The Towson Town Mall

signaled a shift for the Baltimore suburb in 2008 when it opened a luxury wing featuring the likes of Louis Vuitton and Lacoste, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn. As more high-end retailers took up residence in the mall, old Towson standbys like the Greene Turtle, the Melting Pot, and the old, pre-fire Charles Village Pub grew dusty by comparison.


Into this scheme comes Cunningham's (1 Olympic Place, [410] 339-7730, cunninghamstowson.com), the fourth outpost of David Smith's Bagby Restaurant Group, well-known to habitués of Harbor East. Situated in the Towson City Center, Cunningham's exterior glass walls face a rather charmless view of fluorescent streetlights and concrete steps, but the contemporary atmosphere inside more than offsets this. As opposed to the shadowy, candle-lit environs of many swanky restaurants, Cunningham's stays bright: light-colored wood floors, tables, and white marble-topped half-walls; pale-gray suede chairs; white ceilings ornamented with large, flower-shaped light fixtures. An attentive, friendly staff buzzes around the restaurant in sharp uniforms composed of jeans, blue oxfords, and gray vests. The establishment excels in balancing upscale sensibilities with a sincerely welcoming vibe.

Cunningham's pricing reflects this. The wine list, presented on an electronic tablet at the start of the evening, includes various bottles hovering around the $50 mark, but a generous glass of wine goes for somewhere between $8 and $12. The menu contains a number of affordable dishes as well as some out-of-reach options (unfortunately, we likely won't be ordering the $65 36-ounce dry-aged steak any time soon). No matter your budget, though, Cunningham's is the sort of place where you can spend money comfortably, sure that, whatever you opt for, you'll receive a worthwhile dish with respect to both taste and portion.

The menu's most inexpensive selection, a bowl full of brown butter popcorn ($2), arrives studded with honeyed hazelnuts and heavily dusted with powdered Espelette pepper (a French variety that's potently piquant but low on heat). We pecked at it throughout our meal, enjoying it to the last kernels.

That same Espelette pepper turned up again in the steak tartare ($12), in the form of a pastel-yellow pureed deviled egg-zesty with horseradish and dijon mustard-smeared next to the minced beef, alongside a dollop each of pureed black pepper and whole grain mustard. Pickled mushrooms and wilted leeks were dressed on top of the sweet, tangy, chewy, caper-speckled meat, an outstanding vehicle for its accoutrements but delicious alone too.

Executive chef Chris Allen and his team (you can see them bustling in Cunningham's' open kitchen) have a firm grasp on spicing, as evidenced in the popcorn and the steak tartare, as well as the lobster-ginger soup ($9), burnt sienna-colored, with sizable chunks of claw and tail meat in its silky, ginger-laden base. But the kitchen also has a choice selection of ingredients. Slow-growing Kumamoto oysters from California ($3 apiece), cradled in shells that were almost tulip-shaped, were some of the smallest but most flavorful bivalves we've had. They were lovely, served on the requisite bed of ice alongside a vinegary apple mignonette and a ramekin filled with ketchup; a healthy spoonful of horseradish rested on top, allowing diners to mix their own cocktail sauce.

Cunningham's also benefits from local produce, much of it sourced from David Smith's Cockeysville farm, which also supplies chickens and eggs to the restaurant. (Cunningham's' website indicates heritage-breed pigs and Kathadin lambs are in the farm's future.) The bounty of the nearby farm shined in the seared grouper entrée ($27): Clusters of shredded greens with corn and parsley root tossed with salty cubes of farm-fresh bacon overshadowed the crispy, toothsome fish. Like the steak tartare, the grouper had various smears on the plate (a wax pepper coulis, a parsley root puree); here, they weren't quite as consistently effective in highlighting the fish's flavor.

Kansas-based Creekstone Farms beef shortrib ($24), braised to the point of being a lacquered mahogany color, was the darkest component of our visit to Cunningham's. The fork-tender meat was served in a shallow bowl on top of cauliflower grits with cheddar and dark green Swiss chard. Altogether, the dish amounted to elevated comfort food of the highest caliber, with its sweet/savory meat and cheesy grits. By meal's end, our bowl was clean.

Which led to our one real regret: that we were too full to order dessert. The array of sweets (including a pot de créme, a cast-iron baked almond cake, both $8) sounded delicious, and we saw a nearby table polish off a mammoth ice cream sundae (replete with chocolate-cherry sauce, brownie bites, caramel corn, and whipped cream, $8). But after the dazzling dinner and the lovely service, we're sure that, the next time we're in Towson, we'll seek out another experience at Cunningham's. For the money, it sure beats the Melting Pot.

Cunningham's serves dinner Monday through Thursday from 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11:30 p.m., and Sunday 5-9 p.m.

Towson's Cunningham's In Photos