Owings Mills--Who Knew?
I'm breaking a lot of rules with this review. By visiting on a Friday night, I flouted my own No Weekend Rule, believing that a kitchen can be overtaxed and fatigued on its busiest nights. I also bent but good the Six-Week Rule, visiting the brand new Cibo Bar and Grille while still in its "soft opening," menu-tweaking phase. And I ran roughshod through Exodus 12:15, which prohibits eating leavened bread during Passover. But fortunately, Cibo was cooking on all burners the night we visited, and although chef/owner Aldo Vitale (of Little Italy's Aldo's) probably would have appreciated more time before the press showed up, his joint appeared ready for prime time. As for breaking the law of God, well, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.
The look and feel of Cibo (pronounced "CHEE-bo"), which is located in a glossy office building in Owings Mills, will probably arouse mixed opinions--it reminded me of a hip soap-opera restaurant. That said, the main dining room is exceptionally well laid out, and the high-ceilinged bilevel room does provide both drama and intimacy.
Where Cibo's "casual cuisine" concept succeeds utterly is with its shrewdly devised and reasonably priced menu. That the food would be well-prepared, with fresh and local ingredients, and taste good, was not surprising--Aldo's has been an insider's destination in Little Italy for years. The printed menu isn't very long--only about a dozen entrées, a handful each of appetizers, soups, and entrée salads--but four people found the task of ordering up a representative menu mix very challenging, and even then we left whole categories--specialty sandwiches and panini--unexplored.
Our appetizers included calamari with aioli dipping sauce ($5.95). Some of us wanted a crunchier coating, but the squid itself was tender and we all dug the spicy sauce. The Cibo satay trio ($8.95), which assembled skewers of chicken, teriyaki beef, and marinated shrimp, was the evening's lone misfire--the beef was particularly toothsome, true, but the peanut sauce was zipless, and the presentation, for what was potentially a signature appetizer, lackluster. (This was one of the items actively being tweaked, we heard later. Tweak it a lot.) Much, much better was a shared pizza with broccoli rabe, garlic, and Italian sausage ($10.95)--generously sized, with a wholesome, crispy crust. We loved it but found ourselves getting precipitously full. A pizza and a shared entrée salad could easily make a meal.
The Kentucky limestone Bibb salad ($11.95) was certainly big enough to share--among four people. Filled with caramelized Vidalia onions and spiced pecans, and evenly tossed with a creamy champagne vinaigrette (please, I beg, don't ask for dressing on the side), it was topped with a bruléed medallion of Coach Farm goat cheese. As is, it's a substantial choice for vegetarians, but with the customary option of adding in meat or fish toppings (including an uncustomary lobster salad for an extra $11.95).
We tried the ahi tuna steaks ($19.95), which were served with bacon-and-chive smashed potatoes (without the bacon for us, no problem). The tasty steaks were well-prepared and generously sized, but an accompanying sautéed spinach was oversalted. For a more ambitious entrée, a whole sea bass ($19.95) is prepared either Mediterranean style (oven-roasted) or Hong Kong style (deep-fried), with garlicky tomato relish and seaweed salad. When bass is deep-fried but not breaded, it gives this mild and mellow fish meat just enough oomph to make it delicious.
The loudest praise, though, goes to the Cibo burger ($8.95). Topped with mouth-pleasing, creamy Gorgonzola ($1 extra), it was cooked just the way burger snobs like it--rare bordering on bloody--placed in a warm, toasted bun, and flattered with a heaping pile of greaseless sweet potato fries.
We also ordered a few side dishes ($3.95 each)--mushroom risotto and macaroni and cheese, the robust risotto coming off better than the unbubbly macaroni (a good choice for kids, though)--leaving little room for dessert, especially not the Cibo chocolate bender for two ($12.95). The one dessert we did order we didn't like--a warm apple tart ($5.95) with a fork-resistant rubbery crust.
If we didn't fall head-over-heels in love with Cibo's dining room, we sure fancied the oval-shaped bar, which a buff and shiny crowd has discovered already. The eye candy here includes an illuminated wine tower and two high-definition plasma screens, which would look so cool with continuous loops of Japanese anime, or old episodes of Coach, or anything but, good Lord, the Fox News Channel.