It’s true, I have a guilty pleasure. Well, truth be told I’ve got a few guilty pleasures but in this particular instance I’m talking about Aroma Cafe (aka Aroma Coffee & Tea Company) in Studio City, not to be confused with the Aroma Bakery Cafe which is a completely unrelated chain of Israeli restaurants (though I like some of their food too). Their names are far too similar, and while they’ve both got their own charm, they’re about as different as night & day.
Aroma Cafe is located in a converted home on Tujunga Avenue, nestled right in the middle of a block of cute shops and restaurants. You can tell this little neighborhood is just chomping at the bit to be as chic and trendy as Hancock Park’s Larchmont Village, but it’s not quite there yet (even though they’re now calling this block “Tujunga Village”). Still, it’s a charming little place to visit, especially if you have money and are one of those people who loves to be seen and be a part of the who’s who. I am not one of those people at all, in fact I am the opposite of those people… and yet, I keep coming back to this cute strip because it really does have a sort of irresistible draw.
As you might imagine, for me the draw is food. Aroma is not a vegetarian restaurant and they’ve actually got very few vegan options. The ones they do have though are right on.
This is the Wild Rice and Tofu Salad: Wild rice, marinated tofu, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and sliced avocado on a bed of mixed greens with lemon-herb vinaigrette. The portion size is huge, the tofu flavor is yummy and the dressing is delicious. I don’t even usually like wild rice, but it really works here to have it mixed in with the salad. I guess rice in salads is something that happens but I’d never put two and two together before trying this… and I really like the idea, as well as the results.
Now before I go on, a word about the photo and why it looks a bit washed out by the sun. That brings me to the other draw of Aroma Cafe, they’ve got a lovely garden which stretches all the away around the house, providing plenty of comfortable outdoor seating in a lush, patio environment. It’s a really nice space where you can forget for a little while that you’re in a huge city. There’s something about being in there that makes me slow down a little bit and just relax. Sometimes it gets really busy and it can take a while to find a nice spot (avoid this place at the height of lunchtime), but once you finally do get to park it you can hang out for as long as you like, get your ice-tea refilled and kick back for a while. I don’t have a garden of my own, so it’s nice to escape the house now and again and have a tasty lunch in someone else’s backyard. Hence, my sunny, shadowy tofu salad as pictured above (the shade was not cooperating with me that day).
This one is the Tofu Rice Bowl: sauteed wild rice, marinated tofu, broccoli, scallions, serrano chilies and roasted bell peppers. Same rice and tofu as the salad but it makes a much heartier meal here in a bowl with the extra veggies, and gets a really good flavor from whatever herbs and seasonings they use and especially the nice and spicy chilies. The serving they brought me was huge, I didn’t even make it through half of the bowl and I got about two and half more servings out of my leftovers back at home. The food here is in no way cheap, but the portions sizes are all gigantic and well prepared (I noticed a woman with a taco salad much larger than her head), so you’re paying for that as well as for the atmosphere of the joint to go with it.
Here’s the Mediterranean Plate: Hummus and tabouli served with Greek salad and whole grain pita bread. A beautiful presentation… the hummus was delicious, the pita fresh and warm. The salad I requested without feta cheese or onions and I was happy to see they got it right. The dressing was a balsamic sorta thing which I liked. My only complaint is that the tabouli was rather dry… it tasted like they’d put in the bulgur, parsley, tomatoes, etc… but forgot to add the lemon and oil, or just didn’t put in enough. Being of Middle Eastern descent I don’t usually expect American places like this to get Israeli or Arabic food exactly right anyways, so I can’t say that I was totally surprised that it wasn’t all too authentic. I can tell you though that the hummus was very good (I could have done with less oil), and that’s a standard by which most all Israeli’s will judge a meal. If the hummus is weak, forget about it… but if the hummus passes muster than other more minor sins can be forgiven. That’s how I felt about the tabouli.
The scene at Aroma is a real trip. The place seems to be a draw for people in the entertainment industry (duh, I guess that’s why it’s called Studio City), from famous celebs having a cappuccino with their directors, to wannabe out-of-work actors who sit around there all day rehearsing scenes for roles they’ll never get. Then you’ve got your laptop contingency of middle aged dudes who set up with their computers and sit there all day pretending to be busy with very important things, when really you just know they’ve got nothing better to do. Those guys seem to have an air of desperation about them that always makes me want to sit on the far other side of the place. There’s also lots of mom types with their kids in strollers, the Valley’s young & beautiful types with their dogs (I’ve encountered a number of Paris Hilton clones here), business meeting guys with their briefcases and official looking ties, to people like myself who aren’t any of those but who just like a nice and healthy lunch outdoors once in a while. I like to just chill out there for bit with my giant salad, a good book, and some good old fashion eavesdropping… I always seem to overhear the most interesting (and insignificant) conversations here.
The restaurant is also home to a small independent bookstore located in the back called Portrait of a Bookstore. Despite its teeny, tiny layout it’s actually pretty action packed with a “hand-picked selection of books of all genres, from bestsellers to the most obscure and unusual titles”. They’ve also got a nice selection of cards, jewelry and cute gift items that your mom will just love.
So yeah, I really dig this place but I do consider it a guilty pleasure in that it’s not the sort of thing I’d normally go for. The Hollywood acting scene is something that usually makes me want to barf, my almost uncontrollable reaction to seeing people with scripts in their hands acting out their little scenes with themselves is to roll my eyes and make a “gag me with a spoon” gesture. Hanging out with pretentious models and fly-by-night celebrities is not really my cup of tea. That said, it’s so stereotypically Los Angeles at this place that I can’t resist putting myself right into the thick of it sometimes. I’m so unimpressed and non-responsive to chicks that try their darndest to look like exact replicas of Hayden Panettiere (the actress who plays Claire on the TV show Heroes) that that sort of thing just goes totally under my radar*. People like that are just background noise in my opinion, while tasty rice and giant slabs of tofu are the sort of things that grab my attention and keep me coming back for more.
* I’m actually a total liar. I do get excited about certain celebrities now and again. The other day I had a lovely lunch at Flore with Your Vegan Mom and we happened to be sitting right next to Zachary Quinto, the guy who plays Sylar on Heroes. Gone was my cool “I’ve been in Hollywood all my life and don’t even see you even though you’re super famous” demeanor… I was transformed instantly into a geeky fangirl who couldn’t stop staring or giggling. Still, there’s a big difference between seeing an actual star whos work you respect and seeing the people who hang out at cafes in the Valley pretending to look like them. I’m talking to you fake Claire.