By Ashley Bennett
We know why good old SoCal is such a desirable place to live—we’ve got beaches, decent weather year-round and nearby mountains for a short winter snow trips (since none of us can stand anything below 70 degrees). However we take the good with the bad and deal with a high population count that results in terrible local traffic—and worst of all is our air quality. The temporary solution? Take a trip to Idyllwild. It’s the kind of place where you might imagine Arrowhead getting its water from. The high altitude with its noticeably crispy-clean air that (temporarily) acts as an airborne palate cleanser, of sorts. While that term doesn’t really exist, the clean air does allow for an enhanced sense of smell. That’s where Café Aroma comes in.
This restaurant properly represents a quaint rustic cabin, the look of which isn’t uncommon for the area. Orange lighting blends with the amber-colored wooden walls which extends into a special room called the “Casey Abrams Jazz Lounge” where we dined that evening. There you’ll find artistic interpretations of the American Idol Finalist, alongside smiling photographs—one of which features Abrams and his melodica (it’s a mini-keyboard and harmonica hybrid instrument). The people of Idyllwild, including chef and owner Frank Ferro, are especially proud to say that Abrams studied locally at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. The bathroom is loosely decorated for the infamous airborne “Mile High Club,” the theme of which inspired a customer to write a hand-written hate note describing how they would never go to the restaurant again and would proceed to tell everyone they knew about how terrible the restaurant is. Café Aroma responded by framing the note and placing it in the bathroom for all to see, which makes me even more excited to admit that the food here is amazing despite how you feel about the decor.
The Casey Abrams shrine and amusing bathroom theme might give Café Aroma a somewhat comical atmosphere but the food sticks to serious presentation. We began with the Aroma Cured Meat Board. It’s a pricey appetizer but the quality capicola, prosciutto and salami make up for that. Each piece has a strong, distinctive taste that mixed well with the complementing aged parmesan cheese and ciabatta bread.
At first glance the dishes are Italian at heart, but some items embrace French, Latin and even a few Asian-fused flavors. It was a tough choice but I couldn’t shake ordering the enticing Casey Abrams Gnocchi Alfredo. I don’t know the story behind Abrams’ themed dish but it seemed only fitting to taste it while dining in the Abrams Jazz Lounge. All I needed was Abrams’ optimistic “Simple Life” tune to play in the background while I dove into this plateful. White alfredo sauce and a good dose of parmesan cheese sprinkled the tender gnocchi dumplings which were complemented by a few good-sized, heavily marinara-marinated meatballs—a mouthful both in word form as well as in reality. The duo of cheesy dumplings and hearty meatball flavoring mixed well. And those gnocchi bites were plenty filling.
My dining partner’s Chicken Cacciatore also turned out to be a perfect pairing of flavors. The boneless chicken in this dish was exceptionally juicy—the way almost all chicken dishes should be. In this case it was thanks to a red wine marinara that the chicken bathed it, which made the dish a bright red creation of crispy vegetables (predominantly red bell peppers) and layered with slices of chicken underneath.
To simmer down our senses thickened with high powered flavors, we had a slice of Cafe Aroma’s Flourless Chocolate Cake. Unlike normal cake, which is often light and fluffy, flourless cake resembles more of a flattened, very thick brownie. It’s is an extremely rich slice drizzled with chocolate syrup and dashed with a little cinnamon. Each forkful is a sweet and luscious rush of dark chocolate.
Although the place employs some great, subtle jokes in a relaxed atmosphere, it’s a serious business with some seriously good food. The atmosphere only heightens the senses and gets you ready for a terrific dining experience, but it’s Café Aroma’s food that ultimately makes it worth a trip to those nearby mountains.
Cafe Aroma, 54750 N. Circle Dr., Idyllwild-Pine Cove, (951) 659-5212; www.cafearoma.org. Open Sun-Thurs, 7am-9pm. Fri-Sat, 7am-10pm. AE, D, MC, V.