Found! Tucked-away Aromas worth the hunt

Dish just returned from a weekend on the Northern Neck (that little sliver of land between the Rappahannock and Potomoc rivers), where it took a lot more than a good map to find the best crab cakes, fried oysters, or barbecue sandwich. Eager to keep the hunt alive and exercise my developing navigational skills, I set out this week to finally find Aroma's Café.

Friends have been urging me to visit this mysterious Mediterranean café located in the cafeteria of a Department of Forestry building somewhere deep in the Fontaine Research Park. A few (pathetic, I admit) attempts over the years proved futile. This time, however, I wouldn't take no for an answer. Besides, it was lunchtime, and my stomach was already on the growl.

Since it's in a state-owned building in a UVA-owned medical park, Aroma's can display no signs. To get there, you must enter the Fontaine Research Park (off Fontaine Ave), turn right, and follow Natural Resources Drive up the hill until you see a sizeable one-story brick building on your left. On the day of my hunt, the visitors' parking lot out front was eerily empty. This doesn't look right, I thought to myself. But an "Aroma's" sandwich board near the door gave me the confidence to park and go inside.

Turning left down the silent entry corridor, I discovered a basic cafeteria– with an almost surreal Moroccan twist. Instead of meatloaf and macaroni, the glass case in the self-service line revealed platters of blackened eggplant, mounds of golden couscous, piles of pita, and triangles of glistening baklava. Presiding over the scene– which included a half-dozen people in the order line and about 15-20 in-the-know others scattered about the seemingly vast dining room– was chef-owner Hassan Kaisoum.

"My pleasure, it's a pleasure to have you here," he kept repeating as he quickly moved from table to table, pouring iced tea and serving and clearing plates of chicken schwarma with spicy habiba sauce, sandwiches like his famous El Morocco, feta-dressed salads, and bowls of homemade soup.

I spotted Christian Tamm, owner of Christian's Pizza, at a nearby table.

"This place is an example of how the owner's personality is the business," he observed. "People come here for Hassan as much as for his food."

"Hassan is open and demonstrative," says new sous-chef Keahi Lum Ho. "You know his principles right up front– plus he's a wizard with spices."

Born in Morocco and trained in France and San Francisco, Kaisoum moved to Charlottesville– via Morocco, France, San Francisco, Portland and Maui– with his family eight years ago.

"I vowed to my family to never work full-time restaurant hours again," he said. The cafeteria, which had been closed down for weeks when he discovered it by accident one day, turned out to be an ideal location.

"Everyone thought I was crazy opening here," he said, "but then people tasted my food, and they came back."

Adding to its allure, Aroma's opens only for weekday lunches from 11:30-2. But the kitchen stays busy all week as the home base for Aroma's Catering.

Secrets can stay hidden for only so long– especially when there's good food and a vibrant personality involved. In fact, Kaisoum told Dish he has already found a higher-profile location for Aroma's Café #2. He wasn't able to reveal the exact location, but confirmed that it's not on the Downtown Mall or The Corner.

Though it will have the same Mediterranean menu, the new café will have more generous hours– 8am-5pm– and will be reminiscent of a Parisian café with house-made breakfast pastries and coffees. Kaisoum is also in the final phases of bottling and going wholesale with his all-natural sauces and dressings.

"This isn't work, it's play," he says.

Hassan Kaisoum and Keahi Lum Ho at Aroma's Café