Thursday, August 17, 2006


Good News for Los Angeles: Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica

I have an Italian friend named Alessandro. He’s a physicist at the University of L’Aquila, and he’s the kind of person who likes to speak in terms of numbers and probabilities. As in, “the probability that I’ll make it to dinner on time is 0.8.” Ale came here to Los Angeles for the first time last fall to do some research at Caltech, so one Saturday I picked him up in Pasadena and got to spend the day driving around L.A. with him, listening to his many observations about American culture. (First among them was that we Americans eat A LOT of chicken. Chicken for every meal. Chicken at every restaurant. Thai chicken, Chinese chicken, Zankou chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Why do Americans eat so much chicken, he wanted to know. I don’t have an answer for that one.)

On our day tour of L.A. we went up to Griffith Observatory, and as we sat there looking down on the L.A. basin, Ale revealed to me that prior to coming to Los Angeles, he had done some research on basic facts and figures, and he had discovered that Los Angeles is approximately the same size as the Italian region of Umbria.*

How can I express what a strange sensation this knowledge brought? It was as if someone had told me that Los Angeles and New Jersey are exactly the same size. Los Angeles and Umbria had existed on very different scales in my head. L.A. is a city. Umbria is the equivalent of a state. How could they be the same size? Then Ale told me that L.A. has ten times the population of Umbria. It’s not just a city; it’s a gigantic region unto itself – a conglomeration of many small cities butted up against each other. We joked as we drove from Griffith Park to Santa Monica that we were essentially making the trip from Orvieto to Assisi. (Italophiles, do you see what I mean? Different scales! Nobody in Italy would make a daily commute from Orvieto to Assisi, but Los Feliz to Santa Monica is no big deal by L.A. standards.)

And inevitably the thought occurred to me: you’d think that in a city the size of Umbria, a city of 10 million people, you’d be able to find a good cappuccino. But the sad truth is that Los Angeles is a cappuccino wasteland. It pains me to say this, because I love Los Angeles with my whole heart. I think it is an amazing place, a city of very few rules and no overriding aesthetic, a city where you are free to be yourself, a city where you can literally find everything. Everything, that is, except a good cappuccino. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Los Angeles is also the city that gave birth to the frappuccino – a knockoff of Coffee Bean’s Ice Blended.)

There are a few places in L.A. that serve a decent cappuccino – Urth Caffe has been my standby for many years - but I can count them on one hand. By contrast, every time I’ve ever been to Umbria, they’re everywhere. Sigh.

So it is with extreme pleasure and great excitement that I report the arrival of a new café that makes a very fine cappuccino: Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica. It’s located at 925 Montana Aveune, and if you can dodge the nouveau riche mommies who are likely to run you off the sidewalk with strollers that cost more than my Subaru, it’s well worth a visit. Honestly, this place is nothing short of miraculous. What can I say? It’s the real deal. The cappuccino I had was not too big, not too hot, and served in a pre-heated porcelain cup. Smooth, pourable crema del latte? Check. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Or at least to Orvieto.

I’ve been to Caffe Luxxe a few times now, and the thing I keep noticing about their cappuccino is the way the flavor really mellows as it cools. It starts out with a very sharp aftertaste that I don’t much care for; I keep having a very strong urge to sugar this cappuccino after the first sip. But I keep resisting, and I never regret it, because by the time I get to the bottom of the cup, there is a pretty overwhelming chocolate flavor to it. So this is not a cappuccino that brings me pure joy from top to bottom, but so far I have found its evolution very interesting. And it is vastly superior to 99.9% of what’s available in the rest of Los Angeles, so there is true cause for rejoicing. (It’s worth pointing out here that café culture in Los Angeles has long been utterly dominated by corporate coffee. In fact, on Montana Avenue, Caffe Luxxe sits just blocks away from a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Peet’s, a Diedrich’s and three Starbucks.)

Caffe Luxxe has only been open for six weeks, but I am definitely not the only one who’s excited about it. You can read what people are saying about it on the LA chowhound message board, for instance. Or on the coffeegeek forum. And in the couple hours I spent there last Sunday chatting with my friend Keshni, a steady stream of people came in, chatted with the owner, Mark Wain, and basically did what I did: threw themselves at his feet and thanked him for bringing another source of good espresso to Los Angeles. Mark reports that he’s currently serving coffee roasted by a mysterious “friend” in Seattle, but he hopes to have his own roasting operation up and running within a year.

Next time: I keep hearing about some really good espresso joints waaaaaaay on the other side of town (like, all the way across Umbria). I hope to make the pilgrimage soon.

*I have since learned that Los Angeles County is actually 2,000 square-kilometers bigger than Umbria, while the city of Los Angeles is considerably SMALLER than Umbria. So I’m not sure where Ale got his numbers, but I think this just underlines what any L.A. resident knows: it’s not exactly clear where L.A. starts and where it stops, so when you refer to "Los Angeles," nobody's really sure what you're talking about.


