk.
Other menu highlights include nitro coffee – cold brew fed through a keg and infused with nitrogen that gives it a creamy texture without adding any dairy. It goes down beautifully and is just as comforting to look at: served in a tall glass and crowned by a satisfying white head, it looks and feels just like a Guinness. “See how the nitrates cascade downwards like a waterfall?” Ngai points out.
For Ngai, there is another sense in which coffee is a “memory game”: growing up in Malaysia, her family owned a coffeehouse. “As a kid, we would all drink coffee together as a family. The aroma of coffee after it’s been ground, its taste, all of it brings about the memories from different stages of my life: as a child, growing up and being with my friends, my working life…”
Malaysian coffeehouses, however, are very different: loud and boisterous, with a lot of equipment banging and screeching steam. With Coffee Project she wanted to create the opposite: she hopes that its calm and earthy aesthetic of gray, white, dark wood and exposed brick makes it the kind of place where people can relax and get to know their neighbors. And indulge in more coffee-themed sorcery, of course: Ngai is looking forward to experimenting with molecular gastronomy in the future. When it comes to what Projects 2, 3, 4 and 5 could look like, your guess is as good as mine.