The original location had the intimate feel of a family-run bistro, but it always lacked a few things that the Barberas wanted, principally enough kitchen space to sustain a lunchtime operation and a bar area where people could gather before their meal, or just because they wanted a nice space to meet friends for a glass of wine and a bite to eat.
The bar area, with seating for 40 at tables and the bar, is an inviting space. It's at the entrance and provides a visual introduction to the warm wood and Tuscany colors that dominate the main dining area. Three eager and gracious young bartenders were waiting to take our order and introduce us to Aida's specialty cocktails and innovative wine-on-tap program.
The main dining room (there are private dining rooms, too) is a wood-trimmed, butterscotch-colored square with just enough visual details to save it from bland handsomeness. On one wall, a striking fixture holds bottles of wines; on the back wall, slatted windows offer glimpses into the steaming kitchen. But mostly, the decor is very minimal. (In fact, some art on the walls might help keep down the noise level).
There are grace notes throughout the evening that kept pulling us back on Aida's side. Good bread, once a dinner order is placed, is brought to the table with cruets of olive oil for dipping. I liked that the restaurant was equipped with a bus staff, and I especially liked how our (slightly harried) waiter dispatched a bartender to catch up with our wine and drink needs when he was otherwise engaged. Later, Lavazza coffee made lingering over dessert a pleasure.
There are distractions, too. The confusingly laid-out printed menu fails to clarify for diners the difference between its a la carte and fixed-price options. (The $38 dinner allows diners to choose two first-course items and one main-course entree, all of them in reduced portions. This option will be available for $36.10 throughout Howard County's winter dining promotion, which continues through Jan. 31.)
The dinner we had was uneven, with flashes of pure pleasure but more moments that felt unresolved, or even tentative. In general, big notes sounded better than little ones; meat came off very, very well. Chalk up a few of my objections to crankiness. Appetizers like flash-fried calamari and flash-fried rock shrimp would make a better impression if the kitchen went ahead and dressed them; the side sauces are fine but feel detached. There was, though, a fine grilled heart of romaine, served with homemade Caesar dressing, and lovely duck confit over homemade ravioli, stuffed a little too full of ricotta.
A decomposed salad of pears and blueberry Stilton badly wanted something (not a fig vinaigrette) to relieve its sweetness; a warm and runny goat-cheese croquette elevated another salad, but it was disappointing to see the same familiar-looking bed of lettuces on both plates. A lentil-and-sausage soup was frustratingly shy of spice and sausage.
Entrees were generally better. One of the splendid meat saviors was a special — a bartender tipped us off to it — a gorgeous lamb shank, treated and presented simply, falling apart at the touch, and delivering big, rich flavors. This was served over a broad bed of decidedly overcooked risotto, flavored robustly with Parmesan and the lamb's juices. The other meat star was a magnificently luscious veal tenderloin, served in ruby strips, sided nicely with truffled puree, a fine brandy peppercorn sauce and that evening's omnipresent haricots verts.
The veal was one of the second-course options from the $38 menu, as was a blackened tuna fillet that was stacked, along with slices of avocado, atop a fried green tomato, accompanied by a cabbage and poblano pepper slaw. It sounds more exciting than it was. The menu's description indicated a finishing touch of lime-and-cilantro vinaigrette, but we couldn't find it. It was just what the dish needed, too.
Two pasta dishes had issues. The eggplant parmigiana was breaded flabbily and the shrimp fra diavlo (sauteed shrimp served over linguine) spiced far too mildly — this despite a warning from our very good waiter that it was too spicy.
Dessert is limited to a few very good homemade items. I liked the non-sweet ricotta fillings on the homemade cannoli, and we all flipped for a hazelnut-finished orange-chocolate ganache. Just terrific.
It feels mostly like a period of adjustment at Aida, for both the customers and the kitchen. I'm not even sure Aida is still a bistro. It might now be … a restaurant.
Aida Bistro & Wine Bar
Where: 6741 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia
Contact: 410-953-0500, http://www.aidabistro.com
Hours: Open for dinner Monday through Saturday and for lunch Monday through Friday
Prices: Appetizers, $12.99-$13.99
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ ; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]