Sunday, May 27, 2012

I Need-a AIDA

I sat there on the balcony Friday evening, an end-of-the-week glass of chilled Moscato in my hand, and I said to the Sous Chef:

"I want to go to a trendy, loungey place with good foodie food and wine."

It was not the first time I've said that.  As much as I love living in Columbia, sometimes I crave the feel of a real city city.  You know, the kind of place where you can have a couple of cocktails at home and then the only decision you have to make after that is whether to turn left or right out of your front door; the city decides the rest.

But we're in the suburbs.  So instead, we turned to our smart phones.  One shake of the Urbanspoon app later, and we were headed to AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar.  I'd heard of it before, perused the menu and ratings, but hadn't ever ventured there.  It sounded like the perfect Friday evening adventure.

Image from TripAdvisor
We drove over to Columbia Gateway Drive, which is a big corporate area.  Techy-looking office buildings and not much else.  Busy during the work week, dead after Friday at five - you know the type of locale.  The Sous Chef was skeptical when we came up to the restaurant, which, from the outside, looks like it used to be a bank.  But I was undeterred.

One thing you learn from living in Columbia, a.k.a. Land of the Unassuming Exteriors - never judge a business by how it looks on the outside.

Once inside, we were quite pleased.  Straight ahead of us was the bar, our new favorite place to sit.  A bar is a naturally social place, and the Sous Chef and I have had some great conversations with total strangers while sitting and enjoying a meal at the bar.  Plus, we've found that the bartenders (at least at the local places, not necessarily the chain restaurants) are sort of the Dons of the place.  They know the food, they know the drinks, they know the staff.  We took a couple of seats at the bar, and I immediately noticed two things:  1) They had wine - on tap; and 2) The bar TV was tuned in to the Food Network.

AIDA has the largest Wine on Tap system in Maryland

Oh, yes.  Oh yes indeed.

We were immediately greeted by Kate, the bartender.  I liked her right off the bat.  From the way she described the specials, you could tell that she genuinely likes food.  I hate it when you go to a restaurant and the server lists the specials like they're balancing their checkbook - not appealing at all.  Kate, on the other hand, gave us descriptions that made us both start salivating like Pavlovian dogs.

The Sous Chef immediately knew he wanted the special of the night - slow-braised pork shank.  We also ordered two other items: a smoked duck breast flatbread with caramelized onions, mushrooms, goat cheese, and ricotta, and some cornmeal-crusted fried oyster crostini with chipotle salsa.

Needless to say, it was a bit smoky over at our corner of the bar.  I thought the oyster crostini was a bit too smoky, but the Sous Chef was in heaven - I think he could have eaten those all night.  The smokiness of the duck breast on the flatbread was balanced nicely by the creamy tang of the goat cheese-ricotta mixture.  The portions weren't too large, which was a really good thing once the main course came out.

When you picture a pork shank, do you picture a pristinely butchered bone sticking straight up out of a mound of buttery, falling-off-the-bone tender meat?  Because that's what we got.  Meat.  Yummy, fancy meat.  Again, the Sous Chef was speechless with pleasure.  The only noises we were making at that point could have been easily confused with another pleasurable activity, had we been anywhere but at a restaurant bar.

Then it was time for dessert.  A.k.a. "Step Aside and Let Me Drive, Sous Chef" Time.  We ordered two desserts (yes, two - haven't you figured me out by now?):  a peanut butter and chocolate terrine with a fruit sauce, aptly called the "PBJ", and the chocolate bread pudding.

Oh.  My.  Gracious.

I'm so glad the Sous Chef said we could get two desserts.

The bread pudding was fantastic - warm, spongey, chocolatey bread and custard with a deliciously oozy caramel sauce.  What is it about bread pudding?  How is it possible for it to be crusty, yet soft?  Rich, yet light?  Decadent, yet homey?

The terrine was quite a different dessert experience, but just as satisfying - cool, with a delicate and rich truffle-like texture to the chocolate and peanut butter filling combined with a tangy hit from the fruit sauce.

I ask you, is there a flavor combination that speaks more to a woman's soul than chocolate and peanut butter?

It didn't take us very long to demolish both desserts.  They're lucky we weren't licking the plates clean.

At that point, a musician was in the corner of the bar playing live acoustic guitar, which just added to the great atmosphere.  Kate the Bartender was very happy to talk to us about the restaurant's history, and even took me backstage to see the wine tap system - a chilly room with large containers of wine, all temperature-regulated by a complicated-looking system of tubes and electrical tape.  She pointed out the red wine blend that the restaurant's owners had personally designed.


Speaking of owners, Joe Barbera, one half of the husband and wife team that runs AIDA, came over and talked to the Sous Chef and me for a while.  He was very friendly and recommended that we come back to try the homemade pasta, which is apparently phenomenal.  Don't worry, Joe, we'll be back soon, I'm sure.

All in all, I really enjoyed my experience at AIDA.  It had the feel of a local, family operated place, but a level of class that you don't get at a lot of Mom-and-Pop restaurants.  Kate told us that the restaurant sources as many of their ingredients as they can from local vendors and farms, and I love being able to support that, even if it means paying a little bit more when the check comes.

AIDA is serious about wine and food, a passion that is apparent not only in the warm and friendly atmosphere, but also in what arrives in front of you both on a plate and in a wine glass.

Eat well.

Aida Bistro & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. I was there on Friday!!!!!! and I had the most enjoyable evening!

  2. I've been there numerous times since I moved to the area. You hit the nail on the head with your description of the ambiance, food and th staff. And joe is correct, the homemade pasta is al dente and delicious!

    1. I can't wait to try the pasta! Thanks for commenting!

  3. The best restaurant in the D.C. - Baltimore area - without question! Chef Sean makes the most amazing shanks no matter what the meat ingredient. I had the pork shank recently and it was fantastic. So glad you discovered this gem of a restaurant - but, what took you so long??? I've been going there for 9 or the 10 years they have been in business - and almost feel like a part of the Barberra family!! Hope you had a chance to meet Ms. Aida who gives the place elegance and charm.

    1. Believe me, Suzy, I'm kicking myself for not discovering this place four years ago when I moved to Columbia! ;-)

  4. We love it there too. Really nice wines and I always get great recommendations from the wait staff. I am going to sit at the bar next time - sounds like fun!

    I hope the end of the year goes well for you. I can't wait to hear about your summertime adventures. :)

    Kelly Thompson

  5. Loved what you said about Columbia and the land of the unassuming exteriors, so true. I'd say the new location is a step up from when they were located in the strip mall across the street. At least you can see the restaurant from the street now, whereas before unless you were going to there you'd never know it was there. Great review, now I'm craving it again.