Back to the future at Towson Town Center; Restaurant: Bistro Sensations in the mall offers a taste of what eating out will be like if current trends continue.; SUNDAY GOURMET


I wouldn't be reviewing Bistro Sensations, Towson Town Center's newest eating place, if I didn't think it's an example of the restaurant of the future.

You'll find the half-market, half-cafe on the mall's lowest level where the Garden Cafe used to be. Its bright neon sign is softened by a warm yellow-and-blue color scheme, hand-painted murals, decorative tile and a fire glowing in the brick pizza oven. The staff is attentive, friendly and eager to please (although that may not be true when they get swamped; things were slow the evening we were there).

The bistro's pleasant, two-level dining area boasts a fountain, black-and-white tile floors and handsome cafe furniture. Fresh flowers brighten each table -- pretty snazzy for a place where you pick up your own food. (A busboy removes dirty dishes.) Something needs to be done with what was once the Garden Cafe's bar, since the bistro, part of a New Jersey-based chain, doesn't sell liquor. But other than that, the bistro is the prettiest, and right now the quietest, spot to eat in the mall.

So Bistro Sensations (where did they come up with that name?) doesn't have table service. Is that why I say it's the restaurant of the future? Nope, but because you don't have to wait for a waiter, you do you get your food quickly, and prices are reasonable. At the same time, the emphasis is on the hippest fast food around, much of it cooked to order. Eateries of the future, it seems to me, will be balancing the need for speed with the desire for fresh, cooked-to-order fare. And they'll deep-six the Styrofoam.

Let's say after work you stop at the mall and then don't have much time left to cook dinner. You can pick it up at Bistro Sensations. But if you elect to eat there, you don't get stuck with plastic plates and paper cups. Pastas and soup come in large white bowls, and entrees are dished up on colorful plates. You eat with stainless-steel flatware and drink your herbal raspberry iced tea in a real stemmed glass.

The malls in White Marsh and Columbia have their own Bistro Sensations, but the Towson franchise is the most ambitious; it's the only one that boasts its own brick oven. Where else in a food-court eatery are you going to get a chicken-and-sun-dried-tomato pizza with a freshly made crust that's baked in a brick oven? (Technically, of course, the market-cafe isn't in the food court; but the place doesn't have the feel of a separate restaurant like Towson Town Center's Rainforest Cafe, Silver Diner or TGI Friday's.)

When you enter Bistro Sensations you can choose the right side, where the open kitchen is, or the left side, which has an array of fresh salad ingredients, sandwiches (on crusty bread or focaccia), wraps and soups like tomato basil or Maryland white crab. The tomato soup is fresh-tasting and fragrant with basil; the salad we tried was a bit heavy on iceberg, but I like the fact that balsamic vinaigrette is as common a house dressing these days as orange French used to be.

Sandwiches, salads and soups can be had in various inexpensive combination meals. But if you want more of a dinner, your choices are a chicken du jour, fish du jour (both served with saffron rice and zucchini the evening we were there), pasta or pizza. That night the chicken was cut in chunks and placed on a fat portobello mushroom cap with broccoli florets and snippets of green pepper, then topped with a delicate, buttery sauce that would have made cardboard taste good.

If you want a pasta dish you choose from farfalle, fettuccine and a couple of others and six or so sauces. If you order pomodoro basilico, for instance, the chef heats up his chafing dish, adds olive oil, garlic, tomatoes (too much garlic in this case and not enough tomatoes) and seasonings. When the sauce is ready, he tosses it with the already cooked pasta. The whole process takes about five minutes, and it's mildly fun to watch.

Likewise, our pizza had been made up in advance but was baked while we waited. The chicken-and-sun-dried-tomato topping tasted fine, but in the kitchen's haste to get the pizza out to us, the crust hadn't been baked long enough. It's a delicate balancing act that the bistro hadn't quite mastered yet.

Desserts are limited to hand-dipped ice cream (cones, sundaes or banana splits) or crepes. A theme here seems to be if you have to wait for your food at least you can be entertained. A few teen-agers wandered in from the mall just to watch our huge French pancake being cooked. It was filled with fresh strawberries, drizzled delicately with chocolate syrup and edged with whipped cream. One of these delicacies would feed two easily, as would the chocolate sundae in an old-fashioned glass sundae dish made with new-fangled toffee-crunch ice cream.

A final note: As of this writing, Bistro Sensations doesn't accept credit cards, although the manager says it will soon.


Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: Towson Town Center, Dulaney Valley and Joppa roads

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Everything under $10

Call: 410-823-3130

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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