A Columbia Bistro Just Misses the High Notes
My Howard County scouts took me to Aida Bistro last January, and we had a decent but not entirely persuasive meal. I had forgotten several things that tempered my enthusiasm, but they surfaced again on a recent visit. For one thing, there's that not-so-snazzy overflow dining room where we were seated (see: Siberia, dining in restaurant's). The much, much nicer main dining room is painted in mustards and eggplants, with occasional instances of operatic flair--curtains, banners--that you'd expect from a restaurant named after a tragic opera heroine. This room, which includes the smoke-free bar, is lively and noisy like a bistro should be. Dining out in Columbia often means driving into one of those Stepfordian corporate-park things, and Aida deserves a big ovation for creating a silk purse of a place in the middle of one.
On a more recent visit, a dish of tasty, well-seasoned olives was quickly brought to the table, along with bread and a cruet of olive oil. Then, I remembered--the olive oil is sort of bleh, probably fine for cooking but flat and dull-looking on the table. (Could it be that we've been spoiled by Donna's, where the dipping oil is always freshly mixed with Italian herbs?) The olive oil is only worth mentioning because the things we didn't thoroughly enjoy about our meal at Aida had to do with either a sense of something being held back or, worse, of not getting our money's worth.
A calamari appetizer ($9.99) raised our hopes, in spite of some occasional chewiness and a diagnosis that the squid was frozen. The breading was excellent, though, seasoned assertively and fried to a pleasant crunch. Especially good was the unapologetically peppery marinara sauce that came with it, served piping hot. Good sign.
Of the three salads we tried, the Aida bistro salad ($6.49/side $3.99) was the clear favorite, and the best house salad we've seen in a long while--especially fresh-looking and well-treated baby greens liberally coated with a perky vinaigrette. Shredded carrots and plenty of toasted pine nuts added crunch and variety. Somewhat less enthusiasm mounted for Giuseppe's Gorgonzola salad ($7.99), which combined more lovely greens with spiced walnuts and slices of tart green apples, but not nearly enough--or, perhaps not particularly piquant--Gorgonzola. The Caesare de Michael ($7.99/$4.79) was just the kind of Caesar salad that we've been getting everywhere--romaine lettuce, some cheese, never enough garlic. We realize that raw eggs are a thing of the past, but we expect at least some anchovy taste, lively garlic, and fresh shaved Parmesan in a Mediterranean restaurant.
The arrival at our table of a special "pasta sampler" ($19.99) revealed a textbook case of group delusion. Individually, we four had all read the following description "Pasta Sampler: homemade wild mushroom & fresh spinach ravioli and cheese ravioli topped with fresh basil pesto" and had conjured in our separate heads something of a showpiece platter. What arrived was two kinds of ravioli (cheese and mushroom/spinach) that looked about the same (encasing the fillings in differently colored wraps would have helped), covered generally with a creamy pesto sauce. The ravioli were big and bursting, the insides kind of mealy, the overall effect a bore.
Aida's penne alla puttanesca ($11.99) was so much better--terrific really. Everything worked here: no shyness now about the anchovies, nor the capers and olives; just enough fresh pasta cooked al dente; and more of that exemplary marinara sauce. Aida's pasta menu might be where to look if you visit.
We chose well with chicken Aida ($16.99), a boneless breast stuffed with spinach, mozzarella, and prosciutto di Parma. I wanted a little bit more prosciutto (who doesn't?), but the white wine and butter sauce added a lot of flavor. A dish named capesante conca d'oro ($19.99) was billed as a scallop dish but turned out to be a pasta dish. Far too much linguine overwhelmed far too little spinach (too bad, it was good and fresh) and six or so jumbo pan-seared scallops. Once the scallops and spinach were gone, my companion grew bored.
Aida has been something of a hit in Columbia--the dining room has a good vibe, and a lot of customers appeared to be known to the friendly owners, who seem genuinely committed. We left feeling the place was a bit expensive and wanting to have been thrilled a bit more.
Deli open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday; bistro open 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Divalicious: email@example.com.