A funny thing has happened in high-end coffee in the last few years: The puritanical war on milk and sugar, waged for like a decade, has slowly ended. Not everywhere, not all at once, but now even the fanciest, most fanatical shops are pretty chill about it, especially if it’s done with a heavy wink or with a sufficiently high-minded set of ingredients (e.g., “distilled with hibiscus, shaken with strawberry thai basil cordial”).
This isn’t quite what Sawada Coffee is doing, but it’s useful context for considering the latte-focused Chicago import, which has arrived in New York with the “modern diner” Au Cheval in Tribeca. Named for its founder Hiroshi Sawada, a skateboarding latte art champion, the shop translates some of the sensibility of Sawada’s Streamer Coffee cafes in Tokyo and Osaka, but with a heavy dose of personal branding — a ghostly mural of Sawada looms over the entire space, which occupies the lobby of Au Cheval, and his visage peers out from skateboard decks pinned to the dark wood walls.
The coffee at Sawada is roasted domestically by Metropolis in Chicago, in a style that might be loosely described as Tokyo dark — pitch black, but it never manages to cross the threshold into acrid, like many American dark roasts, which make your throat feel like it’s being scraped out into an ashtray. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try whatever Starbucks dark roast is handy, but without milk or sugar. Which, some people like that feeling in their coffee, and that’s fine!)
Put another way, the Sawada coffee is bitter and smoky, but extremely smoothed out. While it’s a relatively common style in Japan, from the practically ancient Cafe De L’Ambre and Chatei Hatou to the more modern Bear Pond Coffee, I’ve never found anyone domestically doing dark roasting quite this way, which is to say, not terribly. And in truth, I generally find it preferable to the style of espresso that ruled New York throughout the aughts and early 2010s, which was extremely dense, bone dry, almost gritty, sweet-tart sour.
Still, at Sawada, you should probably stick to the milk drinks for which black-hole-dark coffee is suited (I mean you know, imo, do you), and generally speaking, the more adulterated drinks are the best. Nothing is quite so baroque as what’s on offer in Sawada’s Streamer shops in Japan, which remains the nexus for next-level constructed coffee drinks — I so wish Sawada offered the luxurious milk bottle drinks you can get at Streamer — but there are standouts in New York: the signature military latte, made with matcha and dusted with cocoa powder, and the black camo latte, made with hojicha, a roasted green tea.
Neither should quite work, but they do, and the hojicha-powered black camo latte is the better of the two — simultaneously nutty and floral, without being too sweet, though the drink has a density to it you’ll probably want to avoid when it’s particularly hot outside. You can also add kuromitsu, a Japanese black sugar syrup, to any drink (it’s described as “Tokyo style” on the menu). But it is a blast of sweetness, and it obliterated a cappuccino, so you’ll probably want to stick to adding it to drinks with a lot of milk volume, like an iced latte.
Coffee in New York has been largely stagnant for the last few years — a situation that’s proven conducive to the invasive species known as the Aussie cafe — in no small part because obscene rents have prevented the kind of innovation that made the LA scene so dominant over the last few years (although as rent catches up there, that era is coming to a close). So Sawada, while not for everyone, is one of the most genuinely inspired additions to the New York coffee scene in some time. And as the tide of specialty lattes rises — charcoal, maple, whatever this is — it’s clear that the next generation will look a little more Sawada, with its crafted coffee drink combos, and a little less like the austere shops that ruled New York in the aughts. For better or for worse.
Matt Buchanan is Eater’s executive editor.