That's the motto sprinkled across Christopher Daniel's menu and signage. The concept — good food served in a low-key setting — is a worthy one. But while the service is top-notch, the food portion of "fine" dining needs a boost.
The restaurant has been popular since its opening in 2005, though during our visit on a Wednesday evening the Timonium space was only about half full. Even with a big table of chatty women, the atmosphere was hushed, making the conservatively decorated space feel more formal than "come casual" suggests.
Five, the martini bar connected to Christopher Daniel, had a more vibrant crowd.
Taking our cue from the revelers next door, we ordered a round of drinks, finding that they did indeed amp up the energy level at our table.
A raspberry mojito was sweet, minty and perfect for spring. A classic Grey Goose martini was icy cold and well proportioned.
The Shiner's Delight was, true to its name, delightful. "Shiner" refers to moonshine, the much-maligned liquor that's enjoying a moment in the sun, thanks to reality TV and a few (legal) distillers determined to preserve American history. Paired with bubbly Prosecco, the cocktail was slightly tart and surprisingly sophisticated.
Salads were equally pleasing. An iceberg wedge of crunchy lettuce was sprinkled with bacon and tomatoes and dressed with creamy blue cheese. A Caesar salad was crisp and salty. Both were classic interpretations, fresh and well-executed.
But after salads, the meal began to falter.
In a shrimp-and-grits appetizer, the shrimp were plump and sauteed peppers and onions complemented the seafood. But smoked gouda grits — in the form of a crumbly "cake" — were dry.
Grilled lamb chops were dressed in barbecue sauce and scattered cashews. The nuts were a fun addition to the mix — their toasty flavor and crunch added vibrancy to the dish and balanced the sauce's sweetness. But they weren't enough to overcome a core problem: overcooking.
Unfortunately, overcooking and underseasoning plagued several entrees, as well.
Duck breast, served with peas and carrots, looked crispy and golden, but it was cooked too long. The vegetables were to be dressed in chive butter and the duck in honey lavender gastrique, but both the butter and sauce were so subtle we barely detected them.
Christopher Daniel's menu has a section devoted entirely to steaks and their accompaniments. We opted for a grilled rib-eye with sweet bourbon mushrooms and broccoli. Though the basic ingredients were fine, the entire plate suffered from a lack of salt.
And the steak, ordered medium rare, was closer to well done.
Pork chops were similarly overcooked and underseasoned, though we enjoyed their nutty pecan stuffing and apple chutney.
Rare ahi tuna, served with sliced avocado and a bright slaw of daikon radish, was a highlight among the entrees. Cucumber wasabi and sesame ginger sauces added jolts of flavor and heat.
The only thing puzzling about the tuna plate was a large fried wonton. We would have welcomed the crunch but couldn't figure out how to break the hard shell without making a scene.
Across the board, entrees sounded better than they tasted, leaving us feeling like the kitchen wasn't giving its all. The good news, though, was that our waitress did.
She found that golden spot between attentive and hovering and was friendly without being overly familiar. Dinner was paced correctly and she consistently appeared when we needed her.
When we ordered dessert, her face blossomed into a smile; we'd picked some of her favorites. As it turns out, dessert was one of the best parts of the evening.
White chocolate banana cream pie was sweet and airy, with a touch of fruity raspberry sauce offsetting the sugar.
Though the peanut butter cookie ice cream sandwich was more of a sundae than a sandwich, its elements — vanilla and chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookies, chocolate sauce and creme anglaise — worked together beautifully.
We discovered one more glitch a few day after our dinner. On Wednesdays, all bottles under $100 on Christopher Daniel's impressive, California-heavy wine list are half-price. We drank a bottle of Burgess Syrah, a lovely, full-bodied red from Napa Valley. When we paid the bill, we forgot about the half-price wine promotion — and so did the restaurant.
It might have been a computer glitch or simple human error. But it's definitely a reminder to diligently check the bill before you pay.
Disappointing entrees and wine billing aside, dinner at Christopher Daniel is an enjoyable experience. The people are nice and the drinks are great. With a little more focus on execution in the kitchen, the food could be, too.
Rating: two stars
Where: 106 West Padonia Road, Timonium
Contact: 410-308-1800; http://www.christopher-daniel.com
Open: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner and Sunday for brunch
Prices: Appetizers and salads $8-$17; lite fare $10-$19; entrees $23-37
Food: High-end American food, including a variety of steaks and steak toppings
Service: Professional, friendly and well-timed.
Best dishes: Barbecue shrimp-and-grits appetizer, wedge salad, ahi tuna with avocado and daikon radish salad
Parking: Parking lot in front of restaurant.
Children: Kids' menu including standards like pasta and chicken tenders.
Noise level: Fairly low.
Dress code: No dress code; most guests wear dressy casual attire.
[Key: Superlative: five stars; Excellent: four stars; Very Good: three stars; Good: two stars; Promising: one star]