Coffee challenge: Cortelyou Road cafes to face off with Starbucks, Dunkin’
Photo by Arthur De Gaeta

Asking questions is my job. But as the new Flatbush-Midwood reporter for Courier-Life, the first question I asked veteran Flatbushers about my beat was the most important of my career:

Where can I get a decent cup of joe?

After 15 years of alarmingly prodigious coffee drinking, I like to think I know the difference between gourmet French roast and truck stop swill. So I decided to put my taste buds — and nervous system — to the test with a coffee crawl along up-and-coming Cortelyou Road.

The first stop was at the six-month-old Café Madeline at E. 16th Street, where owners Alexander Hall and Sabrina Godfrey have built a devoted following with their rustic décor and boutique coffee drinks. The large, square table at the front of the shop is perfect for getting together with friends or working on your book.

Manager Mary Cross made me an Australian iced coffee: a sweet, rich blend of gelato and whole milk with two shots of espresso. It’s a sweet caffeine milkshake that, frankly, was a little on the rich side for me (and, at $5 for a 10-ounce glass, on my wallet, too). But as the weather warms up, this drink will loom large as an afternoon pick-me-up.

Two blocks west on Cortelyou and Rugby roads, John Ficarra carries on the 28-year family legacy at John’s Bakery & Pastry Shop. This Flatbush landmark is known for its Italian pastries and red velvet cake. The joint serves up plenty of shots of espresso, but regular coffee — Columbian, straight up — is the most popular option, said veteran employee Rita Molina. This nutty blend went great with my flaky, buttery croissant — but the coffee could have been a bit stronger. But for a buck, you can’t do better.

Next, I hit Qathra at Westminster Road, the new kid on the block, serving Crop-To-Cup’s Ethiopian blend and 17 varieties of loose tea. Co-owner Max Habib gave me a sneak peak of his new back patio, where he’s in the process of building a new bar serving Italian sodas to accompany his Mediterrean menu.

Barista Patrick Cronin made me a mocha latte. Now, given that this was already my third coffee of the day, I probably didn’t need it, but the rich roast was deliciously strong, though smooth, and the velvety foam cap was perfectly crafted.

“Most of my day is spent making lattes,” said Cronin.

High quality doesn’t come cheap — $3 for a 10-ounce cup — but I was happy to pay it.

Two storefronts west is Connecticut Muffin — but don’t let the name fool you: only one of this Brooklyn-based chain’s locations is in Connecticut. And don’t let the word “chain” fool you, either: ConnMuffCo’s baked goods are made fresh on premises, and its Blueberry Hill blend is a perfectly balanced rich roast with a satisfyingly bitter finish.

It beat out John’s for best regular roast, and at $1.90 for 12 ounces, it was also among the most affordable.

At this point, the caffeine was catching up with me: cold sweats, heart racing, sudden belief that I had superpowers. Was the entire earth shaking, or is that just my eyeballs? Sure, I could have tasted and spit like a wimpy wine taster, but OD’ing on java was part of the point of the Cortelyou crawl.

My final stop was Market between Westminster and Argyle roads, which is known more for gourmet cheeses and breads.

Market’s two-shot cappuccino — $3.75 for a 12-ounce cup — is a slightly better bargain than Qathra, but it didn’t beat the taste of Cronin’s mocha latte, which came out ahead in the race for espresso drinks.

But if you’re lucky, barista Sarah Hardwick will be on duty and you can cajole her into making her specialty: a cappuccino with Ronny Brook chocolate milk instead of that boring stuff that usually comes out of the cow.

It’s hard not to like the Australian iced coffee at Cafe Madeline — a rich mix of gelato, milk and espresso — here served with a smile by manager Mary Woods.
Photo by Dan MacLeod

Café Madeline [1603 Cortelyou Rd. at E. 16th Street, (718) 941-4020]; Market [1211 Cortelyou Rd. at Westminster Road, (718) 284-4446]; Connecticut Muffin [1106 Cortelyou Rd. at E. 11th Street, (718) 287-7900]; Qathra [1112 Cortelyou Rd. between Stratford and Westminster roads, (718) 484-3322]; John’s Bakery & Pastry Shop [1322 Cortelyou Rd. at Rugby Road, (718) 287-6799].