Bistro Goes Bigtime Here's Hoping Service Will Follow @

DINING OUT

March 14, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Cafe Troia, 28 W. Allegheny Ave., Towson, (410) 337-0133. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, Mondays to Saturdays for dinner. AE, D, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$8.50; entrees: $10-$19.

In its early days, Troia's had a couple of tables; but mostly you stopped there to pick up ingredients for supper from the deli counter -- some homemade marinara sauce, perhaps, and a chunk of imported Parmesan.

Over the years it quietly became more of a bistro and less of a deli. The owners added a few more tables (including some on the sidewalk when the weather was warm enough), and Troia's became Cafe Troia, with a reputation for good, authentic Italian cuisine. It was the kind of place you could get, say, a fine osso buco.

The days of quiet expansion are over. Late this fall Cafe Troia became a full-fledged restaurant, taking over the space next door, more than doubling the number of tables and adding a wine bar.

If you aren't stuck in the white-tiled original dining area near the deli counter, you'll find the setting romantic and somewhat dTC formal. The high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass of the two new dining rooms are warmed by peach-tinged neutrals, flowery banquettes, pink undercloths on the tables and burgundy carpeting.

The food, for the most part, is up to the setting; but our evening wasn't an unqualified success. The staff is still in its small, quirky bistro mode -- in spite of the fact that, with a bottle of wine, dinner for two could very well cost $100.

It started when I tried to make reservations at 7 p.m. but ended up with 6:45 p.m., because someone had our table at 8:45. When I asked what would happen if we weren't finished at 8:45, I was told the next party could wait at the bar "for a few minutes." I started to worry before I hung up the phone about whether we'd be through in time.

And then one of my guests had to send her first course back. It was a plate of three prawns, heads still on, arranged with caviar set in a scooped-out lemon quarter, a decorative scallion and three leaves of lettuce. Very pretty, as it should have been for $8.

I'm not going to argue my guest's case and say the shrimp were undercooked, although they were gray and gelatinous at their centers (as she showed the waiter). That's not the point. What I am going to complain about is that the chef sent the poor waiter back to tell her, "The chef says they aren't undercooked. In fact, he says they're overcooked."

But she showed admirable restraint. After he put the plate back in front of her, she didn't dump it on the floor, as I would have. She was too dumbfounded.

The service in general was ragged, with sauce spilled on our tablecloth, water glasses left unfilled, long waits between courses, dishes put in front of the wrong people. Even the hostess got in the act, by interrupting our waiter in mid-sentence as he was showing us the dessert tray. (For some reason she had to give him a check -- which he didn't have a hand for -- right then.) It was rude to him, and it was rude to us.

On to happier things. My guest with the prawns didn't go hungry; she shared my bresaola. The tissue-thin slices of dry-cured beef tenderloin were delicious with a drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice and Troia's excellent bread.

The soup of the day, minestrone, was an all-white version, with a rich broth, white beans and pasta -- but no colorful vegetables like tomatoes or carrots. Subtle isn't a word I'd normally use to describe minestrone, but it fit here.

The same restraint was used in a dish the chef named menage a trois: a fresh fillet of red snapper with more of those shrimp, cooked properly this time, and mussels in their shells. The well-flavored sauce wasn't much more substantial than a broth. Although the seafood was wonderfully fresh, it didn't interest me as much as my cassoulet -- as good a version as I've had. The beans, sausage and duck casserole was intensely flavorful, and warming on a chilly night.

Pollo alle Castagne, a refined combination of tastes and textures, involved tender boneless chicken breasts, the sweet flavor of minced chestnuts, a pale, delicate sauce and little triangles of crisp-edged polenta. Unfortunately, no one must have looked at the plate before it left the kitchen; everything on it was beige, covered with beige sauce, and the china was white. The sprinkling of minced parsley didn't begin to jazz it up.

Cafe Troia always has a pasta of the day. This day the fusilli was overwhelmed by too much broccoli raab, a pungent-bitter, kalelike vegetable. But the small menu does have a couple of other choices of comparatively inexpensive pastas -- to balance the $37 risotta for two.

Desserts are designed to follow a generous dinner. I like that. None will overwhelm you with its size or richness. The tiramisu and Key lime pie were dainty and delicious; but a pretty strawberry tart had a crust too hard to cut with a fork, and a napoleon was all flaky pastry and not enough pastry cream.

So the food isn't perfect. It's still some of the most interesting cooking around. Once Cafe Troia gets its service under control, this will be a restaurant to watch.

Next: Sisson's

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