Monday, July 23, 2007

Mediterranean Summer, In Beverage Form

Shenkin Street is the Melrose Avenue of Tel Aviv. Funky shops selling the latest in European designer clothes and the coolest shoes anywhere, alternate with trendy cafes, all catering to a young, vibrant crowd. Bohemian street musicians, artsy graffiti, and excellent people watching abound. On a summer day in 2001, I found myself there, and there I found a taste that resonates in my mind still.

After traveling in Egypt and Jordan, I planned to meet my parents, along with much of the rest of my dad's family, in Israel to celebrate a cousin's wedding. But then, back at home, my mom slipped a disc and had to have emergency surgery, so, for the first time, I was with my family in Israel without my parents. Of course, between my 2 local uncles, my 2 aunts who also made the trek (one from Chicago, one from London), and myriad cousins with varying levels of English, I was thoroughly engaged.

On this particular day, we ignored my dad's warning from afar to avoid going anywhere except my uncles' apartments, as my youngest aunt was taking us on a journey. Being a youthful and style-conscious Brit for whom Hebrew is one of at least four languages, Shenkin Street is certainly her world. Stuffed into her rented Yugo, we tried to ignore our sticky sweltering state by blasting the latest volume of Now That's What I Call Music. Once we got there, she led us through the suntanned throngs to a tiny sliver of a storefront -- just an unassuming counter housing a skinny Israeli kid, a juicer, and lots of fruit.

We had no choice in the matter -- my aunt ordered us each a limonaana. Our vendor grinned and got to work. He juiced a bunch of limes, then blended them with ice, sugar, and a hefty wad of fresh mint -- naana in Hebrew (not to mention Arabic and Persian), and hence the name. The resulting slush, part elevated frozen lemonade, part virgin mojito, was the perfect summer beverage. Really, its ability to refresh, rejuvenate, elate, spellbind can not be exaggerated.

Friends, I've found limonaana in our own fair city. And it even comes with the surrounding scene. Between a fast food joint and a medical building on Ventura Boulevard in Encino lies Aroma Bakery -- a cruisy, summery Tel Aviv cafe plunked right into the valley. Picture a long stretch of patio crammed with bistro tables. At any hour of the day or night, most of these tables are filled with young Israelis -- lots of skin, lots of tight jeans, lots of long curly hair. And that's just the guys. During the day, misters keep you cool, and at night, a firepit keeps you warm. All the while friendly waitresses bustle through with delicious cafe fare with a Mediterranean twist.

You might have to wait a bit for your chocolate croissant, but that's because it's just come out of the oven. While they make cinnamon sticks, danishes, and fancier desserts and pastries on one side of the shop, in the other, a baker is hand-preparing pizzas, sambusaks filled with your choice of ingredients, and flaky malawach to order in the clay oven. Jerusalem bagel toasts, Aroma's take on panini, are fantastic: fresh sesame bread filled with combos like feta, zaatar, tomato, and olives; mozzarella, tomato, and pesto (such fresh creamy mozzarella); or the Tunisian -- tuna, hot sauce, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and onions are all grilled to order and served with a lovely salad. Entree salads, fish dishes, and a wide variety of coffee drinks round out the menu (actually that's just some highlights -- it's a pretty extensive menu). Everything on their menu seems like summer (Except of course for the jachnun -- a weekend-only Yemeni dish of densely layered dough baked overnight over low heat, and served with tehina and tomato puree. Heavy, but certainly adventurous): you can even get, in season, a platter of perfectly ripe watermelon, served with feta, to pass at your table.

This same aunt that introduced me to limonaana has a warm place in her heart for shakshuka -- a hearty breakfast of eggs cooked over a stew of tomatoes and peppers -- so much so that she has been known to spearhead kitchen initiatives to make enough for everyone staying at my uncle's apartment, at 3 o'clock in the morning. I'm glad to say Aroma has a satisfying rendition -- served still bubbling in its own copper dish, it's perfect Sunday brunch with a glass of fresh mint tea.

So, now, when I get a hankering for summer in Tel Aviv, with all the cousins, the beach (my god, we didn't even talk about the bar with couches right on the sand!), the fruit, the hummus (Aroma has great Israeli-style hummus, by the way), I can just drive to the valley, order up some limonaana, and get my fix. The unusually large proportion of my brain devoted to summer memories is grateful for our shrinking world.

Aroma Bakery
is at 18047 Ventura Blvd., between Lindley and Newcastle.


  1. That's such a cute picture of you and your sister, Tannaz! =)

  2. Ah, that's actually my niece! But thanks for the compliment anyway -- she is indeed quite adorable. Incindentally, her response to that first sip of limoonaana:

    "I like."