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.
What 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.
Beverage 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.
On 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.
They 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.
Respected 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.
So 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.