Good old extravagance is back

Restaurant Review

October 01, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Food: 3 1/2 stars Service: 3 stars Atmosphere: 3 stars

If you've had your fill of small plates, spa cuisine and offbeat fusion dishes, your next meal out should be at Cynthia's in Severna Park. There chef/owner Brian Bennington and his talented pastry chef -- co-owner and wife Cindy Bennington -- are proving there is still room for grandeur in the kitchen.

Nothing against Ledo's Pizza, the Dress Barn, and the many other tenants of the Park Plaza shopping center; but this enjoyable restaurant deserves to be somewhere a little more elegant. Inside, the large dining room is pleasant enough. It's done in soothing neutrals, the chairs are comfortable, and the tables have white tablecloths and attractive place settings. No matter how crowded Cynthia's gets -- and it does get crowded -- the noise level is bearable. But the decor doesn't have the pizazz of the food.

The concept of low-cal eating doesn't exist for Chef Bennington. Consider this menu item: "Butter Poached Maine Lobster, butternut squash risotto, truffled potato cream, vanilla bean oil." You could gain five pounds just reading it. Perhaps even more telling: Cynthia's serves brioches instead of dinner rolls -- with sweet butter, of course.

To be fair, there are less extravagant dishes than the butter-poached lobster, and I'm sure the kitchen would be willing to omit the cabernet sauce on the New York strip steak if you asked. But that seems beside the point. Sauces are Bennington's strong suit. A fillet of monkfish stuffed with stewed tomatoes and mushrooms and served with cabbage wouldn't be the spectacular dish it is without its creamy, silky, lobster-based sauce. A luxurious, thyme-scented bearnaise sauce transformed the seared Ahi tuna, which has become an overly trendy way of preparing an overly trendy fish.

Bennington pays attention to what else is on the plate, and has a fresh way of combining ingredients.

Smoked salmon can be exciting again when it's paired with thinly sliced, crisp-edged potatoes and sour cream flavored with lime and chives. Frisee was tossed with colorful, unexpected accompaniments: a small dice of sweet potato, dried cherries, hazelnuts and golden puffs of fried goat cheese balls.

The tuna came not with the bok choy or other Asian vegetable you might expect, but with a grilled corn and potato hash. The rack of lamb chops, thick, juicy and encrusted with rosemary, had a suave ratatouille and a trompe l'oeil pear that turned out to be whipped potato and creamy chevre.

The fall menu is filled with full-bodied, stick-to-your-ribs dishes with haute cuisine touches. Sometimes they go a little too far. By no stretch of the imagination should the "Diver Scallop Club Sandwich" be called a starter. Bennington begins with one of those brioches, splits it in three, and layers a flattened fried scallop, crusty and melt-in-your-mouth tender, with avocado slices, lettuce, tomato and crisp bacon. Entertaining, but filling and awkward to eat. A bowl of English pea puree, a creamy spring green, had lumps of lobster (I like a chef who uses lobster with abandon) and a swirl of chive and white truffle creme fraiche. It was sublime for the first few bites, but then it began to be a bit less interesting.

Besides the fancy stuff, Bennington can do down-home cooking with style. One of the best of our dinners was a fat, tender pork chop with a stuffing made from Honey Crisp apples. Braised red cabbage and mashed potatoes with a touch of garlic rounded out the plate.

Rarely does a restaurant save the best till last, but there's a reason Cynthia's is named after its pastry chef. Be sure to order the individual chocolate souffle in advance, which comes to the table hot, puffy and soft in all its chocolate glory, with a spoonful of whipped cream melting on the top. The clafouti is also spectacularly good. The batter is poured over fresh pears, baked and served warm with cinnamon ice cream. If French classics don't appeal, try the "Adult Milk & Cookies" -- warm, baked-in-house chocolate chip cookies with a milkshake made from mocha ice cream and Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur.

I wouldn't call Cynthia's wine list extensive or adventuresome; but there's plenty to like on it, including a good selection of wines by the glass. You won't have trouble finding something in your price range to complement the cuisine.

The service is less formal than the food might lead you to expect, but it's well paced, efficient and friendly. You may wait for a course, but never longer than seems appropriate when things are cooked to order.

Cynthia's is a bit of a throwback, but a welcome one. Retro food has been creeping back onto restaurant menus in the past few years. It's about time someone thought to bring back the kind of retro food that involves classic French sauces and made-to-order souffles.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Podcasts of Elizabeth Large's reviews can be found at baltimoresun.com/large.

Cynthia's

Address:

522-I Governor Ritchie Highway, Severna Park

Hours:

Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch

Prices:

Starters, $9-$16; main courses, $22-$36

Call:

410-315-8088

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