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Last Friday, a helmeted woman on a bicycle made a sudden, jerking stop at the entrance to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the newly opened cafe on Jaffa Road. Steadying herself with a foot on the sidewalk, the woman gazed reverently upward at the stylized white lettering on the sign above the door. From the expression on her face, onlookers might have thought she had just stumbled across the Gates of Heaven.
They wouldn't have been far off.
For caffeine junkies familiar with the Los Angeles-based coffee chain, Jerusalem has indeed just acquired another holy site. This one, weary wanderers will happily note, provides frothy iced drinks and delicious fresh sandwiches, not to mention an airy, well-lit atmosphere and a soothingly predictable, low-volume pop soundtrack. (U2 and Dido, you will be heard.)
A small but faithful community of coffee connoisseurs has watched with growing excitement over the past several months, as construction of the latest Coffee Bean, a block from Zion Square, neared completion. The chain's newest location joins eight other Coffee Beans already in Israel, but this is the first for those unable to get to Tel Aviv and its suburbs for an Original Ice Blended, the Coffee Bean's signature cold coffee drink.
Made with ice, one-percent milk and a combination of coffee, Dutch chocolate and French vanilla flavorings, the Ice Blended is dessert in a cup, and now one of the most refreshing drinks available in Jerusalem. It undoubtedly plays the same role in other countries where the Coffee Bean has opened for business, an impressive assortment of Pacific Rim and Middle East nations including Australia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the United Arab Emirates.
Coming from Seattle, the home of Starbucks and the world capital of overpriced coffee, I've long been confused by the Coffee Bean's relatively limited presence in the United States, where it keeps stores only in California, Nevada and Arizona. For an admiring non-native, the chain embodies the best of southern California - its simple, fresh food, the extravagant use of space and light, and the courteous, quick service of workers who have been well-trained and seem genuinely happy to be working where they are. That appraisal would be high treason back in Seattle, but Starbucks, pleasant as it can be, ain't got nothin' on the Coffee Bean.
All the Coffee Bean's most winning qualities have been transported with painstaking effort to the chain's newest location.
With a variety of healthy salads and sandwiches, the Coffee Bean serves more than just the brewed beverages in which it specializes. Ranging between NIS 29 and 36, the salads are prepared on a Californian scale, large enough to serve as lunch or dinner for two. Sandwiches, paninis and wraps are served for NIS 22 apiece and, like the salads, are made big and on the premises. As befits the location, the newest Coffee Bean is kosher, opening for business soon after Shabbat ends each Saturday evening.
In addition to its trademark coffee Ice Blendeds, the Coffee Bean also serves the standard hot coffees and teas of any espresso bar, as well as juice-based Ice Blendeds with names like Malibu Dream. Tea canisters line the walls for individual purchase (NIS 49 each), while true Ice Blended addicts can buy containers of the store's Dutch chocolate and French vanilla powders for at-home experimentation. Appealing gourmet desserts are likely to give customers pause near the cash register, with Trio Mousse and Vanilla Passionfruit cake costing NIS 24 a slice or NIS 140 for an entire cake. Smaller pastries and other baked goods are also on tantalizing display, with apple pie and poppy yeast cake available for NIS 10 to 22 apiece. American-style fudge brownies, NIS 10, are under-baked to perfection, a gooey treat for anyone craving the rich desserts missing at many local cafes and restaurants.
No need to hurry out of the Coffee Bean after finishing their drinks and snacks. Like the original Coffee Bean locations, the Jerusalem branch is perfectly designed for informal social gatherings and extended individual study sessions. LA's infamous urban sprawl finds only positive expression here, with generous amounts of space between the counter and the two seating areas, and between the tables themselves. Unlike at so many other Jerusalem cafes and coffee bars, Coffee Bean patrons needn't be acrobats to move between tables or reach the bathroom.
Floor-to-ceiling windows also greatly enhance the Coffee Bean experience, with tons of natural light brightening the sleek coffee-themed photographs adorning the cafe's light yellow walls. A brick fireplace stands empty for now - there's no reason to impede the pleasant chill emanating from the store's powerful air-conditioning system - but the incongruity of a rustic fire in Jerusalem may add to the pleasures of the place in winter.
On only its second day of operation, the Coffee Bean was already running with impressive efficiency, as knowledgeable servers explained the drinks to first-time customers and other workers cleared empty plates and glasses from tables. Assistant manager Mor Pilo noted that the new cafe's staff had trained for three months at a Tel Aviv-area Coffee Bean before last week's opening, and the hard work is evident immediately.
Not everyone will respond with the rapturous awe of the woman on the bicycle, but even for those who don't consider themselves serious coffee fanatics, the Coffee Bean more than merits a pilgrimage.