July 21, 2011
There is nothing like an espresso in the afternoon: the swirl of caramel-colored coffee foam; the dark, robust burst of flavor; the infusion of energy. The latte and the cappuccino are delicious, too, fortifying in the morning, sweet later in the day. I’ve been ordering these drinks for years, but until I met Moti Menachem at his cool espresso bar in the Westfield Topanga mall, I had no idea why only a few of those cups were ever truly great.
It turns out there’s a lot I don’t know about my favorite drink.
When I asked Menachem — dreadlocked coffee enthusiast, expert barista and owner of Café Café — how he came to know so much about coffee, he looked at me like I was a little dense.
“In Israel,” he said, “you have to know about coffee.”
Of course, as soon as he said it, I remembered hearing about how imported espresso chains, such as Starbucks, couldn’t survive local competition in Israel. After all, coffee has its origins in that part of the world.
At the center of Café Café’s lovely free-standing espresso and sandwich bar, there is a beautiful red La Marzocco espresso machine, and Menachem knows how to use it. If you ask, as you sip the deep, rich brew through the foam of your latte, he will happily talk about the essential facts, the right ways and wrong ways of making coffee. (The other baristas are equally enthusiastic, proud of their ability to judge milk temperature by the feel of the metal foaming cup, for example.)
The process begins with the beans. They are organic, Café Café’s own blend, ground fresh for each shot of espresso — defined as a drink brewed by forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee. Tamping the coffee into the basket with the silver tamping tool is the next step. This “pressing” — the essence of what makes the drink an espresso — needs to be just right. Coffee compressed too much will slow the travel of water and be bitter; too loose and it will be weak.
Menachem snaps the portafilter into place on the La Marzocco, switches on the water (filtered, of course) and watches the dark liquid trickle out of the spout into the cup. A shot he deems improperly tamped and thus too light, is thrown out and he starts another.
In the first espresso machines, made in Italy in the late 1800s, the water flow was controlled by moving a lever, which is the origin of the term “pulling” a shot. With the semi-automatic La Marzocco, a knowledgeable barista controls the timing of the shot with the on/off switch. Working the machine is interactive, and Menachem describes it as a little like being a DJ.
Next comes foaming the milk. This is an activity for which there are hundreds of Web sites, some of them devoted just to making the little rosettes and leaf patterns by which baristas measure their skills. The timing is essential, and then there is the craft of tapping — short knocks on the side of the milk pitcher that separate the heated milk from the foam. Pouring is a kind of contemplative act, requiring a sure hand, experience and focus to properly mix the milk with the espresso. The latte gets more milk, I learn, and the cappuccino more foam. Menachem drops a packet of sugar into his shot before adding the velvety milk, but for me, the heat seems to have sweetened the milk perfectly.
The Café Café latte Menachem makes for me has a depth and flavor not found often enough. When I mention this, he says with the certainty of a passionate man that there might be five really good espresso bars in Los Angeles, maybe fewer in the Valley. In order to keep the lines moving, chain espresso places have turned to super-automatic machines, where the grinding, tamping and timing are all done in the machine. The result is average-tasting coffee drinks.
To complement my latte, Menachem brings me a tasty, perfect little oatmeal and currant triangle. All the beautiful pastries displayed in Café Café’s case are from Roladin Bakery, another Valley treasure.
If you are looking for something more substantial, Café Café also offers dairy sandwiches — many Israeli inspired — all made with the same kind of passion and care as the coffee drinks. On other visits, I’ve enjoyed sliced hardboiled egg and hummus on French bread and a salmon and goat cheese sandwich. Falafel is cooked in the oven, not deep fried, and shakshouka is also on the menu. Organic teas, freshly poured drip coffee — also organic and in various strengths — an interesting selection of juices and unusual soft drinks complete the offerings.
For a morning, afternoon or evening cup of indulgence, look for the cherry red La Marzocco machine and its emblematic lion, symbol of Florence, home of great espresso machines, or look for Jerusalem native Menachem — in black scarf, T-shirt and jeans — who is happy to share both his espresso and his expertise.