Cunningham's wants to be a restaurant for all moods and occasions, for anniversary dinners and impromptu weeknight meals. That's no easy trick. The atmosphere has to feel special but not overwhelming, and the food has to be captivating enough for serious diners but not intimidating to casual ones.
Cunningham's — the latest from the Bagby Restaurant Group, whose other restaurants include Ten Ten American Bistro and Fleet Street Kitchen — gets this right in so many ways.
The setting is the newly and impressively renovated Towson City Center located on the Towson roundabout. Cunningham's is set on the building's plaza level, and most diners will arrive at its entrance through the adjacent garage, where there's complimentary valet parking. But do yourself a favor and step out on the plaza, just to admire the glass-walled cube that houses Cunningham's snazzy bar.
The restaurant's main dining room, an enormous open rectangle, has been broken up into three smaller sections with a cunning use of platforms and dividers. Keeping the room big was a good idea, though; it gives the space energy. There are dramatic design elements — billowing light fixtures, a triumphant oversized banquette and mammoth white orchids — that make you feel like your hosts are ready for company.
The menu, in its own effort to be welcoming, overdoes it a bit.
There are separate sections for Table (shareable things) and Appetizers, which feels arbitrary, and separate listings for Entrees and Wood Grill, which feels unhelpful.
There are additional groupings of raw and chilled seafood, homemade pasta and gnocchi, and wood-oven flatbreads, but not much guidance about how those things should fit into a meal.
On one hand, this frees you up to improvise a meal, say, out of a few flatbreads and salad. But on a first visit, it can be intimidating. You also might miss something.
But don't overlook the plate of poached shrimp, served chilled with slices of avocado, grapefruit and a nest of pickled fennel, a great way to wake up your taste buds. And try the butternut squash toast, thick toasted bread slathered with a mixture of squash, creamy ricotta and maple syrup, which a dose of cider vinegar keeps from being cloying.
There is enthusiasm in every appetizer, and you can start to assemble a picture of the chef, Chris Allen, an experienced chef with roots in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Allen puts crunchy pretzel-encrusted oysters in a creamy, luxurious sauerkraut chowder and glams it up with candied mustard fruits, a touch of haute cuisine. He elevates homespun gnudi, a type of gnocchi made with ricotta cheese, with elegant chanterelle mushrooms, fragrant rosemary toasted pumpkin seeds and a warm butter sauce.
Dinner got even better as it went along. Anyone can come up with gimmicky, crowd-pleasing appetizers, but it takes skill and commitment to produce four close-to-perfect entrees like the ones we had.
An 18-ounce T-bone steak, a model of effective simplicity, was dressed only with a bone-marrow gremolata and a home-made steak sauce. Every bite was full of robust, rich, wood-fired flavor.
The elusive flavors of Arctic char, which restaurants have been offering as a sustainable alternative to salmon, were fully discovered in Cunningham's preparation, which used mild Asian flavors and a surprisingly subtle pumpkin-flavored broth. A rockfish entree showed off the skills of a well-run kitchen, from the finely diced autumn vegetable succotash to the adroit searing of the fish itself, which arrived moist and tender.
It was the chicken entree we wanted to dress with blue ribbons. Served with an ingenious baked-bean puree, cider-braised collards and a velvety gratin of potatoes and black trumpet mushrooms, there were both broad strips of juicy-as-can-be pan-roasted chicken breast and a flavor-dense thigh, which had been fried and formed, somehow, into a compact square.
From start to finish, there are amenities, including a high-flying cocktail program, a deep wine list with affordable choices, a basket of excellent baked-on-premises bread and a not-to-be missed dessert list that includes homemade ice cream, in flavors like mascarpone fig, cinnamon pecan and Vietnamese coffee sherbet. There are also seasonal creations like a cast-iron baked almond tart with cranberry-apple compote.
The service we had, which was uniformly polite and knowledgeable, needs only some time to grow more comfortable working in such a big, bold space.
Cunningham's showed up knowing exactly what it wanted to be and how to do it. For Towson, it's the great big 21st-century restaurant it had been needing so much.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 1 Olympic Place, Towson
Contact: 410-339-7730, cunninghamstowson.com
Open: Dinner daily. (A separate operation, Cunningham's Bakery & Cafe, will serve lunch when it opens next spring in the same building.)
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$13; entrees (which are meant to be shared): $24-$29
Food: Seasonal American fare featuring pastas, flatbreads and wood-fired steaks and seafood
Service: Attentive and well-informed but sometimes hesitant.
Parking/accessibility: Complimentary valet parking in an adjacent garage.
Children: There is no children's menu but special requests, like plain burgers and plain cheese pizzas, are accommodated.
Special diets: Special requests for vegan/vegetarian and gluten-free dishes can be accommodated by the kitchen.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining rooms. There are two silent televisions in the adjacent bar, but their volume can be turned on for major sporting events.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars Excellent: 4 stars Very Good: 3 stars Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]