1000 Lancaster Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 (http://www.charlestonrestaurant.com/)
*** (Very Good)
Cindy Wolf, the longtime chef of Charleston, has been a part of Baltimore’s food scene since the mid 1990s. If Spike Gjerde, the proprietor of Woodberry Kitchen and Parts & Labor, is helping to lead the revitalization of the Baltimore restaurant scene, then Wolf has long been its matriarch. Along with business partner Tony Foreman, Wolf also owns Pazo, Cinghiale, Petit Louis Bistro, and Johnny’s around the city. Their flagship, Charleston, opened up in 1997 as a fine dining establishment, sitting in the heart of what is now considered the Harbor East neighborhood. And if our most recent meal is any indication, Charleston continues to flourish almost 20 years later.
I had been telling my wife for some time of my desire to head to Charleston for a meal, and she [very generously] surprised me with a birthday meal there. Melding southern flavors with traditional French cooking techniques, Chef Wolf got the meal started off right with a gratis appetizer: Cauliflower Soup with Toasted Brioche and Goat Cheese. Creamy, rich, and perfectly seasoned, we both would have been very happy to have a full serving of a very winter-appropriate soup. The kitchen continued to showcase its talent when dealing with soups with the Rich Lobster Soup with Curry; a velvety lobster stock poured table side over arugula and curry oils. The soup – one of the most popular dishes at Charleston – was a revelation: unctuous and spicy, with sweet butter-poached lobster to help balance the zip of the stock. Both soups give reason to return.
As the meal continued, the kitchen continued to execute well composed dishes. Cornmeal Fried Oysters were crisped well on the outside, holding none of the oil used to fry them, while keeping the oyster briny and fresh. The accompanying lemon-cayenne mayonnaise
had a nice acidic bite that provided a welcome contrast to the oyster. The Frisee & Arugula Salad was perfectly dressed, with a balanced red wine vinaigrette that nicely cut through the richness of the meal. It was a good compliment to the Shrimp and Grits, which had tender shrimp, and was well flavored by both Tasso Ham and Andouille Sausage, but leaned on the heavy side. Fresh Artichokes were beautifully cooked, and accompanied by deliciously contrasting sauces: a smooth lemon buerre blanc and an intense arugula oil. While the other vegetables on the plate, including a carrot puree and cippolini onions, were tasty, they were all one-note with their soft texture.
Charleston offers 3, 4, 5, or 6 course diner-selected tasting menus. While my wife opted [smartly] for a 3-course meal, I went for 5 courses. By the time the main entrees rolled around, I was getting ready to be rolled out to the parking garage. And though some of the heavier dishes were well worth the wait, there was at least one miss. Rosemary Marinated Grilled French Quail kept the gamey taste of the protein and balanced it with the not-too-sweet pecan stuffing and savory roasted parsnips and celeriac. Lovely. My wife’s Grilled Creekstone Farms Prime Beef Tenderloin lived up to its name with its texture, and had well balanced mushrooms and a crispy grit cake to go alongside. The dish was well sauced with a Madeira cream; another winner from the kitchen. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Pan-Roasted Turbot, which did have a great sear on the beautifully cooked fish. The accompaniments, however, felt muddled. Very little of the flavor from the saffron rice came through, while the black bean sauce and leak cream felt like two disjointed ideas on a single dish. Definitely the weakest of the offerings that particular night.
Dessert, always free for diners at Charleston, featured Yogurt Cheesecake and A Sorbet Assortment. The cheesecake, light and airy, was served alongside a crumble and berries which added the textural and flavor contrasts to create a great dessert. The sorbets, including lemon (with cardamom), mango, and currant, were a simple end to a fantastic meal.
Chef Wolf and Charleston will celebrate 20 years together in 2017. Though two decades and countless culinary changes in Baltimore have gone by, Charleston continues to push boundaries with its flavors and live up to its fine-dining label. Bottom line: whether it’s your first trip or annual trek to the originator of haute cuisine in Baltimore, both the food and the service will leave you feeling well treated by one of the best in the business.
Atmosphere: The restaurant is home to comfortable banquets and chairs, some of which give you a glimpse in to the partially open kitchen. The dining room is quiet, with low, almost romantic lighting, white linens, and formal service. The wait staff is courteous and attentive, without hovering over the table. There was no diatribe about the “local-ness” of food, or philosophy of the cooking; just simple and thoughtful explanations of the dishes.
Noise: A formal dining restaurant. Most of the evening was filled with hushed, intimate conversations emanating from the surrounding tables, and the quiet and adept waitstaff giving descriptions of the dishes.
Recommended Dishes: Cauliflower Soup, Rich Lobster Soup with Curry, Cornmeal Fried Oysters, Frisee & Arugula Salad, Rosemary Marinated Grilled French Quail
Reservations: Highly Recommended. The restaurant was relatively filled around dinner time, and with the formal setting, it’s always better to have a set reservation. There were still folks being sat for dinner starting at 8:30pm.
$$$$$ – $150 and above for dinner for two