Cunningham's remains a vibrant dining spot in Towson

The Baltimore Sun

Cunningham’s, the popular restaurant just north of the Towson Circle, is located in a sleek, if faceless, building. The interior design, flecked with puffy fabric ceiling lights and other touches that would be at home in a Boca Raton club, approaches the edge of kitschy.

Once you get seated in the flatteringly lit space, everything comes together to make a rather classy impression (an image shaken only when you step into the harshly lit, high school-like corridor leading to the restrooms). The more you interact with the amiable staff, and start to sample the personality at work in the kitchen, the more comfortable you feel.

On a recent weekend night, the food wasn’t quite as consistent as I recall from previous visits, but still added up to an overall satisfying experience.

The clear sense of commitment and organization impressed, as did the pacing, which managed to be steady without turning rushed. A good thing, too, since we found a lot to linger over, starting with the bread basket, which included slices of a sourdough loaf that would have passed muster in tonier sections of San Francisco.

Libations also found great favor. The cider mule — vodka, apple cider, ginger beer, cinnamon and lemon — gave off a brisk autumnal vibe. And an old fashioned revealed exceptional finesse, assuring a perfect balance; it was easily one of the best preparations of this drink we’ve had in ages.

(The barroom, by the way, is the coolest looking part of the Cunningham’s facility, a windowed, square space that juts onto a sleek patio.)

The kitchen turned out a very respectable treatment of a classic wedge salad during our first course. The vegetable half of a roasted carrots and buratta salad needed more personality, but the creamy cheese was on the money. Apple butter and a bit of house-made granola completed the dish more or less effectively.

Even after devouring the bread, we figured a few more carbs wouldn’t hurt, so we added a brick oven pizza as an appetizer — a Margherita that boasted a superior crust, at once chewy and crisp; a nice mix of asiago, mozzarella and fontina cheeses; and a moderate amount of tomato sauce, topped with pieces of basil. Some in our group found it all too bland; I detected sufficient character.

It was an easy step from pizza to pasta for a main course. I liked the rustic quality of the ziti lunghi with a bolognese sauce of Italian sausage and very tender braised pork shank.

A sizable pork chop would have been more rewarding had it contained fewer pockets of fat. Still, the simply seasoned meat tasted so robust that it was hard to complain. The dish was rounded off with a dynamic chanterelle and parsnip hash.

A peppery beef tenderloin stood up well, balanced by mushy, but rewarding, duck fat fingerling potatoes.

Hitting the highest note was the elegantly seared tuna. The tender, richly flavorful fish was partnered by vivid baby bok choy and, less memorably, some watery shrimp-and-pork-belly dumplings.

Cunningham’s appealing wine list (contained on a tablet) yielded a well-balanced red Tuscan blend that made a most agreeable compliment to the meal.

Desserts varied. A cashew caramel tart was too thick and strangely bland, despite help from bruleed bananas and brown butter ice cream. An apple tartlette proved pleasant. But the star was the pumpkin creme brulee. Its exquisite chiffon texture and gorgeous flavor provided a perfect dinner-closer.

Cunningham’s 3.5 stars

1 Olympic Place, Towson.

410-339-7730, cunninghamstowson.com.

Cuisine: American.

Prices: Appetizers $10 to $15; entrees $17 to $45.

Ambience: There’s a contented buzz in the cushy, subtly lit dining room, where you can get views of the busy kitchen.

Service: Breezy, charming, efficient.

Reservations: Accepted.

Parking: Garage and street.

Special diets: They can be accommodated.

Wheelchair accessible: Yes.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]

tim.smith@baltsun.com

twitter.com/clefnotes

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