Columbia’s Aida Bistro & Wine Bar has been a Howard County favorite since it opened in 2002. Loyal customers have followed the restaurant through several changes, including relocation and the introduction of an innovative — and cool — tap system for serving wines by the glass or carafe.
During summer of 2014, owners Joe and Mary Barbera ushered in another set of changes, as former sous-chef Nina Swartz took over as executive chef and the restaurant introduced a new menu offering entrées at a mix of prices. The new menu includes a selection of “classic” Italian dishes along with appetizers and small and large entrée options that take some creative liberties with traditional Italian cooking.
During our visit, a few weeks after the debut of the new menu, the restaurant was bustling with diners who appeared eager to experiment, especially with Aida’s appetizers and small plates.
The new menu read like a dream, but in practice our meal was imperfect, though it showed promise. A few tweaks, both from the kitchen and the waitstaff, would have improved the experience.
The highlight of our dinner came at the start, with a trio of arancini (fried risotto balls) stuffed with braised chicken, fig and blue cheese, then drizzled with honey balsamic sauce.
Fig, blue cheese and balsamic are a traditional mix, though the combination of strong flavors initially made us nervous. We shouldn’t have been. The kitchen balanced the flavors carefully, creating a single, cohesive taste that was savory, sweet and tangy all at once.
Entrées appeared thoughtful, but their execution was clumsy. A plate of ravioli stuffed with shrimp and herbed mascarpone, sauced with a pale green sugar snap pea puree, looked gorgeous. The shrimp was well-seasoned and cooked nicely, and the pasta itself was lovely. The cheese, on the other hand, was under-seasoned, and the pea puree, though pretty, tasted slightly odd.
A large entrée of veal marsala with wild mushrooms had almost all the right stuff, but the sauce needed more salt. Plus, the veal had been cooked a bit too long, rendering the usually tender meat tough and chewy.
Dessert was another near-hit. Our order of affogato, or ice cream topped with hot espresso, arrived as just a dish of ice cream. The salted caramel scoops were very good — but they weren’t what we ordered.
Mix-ups like the dessert snafu turned our attention to the service, which was professional and friendly — everyone from our waitress to the busboys had a ready smile — but disjointed. Our waitress disappeared for long stretches of time — we didn’t even spot her in the room — leaving the bussers to deliver our food and check on us as we ate.
The wine list is where Aida shines most. The restaurant has 30 wines on tap, available in a three-ounce taste, five-ounce glass or as a half or full carafe, in addition to an extensive list of wines available by the bottle. Both lists are dominated by California wines, but the thoughtful combination of varietals includes something for everyone.
The Acrobat rosé from Oregon was fresh, fruity and an apt match for the light ravioli; the Dancing Coyote petite sirah from California was spicy with pepper and big enough to stand up to the marsala.
The bar also showed its chops on the cocktail front, with the impressively well-balanced Blue Light, a mix of blueberry vodka, lemon and ginger beer that was surprisingly bright and fun.
Unfortunately, with our waitress tough to track down, our glasses didn’t stay as full as we’d have liked throughout the meal. She realized it was a problem, apologizing both early on (after a lengthy wait for our first drinks) and when she handed us the check.
We appreciated the apology. Ultimately, the service — like the food — had strengths but would benefit from fine-tuning. When the kitchen and service match the success of Aida’s wine program, the restaurant will be unstoppable.