Last week I had lunch at Aroma Café & Kitchen in downtown Champaign. If you aren’t familiar, it’s located on North Neil Street, directly next door to Pekara Bakery. Aroma is neither strictly a bakery nor strictly a café; it’s more aligned with the culture of a bistro, in that it offers hot and cold beverages and quick, light meals.
I was meeting my husband for an impromptu, middle-of-the-week lunch, and was pleased to find parking directly in front of the establishment, and only a handful of people inside, which made for speedy ordering, and a wide selection of seating.
Like other places situated in downtown Champaign, Aroma is a long and narrow space. The walls are painted a bright, saturated yellow, teal accents are found throughout the space. This color palette is quite specific. It’s a statement. The yellow is more goldenrod than mellow, and announces its presence. A paler yellow dresses the longest wall, effectively turning the volume down just a little. The teal is intended to provide a cool counterpart to the warm, active yellow, and achieves this well, especially through the use of accent pillows in the frozen window seats. (They’d totally be inviting in warmer weather.) There are plenty of tables and chairs with enough seating for groups of two and four. There’s a fireplace in the back, which could have been really lovely (and warm!) had it been in use. Intentional or not, the aesthetics of this place encourage you to work; the colors stimulate your brain.
The staff were friendly and patient as I reviewed the menu options. The pastry selection was standard. The menu, posted high on the wall behind the counter, was also available as a small handout, which made me feel less like a gawking idiot.
I ordered the Ham & Apple wrap, and my husband ordered the Cheesy Beef & Bacon sandwich. Each included a side of our choice: fruit salad, Aroma salad, or chips and salsa. I selected the Aroma salad, and the spouse chose the fruit salad. Since we were visiting during Restaurant Week, we were also given the choice of a free pastry. I initially chose the brownie, but was told that the brownie was not part of the deal, so I ended up with a cinnamon scone, and my husband an apple Danish.
We chose a table at the back of the space, near the fireplace, and we were the only people back there. The barista made our lunches and brought them to our table. The plates were lovely looking, and quite enticing.
My wrap was served cold, as expected, with ham, lettuce, cheese, and apples folded and tightly tucked into the tortilla wrap. There was a healthy amount of ham in the wrap; I hate when places stuff a wrap full of lettuce and give you one thin slice of good stuff. In its entirety, the wrap was sweet. The ham, usually salty, sometimes smoky, was this time sweet, and joined the tart, crisp Granny Smith apple, crunchy lettuce, cheddar cheese, and sweet raspberry honey dressing in an unassuming wrap. The cheddar cheese was not particularly flavorful or pungent: there was some slight saltiness, but it served more purposefully as a shift in texture than in flavor. The wrap-maker was generous with the dressing, but I actually found it to be a little too sweet. Even though it was raspberry mustard, it was definitely more raspberry than mustard. Because the wrap was freshly made (or seemingly so), it wasn’t soggy from the dressing and moisture of its components. It was colorful and crispy — visually and texturally this wrap was on point.
The Aroma salad (mixed greens, goat cheese, walnuts, craisins, Dijon mustard vinaigrette) was also beautiful. The greens were fresh, and the toppings were generously distributed. The drizzled dressing was really well balanced, at just the right consistency and with the right amount of acidity. This standard combination of flavors and ingredients never gets old to me, and I’d gladly order a full size of this salad in the future. (Albeit perhaps on a hot summer day when I’m in the mood for something light and refreshing, and not when it’s three degrees outside.)
Despite it’s mildly unappetizing name, the Cheesy Beef and Bacon sandwich was quite good. The roast beef was warmed through without having been cooked to leather, the provolone was melty, and the bacon and lettuce were crispy. (Hubby opted for sandwich sans mayo, so I cannot comment on that.) The fluffy white bread was toasted, and lent a bit of toasty crunchiness to the otherwise soft-ish texture of the sandwich. The flavors were right on: the sandwich had the right amount of salt, and the right ratio of meat to cheese. The spouse enjoyed the sandwich, but indicated that he would have preferred better bread, something with a little heft, especially for the price tag.
The fruit salad was your standard fare: grapes, pineapple, melons. Perhaps I’m just getting old and developing tooth sensitivity, but the best part of the fruit salad was that it was cool, not super cold and thus painful to eat.
On a final note about wraps and sandwiches, I have it on good authority that Cuban sandwich is pretty good.
What about those sweets, you ask? Good question. My cinnamon scone was a nice size, and probably more than I really needed to eat. It was crunchy on the outside, particularly around the corners. The inside was very fluffy and not at all crumbly as one might expect of a scone. This scone was more cake-like than biscuit-like in texture. I did not sample the apple Danish, but the feedback I received was basically indifference.
This middle-of-the-week lunch totaled $19.60, but would have been $3.95 (plus tax) more expensive if we had to pay for the two baked goods. Both the wrap and the sandwich were $8.95, and I’m not entirely sure that I feel satisfied with the food to price ratio. In fact, I think that selecting the salad as the optional side made for the best deal, the portion was much more generous than the small fruit salad. The pricing at Aroma is a higher than that of their neighbors. Some sandwiches are going to cost you a little less at Pekara, but they are only served with a pickle; Café Kopi has sandwiches for less than $7, including a side. Seven Saints — not a café or bistro, by any means, but open for lunch and has free wi-fi, also owned by the same people — has combo plates ranging in price from $5.49-$8.49, and sandwiches, all of which come with a side, from $6.99-$9.99.
Aroma has a lengthy list of typical café beverages, including, of course, coffee and tea, but also hot cocoa, bubble tea, cafecito, Italian soda, and fruit and protein smoothies. Drinks range in price from $1.95 (12 ounces of coffee) to $4.35 (specialty drinks).
Downtown Champaign certainly isn’t lacking in options for a cup of coffee and a scone. Aroma appears to be slightly underutilized and under considered when shopping for a place to park your tush and use free wi-fi for a few hours. I happened to stop by the Champaign Public Library after my lunch, and the Latté Da Café was packed. When I left Aroma, there were a handful of people inside, with plenty of seating options. Perhaps the pricing is too high for Kopi or Pekara regulars, or maybe people are just unwilling to walk around the block. I’d definitely recommend Aroma to anyone looking for a light lunch, or looking for a quiet place to get some work done.
Aroma Café & Kitchen is located at 118 North Neil Street, Champaign, and open Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.