Food & Drink

Towson Comes of Age

Cunningham’s brings a sophisticated dining choice to the county.

What was once a “sick” building is now a healthy location for several
businesses, including a restaurant that Towson very much needed. Since
opening in November, Cunningham’s has been packing in the crowds in a
college town accustomed to pizza joints and inexpensive eateries. As the
Baltimore County government seat sets upon a major redevelopment this
decade, the Bagby Restaurant Group took advantage of that vision,
locating its newest restaurant in the spruced-up Towson City Center. The
former structure, off the traffic roundabout, had been mostly vacant
for years since office workers claimed they developed respiratory
illnesses there. Now, the refurbished complex is a shiny beacon in
downtown Towson with Cunningham’s holding down a primo spot in the
lobby. First of all, the place is gorgeous without being pompous. It’s
divided into several dining areas, some with white tablecloths and
plushy banquettes, others with bare tables and elegant, billowy lights
overhead. A centerpiece is a communal table, where lighted crystal beads
cascade above diners facing the open kitchen with a wood-fired grill
and brick oven.

The creative force behind the décor is Jane Smith,
the wife of owner David Smith, who, yes, is the guy who runs Sinclair
Broadcast Group when he’s not opening restaurants. His mini dining
empire also includes Fleet Street Kitchen, Ten Ten, and Bagby Pizza Co.,
all in the Harbor East area.

His latest venture carries on the
locavore mantra of the others, using products from local farmers and
fishermen, as well as eggs, pork, and lamb from Smith’s own Cunningham
Farms in Cockeysville. The kitchen staff fulfills the restaurant’s
mission, turning out contemporary American cuisine using interesting
ingredients like huckleberries, mustard fruits, and fried sage.
makes Cunningham’s work in the ’burbs, where chains often rule, is the
flexibility of the menu. Feel like a pizza? A wood-oven flatbread will
fit the bill. Or how about a cheeseburger? Of course, there is one.
Something more hearty? Look no further than the whole Maine lobster.

director Tim Riley has put together a thoughtful wine list to accompany
the food with offerings representing mostly small producers from
California, Oregon, France, Italy, and other places. There are also
craft cocktails with a nod to the community with names like
“Lutherville” (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, sherry, and fernet) and
“Stony Run” (gin, apple brandy, buckwheat honey, allspice, and lemon).
Nearby brewers are also represented, including Stillwater Artisanal Ales
and Union Craft Brewing.

We loved sitting at the bar—a friendly,
intimate space with a lighted, white-marble top and rustic stone
base—digging into the house-made charcuterie with smoked rabbit
rillettes and thin slices of lovely lambchetta (it can be done) and a
nurturing chicken pot pie that comes with a mound of dressed greens. Add
a wood-grilled mushrooms flatbread with ricotta, fontina, Parmesan, and
pickled shallots, and your appetite is quelled for the evening.

another night, we sat in the dining room near the bustling kitchen.
(Don’t worry. It’s not noisy.) We started our meal with the
pretzel-encrusted fried oysters, whose pièce de résistance is a
pool of sauerkraut chowder. As weird as it sounds, the tangy kraut gave
character to the delicate oysters. We were also impressed with the
steak tartare, a round of high-quality beef with dabs and swirls of
melted leeks, pickled Asian mushrooms, deviled egg, and black-pepper
purée. Perhaps the prettiest beginning was the grilled
carrot-and-avocado salad with mixed seeds, caraway, and cumin.

all set an impressive stage for our entrees. Cunningham’s pan-roasted
chicken breast has to be one of the most innovative takes, visually and
gastronomically, that we’ve had to date.

The chicken juts
geometrically around the plate, sharing space with a fried thigh, a
mushroom-and-potato gratin, cider-braised collards, and more.

Creekstone Farms beef makes several appearances on the menu. We had the
braised short rib—which my dining partner described as so tender you
didn’t need teeth—with Swiss chard and cheddar-and-cauliflower “grits,”
and a fine 18-ounce T-bone steak, seared to medium rare on the kitchen’s
wood grill and garnished with bone-marrow gremolata and Cunningham’s
steak sauce.

Desserts by executive pastry chef Angie Lee put a bow
on the evening. “The Pastry Shop” changes seasonally and is as cute and
sweet as it sounds. On a fall evening, it included a homemade cider
float served with a sparkling-Concord-grape macaroon, a bite-sized
chocolate éclair, and gingersnap cookies. The trifle definitely trifles
with the English version. But we’ll take this one over the traditional
version any day. This delicious concoction, served in the ubiquitous
Mason jar, features ginger-espresso granité, lime curd, a red-velvet
crouton, and vanilla cream. There’s a reason we won the Revolution.

far, Cunningham’s seems to have conquered Towson’s lack of
sophisticated dining options with supportive diners. Finally, the
grownups have a place to come after sundown.