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Last year, when Jay Rohlfing was thinking about a moniker for the yet-unnamed farm-to-fork Towson restaurant where he’d act as executive chef, he made a list of garden names for inspiration. The former Chopped “cheftestant,” along with his wife, Lisa, had recently moved to a three-acre property in Hampstead (thanks in part to his first-place prize winnings from the Food Network show).
On their farm, the couple spent many hours tending to a flower, herb, and vegetable garden. So, as Rohlfing thought about the cycle of the seasons unfolding on his farm—where spring scallions begat summer strawberries, then autumn squash—the word “perennial” came to him, not only as a name for the restaurant, but as a muse for the menu.
Perennial is Atlas Restaurant Group’s first foray into the county and a rebrand of Cunningham’s, which closed in January of last year and where Rohlfing was executive chef. The transformation is dazzling.
The restaurant, which opened in July, has a beautiful outdoor dining area. One might assume that was a pandemic-related touch, but it’s actually a complete coincidence. Long before the days of COVID, designer Patrick Sutton had already reimagined the space as a lush indoor/outdoor oasis in shades of green and lavender or, in his words, “a garden conservatory.”
In fact, with its wraparound terrace, walls of cedar and boxwoods, an outdoor bar, and a lounge area with fire pits, Perennial feels a world away—not only from the pandemic, but the nearby county seat with its district court and chamber of commerce.
When it was Cunningham’s, the space, set on the second floor of a charmless Towson University corporate building, was vast and antiseptic. In the redesign, Sutton created an 85-seat dining room (half the size of the former Cunningham’s interior) and a stylish bar area that feels incredibly intimate and welcoming. And even within its suburban confines, thanks to the Atlas imprimatur, including nightly live music and an area for smoking cigars, it manages to be buzzy.
Clearly, it’s filling a niche—from the get-go, the place has been busy, as city dwellers, county denizens, and Atlas acolytes rediscover the pleasures of fine dining in the ’burbs.
Perennial’s menu offers a mashup be- tween Atlas’ signature fare (high-quality steaks and chops, served à la carte with indulgent accoutrements such as crab Oscar and truffle butter) found at their other spots including Tagliata and Monarque and more composed plates (bronzino with succotash, tuna crudo with watermelon in late summer) that speak to the seasons and are deeply rooted in Rohlfing’s personal narrative.
Case in point is a creative take on fish and chips in the form of a halibut dish that’s encrusted in Utz kettle potato chips and was inspired by the chef’s fond childhood memory of tasting the crisps for the first time.
Another novel dish is the fried lobster tail with honey butter, lemon, and lavender sea salt. It’s a riff on the lobster tempura dish Rohlfing was first exposed to while working at Linwoods for 12 years. To put his own spin on the dish, he took cues from the patch of lavender growing in his own garden.
Filet mignon with chimichurri and charred vegetables. Utz-crusted halibut with chow-chow slaw.
Yet another soon-to-be-signature dish, the frosted crab soup appetizer, came from conversations with his brother-in-law, the executive catering chef at Linwoods, who once told him about the local country club staple, a sort of Maryland-style gazpacho with tomato juice, half-and-half, Old Bay, and crab.
Here, Rohlfing gives the chilled soup an upgrade with roast- ed plum tomatoes, fresh herbs, fennel pollen, charred jalapeños, crème fraîche, and huge lumps of delectable Maryland crab.
Also unique is the crab fried rice, which reimagines blue crab as a key ingredient. For this dish, Rohlfing tapped the talents of the kitchen’s longtime Laotian dishwashers, who introduced him to mushroom soy, an essential element of the dish that imparts an explosion of umami flavor.
Luckily, for Rohlfing, even more inspiration is right at hand. He sources many of his ingredients—garlic scapes, beets, lemon balm, rainbow chard—from Atlas’ own nearby farm in Carroll County. And while still in his chef’s whites, he sometimes heads down to the Towson farmers market on Thursdays and scores other items from local farms, such as cases of heirloom tomatoes.
Of course, farm-to-fork fare isn’t exactly a new concept to the Baltimore area, but here, it feels fresh all over again. The kitchen doesn’t rely on just good ingredients, it leans into nature’s bounty and comes up with something that feels innovative every time.
Everything has a season, but Perennial has real staying power.
PERENNIAL 1 Olympic Pl., Towson. HOURS: Sun.-Wed. 4-10 p.m.; Thurs. 4-11 p.m.; Sat. 4-midnight. PRICES: Appetizers: $10-22; entrees: $22-59; desserts $8-12. AMBIANCE: Garden conservatory.
Jane Marion | Baltimore Magazine