Aroma Cafe, nestled in between Pekara and the Blind Pig Brewery in downtown Champaign, reopened under brand new ownership as of the first week of April. In general, it feels the same, but once you find your seat and begin to look around, you’ll begin to notice the changes — new pieces of artwork, new menu items, and a beautifully painted menu board to showcase them. Many of the dishes are almost exactly the same as items found on Aroma’s old menu (Cuban, Quesadilla, Aroma salad, and Chicken Wrap are old, familiar favorites); however the most striking addition is a selection of open-faced sandwiches called “Sexy Toasts.” I’ll get to that in a moment.
The service was extremely friendly and very knowledgeable. Our coffees, and later our food, were served right to our table. The one issue I came across with the overall operation is that there is only one table for three or more people to comfortably sit and eat. There is, of course, the big, comfy couch area in back, but we would have smeared balsamic all over their furniture if we’d gone that route.
When all of the plates arrived, I was immediately struck by the plate presentation. In my mind, one of the very best moments of a meal is the two–four seconds in between the time the plates hit the table and everyone picks up their forks. For one brief moment, your mind is flooded with colors, smells, hunger, and anticipation. I have to admit, I could have taken some really nice pictures if I hadn’t been so unspokenly hurried along by my mouth-breathing dining companions. I wasn’t too patient either. We were all starving, so I snapped a few quick shots and dove in.
The first item I went for was the Cuban. As someone who just loves the hell out of
a good Cuban sandwich, I was especially excited to try this. Aroma’s version of this classic sandwich starts with herbed ciabatta bread, layered with the usual suspects: pork, thinly sliced ham, swiss cheese, dill pickle, and dijon mustard. The sandwich is finished in a panini press, giving the bread a divine crispness and melting the swiss into every crevice. The new owners have vastly improved on this sandwich. A few reliable sources had only one consistent complaint of the sandwich from the previous menu — the bread was too thick, too crunchy.
The real challenge of a Cuban sandwich is the bread — achieving a satisfying crunch without destroying the roof of your mouth. Almost every Cuban I’ve ever loved falls under the mouth-destroying category, with bread so crunchy that I end up discarding one of the slices and going in open-faced, fork-and-knife style. That was definitely not the case here. The bread was perfect, not acting as an obstacle, but as a perfect vehicle for all the goodness inside.
Next up, the “Sexy Toasts.” First, we tried the braised short rib “Sexy Toast” — an ample helping of braised short ribs with caramelized onions, horseradish cream, and dry-aged balsamic vinegar. The short ribs should have been the standout star of this dish, however the beef took a backseat to the in-your-face flavors of the balsamic and horseradish. I found this to be quite distracting; however Paul was pleased with the juxtaposition of sauces. We were surprised to find that the sandwich wasn’t served hot. I’m not sure if this is the case across the board for the “Sexy Toasts,” but if any of them needed to be heated up, this was the one.
The Smoked Salmon “Sexy Toast” had all the right ingredients for a perfect storm, but surprisingly fell flat. The salmon itself was nice — subtly smoky, a perfect backdrop to showcase the other flavors, but this was like a middle school dance where none of the awkward kids could bear to leave the safety of the wall. This dish needed that one ingredient to bust out onto the dance floor, showing everyone how to let loose. I assumed the wasabi aioli would be that one ingredient, but the potentially spicy condiment stayed relegated to its comfy spot against the wall, only occasionally appearing to add touch of horseradish flavor.
Personally, the name “Sexy Toasts,” is distracting and somewhat misleading. You can get any “Sexy Toast” as an open-faced sandwich on ciabatta bread, but also as a wrap or a salad, and I would like to try them either of those ways in the future. “Sexy Toasts” on ciabatta bread were very difficult to eat, although entertaining to watch others try. Make sure to grab plenty of napkins!
All entrees are served with your choice of one side, a few of which are decidedly Middle-Eastern inspired. Paul invited his mother (of Lebanese descent) for a fresh perspective on their couscous, hummus, and tabouleh, all of which were the overall favorites of the table. The hummus plate arrived as a simple dish of perfectly seasoned hummus, dusted with paprika, served alongside toasted pita and a lightly dressed bell pepper salad. The bell peppers elevated the hummus from great to excellent, adding a lovely splash of color, texture, and flavor to the whole affair. The tabouleh and couscous were perfect — both were light and fresh, perfect companions and palate cleansers for the rich Cuban sandwich and Braised Short Rib “Sexy Toast.”
We also sampled the Aroma salad — a sweet and savory blend of fresh field greens, dried cranberries, toasted walnuts, and blue cheese, finished with a blackberry vinaigrette. This is a sure-fire house salad that can be played with in a dozen different ways to make it new and interesting. I prefer the clean, creamy tanginess of goat cheese to earthy blue cheese, but this combo is a refreshing departure from the usual caesar and cobb salads available on most menus around town.
Overall, while there were faults to be found with a few dishes here and there, I’m thrilled to see some new and exciting twists on typical cafe fare. Paul, Mama Dudley, and I left Aroma stuffed and happy. I’d like to return again soon to try a few other “Sexy Toasts” as a “Sexy Salad” or “Sexy Wrap,” but I will always seek out this downtown mainstay as a comfortable and relaxing environment to chat with a friend, enjoy a cup of coffee, or hammer out a term paper.
Aroma Cafe is located at 118 N. Neil St. in downtown Champaign. Their hours of operation have changed. New hours are 7–9 p.m. M–Th, 7–10 p.m. F, 8–10 p.m. Sat, and 8–9 p.m. Sun.