Sunday, August 13, 2006


Cappuccinos are like snowflakes

So… before I get to the actual cappuccino review part of the cappuccino review blog, it seemed like a good idea to lay out where I’m coming from and to try to put into words what I’m looking for in a cappuccino.

A cappuccino is typically defined as a drink that is one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk. (You can check out the wikipedia definition of the cappuccino here.) But implicit in this definition is the idea that you can separate a cappuccino into its constituent parts. I would argue, instead, that the perfect cappuccino incorporates coffee, air and milk into a few magical sips of something else entirely, something that is more than just the sum of its parts. Like I said in my last entry, a cappuccino should be a fluid experience.

So let’s get one thing out of the way first: a good cappuccino starts with a good shot of espresso. This is no easy thing to find, but I’m going to gloss over it for a second. And if you check out the links section, you can find plenty of other places where the intricacies of pulling a superior shot of espresso are discussed at great length. (I have found the coffeegeek forum particularly interesting.) So… let’s just assume for the sake of argument that good shots of espresso are everywhere. (HA!) After that, what makes a good cappuccino?

The first thing I notice when I sip a cappuccino is the texture. A cappuccino should feel dense and creamy in your mouth, but light and airy at the same time. You should not be able to perceive the separation of liquid and foam, at least not in the first few sips. I have heard this texture described hundreds of times by people in the coffee business as “velvety.” (It’s my considered opinion that the smoothness of a well-made cappuccino puts velvet to shame, but I’ll go with it until I can think of something better.)

This unique texture is produced by a substance that I’ve sometimes heard Italians refer to as the “crema del latte” – literally, the “cream of the milk.” This is in no way related to actual cream, but it is a recognition that we are no longer dealing with just milk here. A chemical process has occurred, and we have a new substance entirely. Americans refer to this substance by the decidedly less charming name of “microfoam.” So if nobody minds the pomposity of throwing foreign words into an English language blog, I’m going to go ahead and stick with crema del latte.

Judging from its scarcity, really good crema del latte is incredibly difficult to produce. But to me, it is what makes a cappuccino a cappuccino. Espresso exists elsewhere. So does hot milk. But crema del latte can’t be found anywhere else. (Sadly, it can’t even be found all that often in what passes for cappuccinos.) In the course of making my documentary, I’ve interviewed a number of baristas about producing the crema del latte, and the consensus seems to be that it’s all about heating the milk slowly and keeping it below the temperature at which milk starts to taste salty instead of sweet. One barista that I met in Italy – who made a truly exceptional cappuccino – showed me how he had closed off two of the holes in his steam wand in order to get what he deemed the right flow of steam into the milk.

It’s also about using the right milk. Crema del latte is produced when the proteins in the milk get temporarily emulsified with air, so milks with higher protein content - such as whole milk or extra-rich milk - will produce the best crema del latte. This is why I feel like somebody just insulted my mother every time I overhear someone ordering a nonfat cappuccino. Uck.

Now, in certain circles, the cappuccino that I have just described is known as the “traditional” cappuccino. This is a term that is used in contrast to the “American” cappuccino, which is usually larger and is basically just a shot of espresso (or two, or three, or – holy god – FOUR shots of espresso) topped with a cap of stiff foam and maybe some hot liquid milk. I have even met people who claim to prefer the American cappuccino, often made with skim milk, as this most easily achieves the meringue-like texture these people prefer. I’m just going to say it: I think that those people are crazy. Or, more likely, I think they have never had a properly made “traditional” cappuccino. I try to avoid wearing my conviction on this point out in the open, but in my heart of hearts, I feel sorry for those people. I feel sure that they are missing out.

But I digress. All of this is to say that to me the crema del latte is absolutely THE key to a good cappuccino. And I will admit to being further charmed by it because it’s the part of the process that just cannot be mechanized. There’s an X factor involved in making a cappuccino: human idiosyncrasy. Sorry to keep returning to the FLUID thing, but controlling the flow of steam into liquid is not a process that can be very exactly controlled or quantified. And even though there are “recipes” or “standards” for steam pressure and temperature and so on, there’s also the variable of how the barista works with the milk. So even though you get individual baristas who get pretty good at making a consistent product, the truth is that you never really have the same cappuccino twice.

This is the part of drinking the cappuccino that kind of blows my mind when I let myself think about it – the fact that each one is completely unique. And cappuccinos are not only unique in that they differ greatly from cup to cup, but they are unique in the sense that they differ greatly within the same cup. From the moment they are completed, they start to change. The liquid separates from the air; the foam gets lighter and stiffer. And of course the flavors of the coffee itself change subtly (or dramatically) as it cools.

So… that’s my deal. What I’m looking for in a cappuccino is not just something that tastes good or provides me with a dose of an addictive stimulant. I’m looking for something ephemeral, something that reminds me of the fact that the experience of being human is essentially fleeting and very difficult to trap, catalog, quantify or parse. Do I need to have this existential reflection every morning before work? No. But I would like to know where I can find it when I desire it. So I continue to search.

Next time: the cappuccino reviewing starts in earnest with news of an excellent cappuccino I discovered mere blocks from my temporary home in Santa Monica.

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