Salvador salad with scallops, dates, roasted red peppers on… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Steve Fox and Martha Todd, owners of Towson's Bread and Circuses Bistro, know how to get things done — and that bodes well for their restaurant.
Right now, the food at Bread and Circuses is on the safe side and the service needs fine-tuning. But Fox and Todd already have some plans in the works for the menu, and with their can-do attitude, the petite bistro has the potential to be something special.
Fox and Todd have been hustling since 2009 when they opened French Press Cafe, a small coffee shop in downtown Towson. Soon after they opened, they realized that to make a go of the cafe, they needed to move beyond lattes and pastries — and to become a full-fledged restaurant, they'd need a liquor license.
But Fox and Todd couldn't afford to buy a license in Towson. Frustrated with the existing system, they lobbied state and local representatives, and in 2010, an initiative to ease liquor licensing restrictions in Towson passed the state legislature. Fox and Todd snapped up a license and created a full menu, transforming French Press Cafe into Bread and Circuses Bistro (French Press signage is still up on the Chesapeake Avenue side of the restaurant).
Considering the crowd at Bread and Circuses on a recent Thursday night — groups of friends and couples of all ages (but few college students) — the venture looks like a success.
Outside and in, the bistro is full of charm. The outdoor bar was bustling when we arrived, and tables on the wooden deck quickly filled up. Inside, dark gray walls gave the small dining room a cozy feel. Stacks of books and offbeat art created a quirky vibe, but white linens dressed the space up.
Unfortunately, the space outclassed both our meal and the service. Our meals were competent but not exciting, and our waitress, though friendly as can be, was forgetful. A few times during the meal, she disappeared without explanation (we weren't the only diners trying to flag her down).
We started with drinks, including a huckleberry mojito ($9), which sounded great but proved underwhelming. We expected fresh huckleberries muddled with mint, but the too-sweet drink mixed the mint with premade huckleberry vodka. The wine list, on the other hand, was well-edited and approachable; we enjoyed the spicy fruit of the Alamos Malbec ($9).
Fox, who does the cooking and menu development, doesn't have any formal training. Though he has restaurant experience (including Towson's Ocean Pride and Kent Lounge), he had never worked in the kitchen before manning the Bread and Circuses' stove. While technically correct, his cooking lacks pizazz.
Several tables near us skipped dinner in favor of wine and appetizers — a good strategy, since the starters are dinner-worthy. The Summer Winds dip ($12), a creamy combination of crab, shrimp, scallops, cheese, tomato and corn, was the highlight of our meal. Bolstered by the corn, the seafood's sweetness was a surprisingly good match for crisp, thick slices of cucumber and warm, toasted pita triangles. As a bonus, the dip came with plenty of those cucumbers and pita bites — no need to ask for extras.
The scallop-topped Salvador salad ($13) — named for surrealist Salvador Dali, whose cracked landscape paintings reminded Fox of how scallops look, searing in the pan — was a simple combination of field greens, roasted red peppers and slivers of dates, dressed with sweet-and-spicy sesame-ginger vinaigrette. The flavors — mostly sweet, a little spicy — melded well, the greens were fresh and the scallops were cooked to the correct tenderness (though the muscles were not removed). Everything worked together, but the salad was missing something. A little crunch, perhaps, or some citrus, would have added depth.
The steak frites ($23.95), a special during our visit that will be a regular entree on the new menu, suffered from a similar lack of oomph. The New York strip, served sliced over a bed of arugula, was cooked correctly but underseasoned, though we enjoyed the spicy horseradish sauce served on the side. Accompanying truffle fries were cut too thick to qualify as bona fide frites, but the heady scent of truffle oil and dusting of truffle salt and Parmesan were welcome additions.
Dessert at Bread and Circuses comes from local French bakery Patisserie Poupon. We never turn down a slice of the bakery's Frasier cake ($7.37) and weren't disappointed by its sweet layers of cake and cream, topped by a beautiful ripe strawberry.
Though dinner itself ended on a sweet note, we spent the next 15 minutes asking – and waiting – for the check, while a lamp hanging next to our table periodically flickered on and off, alternately lighting the room with a too-bright glare and plunging our corner into darkness. We laughed it off with the diners at the next table, but the easily fixable problem — unscrew the bulb! — was annoying.