April 29, 2009
Israeli Cafe Culture Rocks Sunset
Last September, when the Israeli Consulate raised the Israeli flag over Wilshire Boulevard at a festive ceremony with the mayor, it was seen as an historic symbol of deepening Israeli-Angeleno ties. Around the same time, however, another significant event took place blocks away, on Sunset Boulevard, as Israeli Angelenos raised their first mugs of hafuch (cappuccino) at the opening of Aroma Bakery & Café’s Hollywood branch.
First established in Encino in 2005, Aroma is more than a cafe — it’s like an unofficial branch of the Israeli Consulate. Walk in, and you might as well be in Israel. Cute Israeli waitresses serve customers like they’re still jet-lagged from their flight here. Tel Aviv-style Israeli posses dressed in nightclub gear spread their chairs and legs out like they own the place, cigarettes in tow, cell phones on tabletops. And like back home, the action takes place late into the night.
For many Israeli transplants, Encino’s Aroma is an absorption center, community center and employer. “It’s the first place you take Israelis,” said Shanni Sabban, 19, waiting in line for a table at Aroma Encino one Wednesday night.
As I waited for a seat on the packed patio, the hostess related it was her first job after she landed. Her thick Israeli accent probably wouldn’t suffice as a Starbucks barista; here, English isn’t required.
“Shalosh!” (three!) demanded one lady. “Eser dakot!” (10 minutes), the hostess replied over an Israeli rock song.
The Sunset branch, however, is poised to spread Israeli cafe culture to L.A. residents who could care less about Zion. Located on the site of the former “Rock ‘n’ Roll” Denny’s (nicknamed so for its proximity to the Guitar Center and the Sunset Strip), it has imported design motifs from Encino: a wide outdoor patio conducive to people watching; a fireplace for that “home away from home” vibe; and valet parking (“so Israelis can show off their cars,” said one patron).
Whereas the Encino branch respects Jewish tradition with its all-dairy menu (not kosher certified, though) and a day of rest on Saturday, the Sunset branch is more chiloni (secular). The spiral-bound menu reads like an illustrated book for Middle Eastern Californian cuisine, with prices more befitting a restaurant than a cafe. Ahi tuna shwarma with hummus and ahi tuna kabob are a few of the more creative dishes served with pastas, sandwiches, steaks and Israeli comfort foods like shakshuka, malawach and burekas. A glass showcase features gargantuan desserts, among them Middle Eastern specialties like khadif and baklava.
One Saturday afternoon, the restaurant was full, but no waiting list. Israeli patrons were identifiable not only from appearance, but from their loud decibel of Hebrew. I was greeted unofficially by a party promoter, who immediately added me to his SMS party invite list. I felt like I was back in Tel Aviv, where cafes are prime recruitment ground for partiers.
Sitting inside was another Israeli nightlife player, Motti Aivas, owner of the Avalon nightclub in Hollywood, dipping pita in hummus with two friends. “The food reminds me of ha’aretz [the Land] — and the people, sometimes you want to be with Israelis,” he said.
Not Rami, though, a yored (immigrant from Israel) since 1994. His friends dragged him there. “It’s mostly for arsim, and people who don’t know what arsim are.” For those who fit into the latter category, arsim refers, usually pejoratively, to uncouth Israelis. As for the menu, “It reminds of me of Kapulski” (the once-popular Israeli cafe chain that’s now a favorite among pensioners). He says he prefers the boutique cafes on Third Street for menus — and clientele — with a little more sophistication.
Rami was part of the entourage of an Israeli musician known as HaSaruf, The Burnt Man. With unmistakable long, stringy hair, he got the nickname from a publicity stunt he pulled in 2000, when he made an album disguised as a man crippled from severe burns. (He eventually revealed the scam and took on a new stage name, Zino.)
“What are you doing in Los Angeles?” I asked.
“Working for the agalot,” he joked, referring to the carts at malls manned by Israelis. In fact, he was in Los Angeles for a music convention. Other Israeli musicians touring here have made a stop at Aroma, too — among them Hadag Nachash and Shlomo Artzi.
But Aroma Sunset wants American celebrities and entertainers to feel at home there, too.
Local singer Alexis Miranda had no idea it’s an Israeli hangout. “It was always packed, like 24-7.” She figures the food must justify the crowd. “It was amazing. Grade A,” she said of the chocolate soufflé and chocolate cake.
Actor Eric Reinholt was also there for the first time. “It was the best pizza I ever had,” he said, although he found the service lacking. “I think she was new,” he offered with classic American politeness.
But Aroma Sunset isn’t always packed. On one early Monday morning, Mark Shields from West Liberty, Iowa, population 3,000, was among five patrons. He was in Los Angeles as part of a traveling exhibition on the Oregon Trail. “We passed by yesterday and thought this looks like a great place to spend time,” he said over coffee and two chocolate croissants.
When I told him it’s an extension of a cafe in Encino, he was floored. Turns out he had eaten at the Encino branch last year. He had just passed by and liked it. “It feels ethnic, cultured,” he said. “Everyone sitting around tables, drinking, eating, being happy. Maybe I should go to Israel if this is what it’s like.”