When veteran latte art competitor Bruce Ly (formerly of Voodoo Child) and Masashi Nakagome (formerly of Manic Coffee and Nadège Patisserie) announced they were opening their own shop in the heart of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, a food lover's mecca and tourist destination, the city's ears perked up.
The shop officially opened its doors in August 2015 nestled at the base of a condo building on Frederick Street between King and Front. With its sleek and modern design including concrete walls, beautiful wooden fixtures, and minimalist furniture, Neo Coffee Bar stands out as one of the more luxe coffee shops in the neighborhood with its Scandinavian/Japanese aesthetic. Co-owners Ly and Nakagome worked with architectural firm Dialogue 38 (who previously designed the popular Kinka Izakaya restaurant in Toronto) to create a unique but warm look and feel for the space.
We live in an era where if you don’t Instagram it, it doesn’t exist. So it's fitting that Ly, who has a reputation as one of the best latte artisans in Canada, with over 2,000 followers on Instagram, spends a large portion of his day posting photos of his daily pours from Neo. It's Ly's skills that attract customers from far and wide to the shop, where he can be found behind the bar most days. Ly explains that he loves to pour his latte art “in the feel of the moment, that way I can achieve a truly unique piece of art.” Customers are more than willing to wait and see what inspiration strikes Ly when it's time to pour their drink. More often than not, you’ll see it on the Neo Coffee Bar or Ly’s own Instagram later.
Behind the bar sits a La Marzocco Strada EP and two Nuova Simonelli Mythos One grinders. In addition to the espresso menu, the shop has a Mahlkönig EK 43 and custom Monarch Methods kettle for its pour-over offerings, along with a dual station FETCO for batch-brew. With the help of Toronto's de Mello Palheta Coffee Roaster, Neo created a custom house blend full of rich, chocolate notes. With Neo's core focus being single-origin espresso, they are also dedicated to showcasing local roasters alongside other North American roasters. The shop always features at least one Toronto roaster as part of their feature espresso and pour-over options.
Neo’s acclaim has also come from co-owner Nakagome’s famous Japanese roll cakes. All pastries (including cakes, cream puffs, and cookies) are made in-house by Nakagome and his team of pastry chefs, with the menu changing seasonally. The cakes they offer in-house are much different than any other North American cake, as Japanese roll cake tends to be more on the soft, spongy side with lots of bread to cream—pairing nicely with a cup of coffee or a great cup of tea (Neo’s tea program is curated with help from Sloane Tea). The matcha roll cake is particularly popular.
For Ly and Nakagome, one of the biggest things they wanted to offer with Neo Coffee Bar was a space that offered community. Ly explains to me, “Nakagome and I feel that by creating a community within our cafe we can build a strong foundation for growth.” It seems they've done that by offering good simple coffee with good simple food—and all of it beautiful.
Photos courtesy of Britney Townsend.