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Monday, February 26, 2018

Toast of Troy

From the Food Vault Dept.: A piece I wrote just last summer, celebrating a trendy place in trendy Troy, NY, yet it’s a place with none of the haughtiness you might expect. Especially if you’ve spent time in Brooklyn.


DON’T LET THE NAME OF THE PLACE FOOL YOU: it’s a Troy homage. “Most people don’t know that the name comes from the longest-running business in this building,” says Felicity Jones. “Superior Merchandise was a novelty toy shop in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.”

Felicity Jones, Mike Romig, and
Matthew Loiacono.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s a storefront at 147 4th Street in Troy, and Jones co-owns building and business with Mike Romig. “We found an ad for the old Superior Merchandise in a Troy Record,” he adds. “The place was selling mood rings and mood earrings and mood necklaces.”

“And they had things like whoopee cushions,” Jones throws in. She was a freelance graphic designer before tackling this retail project four years ago, and brings her design sense to the clean, colorful look of the place, where handsome, hand-picked items await your scrutiny.

Jones describes them as “everyday objects that are useful, beautiful, and super-well designed. To make your everyday experiences more special. We have scissors, toothbrushes, pens – simple objects you use all the time, but you won’t find in the regular stores. Ninety percent of the things are from individual artists and makers that I personally want to support.”

And then, as you’re browsing, the space suddenly morphs into a coffeeshop. “There’s a strong correlation between specialty coffee and the design world,” says Romig. “People who are attracted to one gravitate toward the other.”

Not surprisingly, the coffee menu reads like a wine list. Ethiopa Dhiilgee, for example, sports a “berry-like aroma, peachy flavor, tea-like body, clean finish.” The current espresso offering is called Kaleidoscope Blend, “50 percent Colombia, 50 percent Ethiopia – big upfront citrus tones, creamy body.”

Credit Matthew Loiacono with the selections. He’s the coffee director, a former roaster himself who for now is bringing in an ever-changing array of niche roasts. Most recently, he was at Uncommon Grounds in Saratoga Springs. “I was a musician, so I needed a job that would fill in the gaps – and, as I worked a variety of jobs there, I ended up being a roaster.” He describes it as a satisfying experience – “but I needed to take it to a different level.” And he’s delighted to be on board: “It’s clear that these guys really care about coffee.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
You can stop in for a quick morning cup – there’s always something in an airpot carafe – and traditional espresso varieties are available. But if you’ve the time to pull up a seat for a pour-over brew, you can really glory in the magic of his selections.

“When we opened,” says Loiacono, “I wasn’t sure how long we should have certain coffees available, but I’ve learned that a lot of our guests want to try a new pour-over every day. It’s intimidating, in a way, but I love being able to fulfill that.”

The business opened in September 2015, after two years of renovations. And from the first day there were specialty drinks available, drinks like the Malay Latte, which adds lemongrass, ginger, coconut, and your choice of almond or whole milk to an espresso base. Or the Jasmine Matcha, a combination of matcha green tea, jasmine syrup, and milk.

“Whenever we change to the next season’s drinks,” says Jones, “some people get upset. Last summer we had a Cocoa-Malt Latte, and people want that back – and they’re still asking for the Lavender Latte we had when we opened! And we weren’t even planning to have these specialty drinks when we opened.”

“It was an afterthought,” Romig notes. “The day before we opened, we said, ‘Oh, we have this lavender, so let’s make a simple syrup.’ We made an iced latte out of it, and, since we opened on a beautiful, warm day, every single person who came in wanted one. We ran out of the syrup in, like, 45 minutes.”

“We sent my mother to the co-op to get more lavender,” adds Loiacono. “She doesn’t live around here, and she got lost.”

Romig laughs and says, “An hour and a half later, we were asking, ‘Where’s your mom?’”

The neighborhood has changed during Superior Merchandise’s not-quite two years of existence. “When we started renovating,” says Romig, “there was no Rare Form (Brewing Company), no Shop – only Brown Bag on the corner. It’s great to see this neighborhood growing – and it was pure luck for us. This was the only property we could afford when we bought it.”

“And,” Loiacono says, “we get people in here all the time who tell us, ‘Oh, I just rented an apartment across the street from you.’ That’s really great.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Some manner of food was needed, and that food is toast. “We don’t have a kitchen,” Jones explains, “so we have to make do with the space we have. Almost a year ago we started the toast menu, and it’s been a huge hit. We try to do a little bit sweet, a little bit savory. The Smashed Avocado has been on since the beginning, and we sell more of those than anything else.”

It’s served on two pieces of sourdough toast – all of their baked goods come from Kingston-based Bread Alone – with olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper, and a drizzle of sriracha. For a sweeter flavor, there’s Blackberry and Basil Chevre, with goat cheese and macerated blackberries beckoning, and, in another savory variation, the classic cucumber sandwich gets the addition of dill-seasoned ricotta.

Despite the success of the toast, they’re not tempted to expand to other items. However, says Jones, “We recently upgraded to a conveyor toaster.”

A more recent addition is a selection of quality beers. As Romig recalls, “I used to get bottles of beer at The Grocery before it closed; suddenly I found myself with no place downtown to pick up a great bottle of beer. So we brought in the bottle shop after about a year of being here, and I think it was really helpful as a neighborhood thing.”

We sampled a selection of these treats on the pleasant patio, where the abundant plant life distracts you from the fact that you’re surrounded by other buildings. But Jones and Romig also own the one to the patio’s rear, a carriage house that soon will be transformed. “Our next big move will be to renovate that into a roastery,” says Jones. “There’s a lot of work to get there, but that’s where we’re heading.”

There’s a monthly vinyl night; there have been movies. There are live, almost off-the-cuff performances. It’s a space that begs for community, and that’s why there’s no wi-fi. As Jones explains, “We want to promote the experience of meeting new people and talking to the people you’re with and enjoying your experience.”

“We don’t have any problem with people coming here to work on laptops,” says Romig, “but we also don’t have the problem of people camping out and creating their little micro-areas.”

“I thought we’d have it, before we opened,” Jones protests, “but Mike and I had an experience at a coffee shop – I think it was in Austin – that we were really looking forward to visiting. But every single person other than us in the place was on their computer – ”

“It was fifty people all not speaking – ”

“ – and that was exactly not what we wanted.”

The Alt, 31 May 2017

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