A tasty, stylish suburban surprise

Christopher Daniel has inventive menu despite bland decor

Sunday Gourmet

February 20, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,Sun Restaurant Critic

Some restaurant locations are Bermuda Triangles. New places open up and then in a few months or a few years they disappear. Not 106 W. Padonia Road. While the churn here has been considerable -- Courtney's, Rothwells, Palermo's Grill and Parlay Cafe have all occupied the space -- the restaurants have done pretty well. Courtney's, the last one, has moved to larger quarters on York Road.

All this is to say that I didn't approach the newest tenant, Chris-topher Daniel, thinking, "Oh no, here we go again." In an area dominated by chains, surely there's room for another locally owned restaurant targeting adults who are interested in imaginative food.

Christopher Daniel is the child of co-owner / chefs Christopher Ellis, formerly of An Poitin Stil, and Daniel Chaustit, formerly of Linwood's. When I heard that, the first thing that came to mind was dueling whisks in the kitchen. Not so. The menu has a cohesive style: inventive New American cuisine with an Asian accent and an emphasis on steaks. The disconnect is between the style of the food and the looks of the restaurant. To begin with, it has a martini bar with the chic name of Five, but the bar looks like a good place to watch the Super Bowl on TV.

Christopher Daniel is in a suburban plaza. The exterior is ugly and the interior is a series of pleasant, comfortable, unmemorable dining rooms. It looks like the kind of place that serves crab imperial and whiskey sours to middle-aged patrons. Instead, you get portobello carpaccio, the slices of raw mushroom so tissue-thin they are almost translucent, drizzled with a soy-based sauce and topped with a bit of chopped salad and a fat nugget of fried goat cheese. Rare slices of duck breast perch on a creamy butternut squash risotto. Most of the appetizers are along the small-plate, almost-a-meal, line; but a martini glass filled with diced raw tuna and smooth slices of avocado on a bed of seaweed salad is refreshing and not too filling.

The fish of the day is a whimsical trio of fillets: swordfish, tuna and rockfish, each on its own little bed of mashed potatoes, wasabi mashed potatoes, and celery root puree, respectively. A bit of mango chutney decorates the swordfish. In fact, a streak of whimsy carries through the menu. There are lollipop lamb chops with a fruity tamarind dipping sauce for an appetizer, and cheesecake "lollipops" for dessert.

Not every dish is as entertaining as these; but something as simple as a fine, fat grilled tenderloin (which you can get in 6, 9 or 12 ounces) is arranged with geometric precision on a square white plate with a la carte side dishes -- in this case crisp-edged grilled sections of potato and baby green beans. You choose the sauce, or sauces, you want with the steaks; we sampled the homemade steak sauce and port wine reductions and wished we had gotten at least one that wasn't sweet.

Presentation is almost as important as taste here, so golden-crusted scallops are arranged around garlic spinach with a tomato coulis adding a bold splash of color. The attention to appearance with most dishes made the pasta of the day all the more surprising. The large plate of penne was covered with a creamy, pale brown mushroom sauce, slices of New York strip and blue cheese. It was delicious comfort food, but ugly.

The dinner menu isn't large, and it's supplemented by less expensive salads and sandwiches, so you can do a light supper or the whole nine yards of appetizer, dinner and dessert. Desserts have plenty of panache, like those cheesecake lollipops. The three small creamy sections of cheesecake have lollipop sticks stuck in them and three different dessert sauces.

Then there's the Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate (the kitchen likes to do things in threes): a flourless chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, a scoop of chocolate ice cream and a small glass of chocolate mousse. (Shouldn't that be Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate?) A handsome peanut butter cup parfait layers ice cream, peanut butter and chocolate in a tall glass. Creme brulee, of course, lurks on the menu if you're feeling less adventuresome.

What's not to like about this restaurant? The service was warm, smooth and professional. (Except for the unsmiling, silent man whose sole job seemed to be to hand out menus once our drink order was taken. But he made only a brief appearance.) The bread is excellent, the wine list only slightly shorter than the martini list. (Just kidding.) The one hurdle will be whether customers will want a more stylish setting for this very stylish food.

Christopher Daniel

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 106 W. Padonia Road, Timonium

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers $6-$10; entrees $14-$30

Call: 410- 308-1800

Outstanding: HHHH; Good: HHH; Fair or uneven: HH; Poor: H

Christopher Daniel

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