It's been just about a year since the Aida Bistro folks packed up their pots and moved to their new location. The effort has evidently paid off, as business was brisk on two recent visits.
There's a spacious feel when you enter the front door into the wine bar, which boasts high-top tables where you can sit and sip and wait to be seated in the main dining room. (Or just stay right there and sip and eat.) Behind the bar is a glassed-in "cellar," where the dozens of wines, stored in kegs rather than bottles (to reduce the carbon footprint, we're told), are kept at perfect temperatures.
The décor is contemporary and relaxed with high ceilings, low lighting, lots of wood and earth tones.
There's an eating area in the kitchen, too, where most nights executive chef Sean Riggs hosts private cooking demonstrations and tasting dinners.
As with the décor, the Aida menu seems deceptively simple. The kitchen emphasizes local seasonal ingredients, offering bistro-style dishes, many with a decided Italian accent. Sauces, breads, cheeses, pasta -- virtually all are homemade.
And then there's the $39 prix fixe menu, which changes weekly and offers tryouts of dishes that often end up on the regular menu, according to owner Joe Barbera. This is where Chef Riggs really gets to strut his stuff. You can choose a pair of appetizer-type dishes and one main dish. All are small plates, but a combination of the three will satisfy most eaters.
One of our guests opted to order one of his ultimate comfort foods: spaghetti and meatballs ($14.99). The dish featured a pair of almost-baseball-size meatballs that were meaty and tender, like Mom's (well, better actually), and a satisfying mound of homemade linguine with a rich, balanced marinara sauce.
The rest of the entrées were from the prix fixe menus, including a pasta featuring lobster, shrimp and crab tossed with fresh veggies and fettuccine, topped with a sauce of comforting tarragon cream with just enough herb to enhance but not overwhelm the seafood. A larger version of the dish was also available on the regular menu.
The blackened swordfish (a fair-sized but thinly sliced piece that was moist and "meaty" and not overly blackened) was set over a bland-looking mound of carrot-colored polenta whose flavor, enhanced by roasted red peppers, was a charming surprise. With black bean and corn guacamole dolloped atop the fish, this one is a creative and winning combination.
One of the "autumnal" selections was the tender boneless braised beef short rib, which bespoke a long and loving cooking time. The carrot purée beneath was as mellow and sweet as the wine enhanced beef was hearty. And what better to pull it all together than a portion of crisp-tender braised red cabbage.
Aida Bistro has much to recommend it -- from its executive chef and his staff to the front-of-the-house folks to its ambiance to its owners, Joe and Mary Barbera, who, along with Joe's mom, Aida, are almost always on premise to greet you.
In keeping with Italian holiday tradition, Aida Bistro will feature a special menu focusing on the "Feast of Seven Fishes" on Dec. 23 and 24. To ring in the new year, there'll be special four-course celebratory menus on Dec. 30 and 31. The bistro will be closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Aida Bistro, 6741 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia. 410-953-0500. www.aidabistro.com.