*** (3 stars) Charleston
1000 Lancaster St., Baltimore
Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Bar opens at 5 p.m. AE, M, V. No smoking. Free valet parking. Prices: three-course fixed-price dinner $64; four-course $78; five-course $90. Four-course dinner with wine, tax and tip about $145 per person.
Cindy Wolf looked around her dining room in January and noticed that seven years had taken their toll on Charleston, the most formal of the three Baltimore restaurants the chef runs with her husband, and general manager, Tony Foreman.
The chairs had to go. So did the carpet.
The more the couple thought about the changes they wanted to make, the longer their wish list grew. While Charleston was enjoying a successful run as a sunny restaurant serving Southern-accented food, Wolf and Foreman ultimately realized their vision of the place had changed since its conception. Starting anew seemed like the best course of action.
They made the leap after the Fourth of July, shuttering the restaurant for three weeks, during which time construction workers and others toiled round-the-clock to give the place a fresh look. Out went the cheery trellis work, ceramic tile and palm frond sconces. In went walnut floors, silk-covered walls and persimmon-colored chairs. Meanwhile, the chef used the time to rewrite her menu. When Charleston reopened for business, diners encountered a restaurant designed to feel like an elegant home and a bill of fare that sidesteps the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert format for something more flexible.
"Let me take a moment to explain our menu," a waiter begins one evening at the new Charleston. If it's your first visit here, you'll be grateful for the tour, because the stiff poster you've just been handed lists more than 30 dishes arranged in eight categories: "Hot," "Cool," "The Season" (featuring tomatoes in mid-August), plus "Fish & Shellfish," "Birds & Game," "Meats," "Cheese" and "Sweets." Diners basically compose their own tasting menu, picking anything from the collection for their three-, four- or five-course meals. The first game plan costs $64 and represents "about as much food as a typical salad and appetizer," you're informed. Four courses are $78, which approximates the amount of food you'd get in a traditional appetizer and main course. The last option, five courses, goes for $90 and resembles "a classic French experience" (read: blowout). No matter which path you take, everyone gets dessert, which is not counted as a course in the deal.
If you have trouble making decisions, Charleston will pose a serious challenge. And, because the menu changes daily, there's no guarantee that a favorite from one visit will stick around for the next. Even so, there are a number of dishes that race to the head of their class and tend to make repeat appearances.
Experience has taught me to launch with something "Cool." The payoff might be raw wild rock-fish sliced into rectangles, splashed with lemon and lime juice and further invigorated with minced jalapeno, red onion and cilantro. It's a seviche of distinction. Dewy salmon tartare presents another gem, capped with creme fraiche and a glistening dollop of caviar. Lamb carpaccio comes to the table refrigerator-cold, but its charms reveal themselves as the sheer slices of uncooked meat warm up; fresh mint and flageolets (French kidney beans) add welcome breeziness and texture to the presentation.
"Are we leaving out something wonderful?" I queried a server one night, having opted for the four-course menu, the most popular ordering strategy, according to Foreman. "You don't want to miss the grilled cheese sandwich" was her immediate and insistent response. I'm glad I asked. Tucked among the "Hot" dishes, the miniature sandwich is like nothing Mom ever assembled. Instead, warm Comte cheese oozes from buttery cushions of house-baked brioche, and an accompanying salad of curly endive goes glamorous with a few haricots verts and truffle shavings. The two-treat combination was the best dish I tried from its category, which included a chewy saffron-and-lemon risotto and a trio of exceedingly rich soups. Though their flavors -- pea, artichoke and sweet corn -- rang true, the soups were served in individual cups. Eating them all as a single appetizer would have been excessive, akin to drinking a pint of hot cream.
The pacing is perfect. Nothing comes too fast, but you aren't glancing at your watch, either. Charleston is about leisurely and elegant dining, a philosophy matched in the servers' natty suits, deep knowledge of the menu and attention to detail. Though I hadn't ordered the sauternes, Foreman, who crafts the international wine list, one night offered a splash of it with an order of roasted foie gras. The sweet wine from France and the silken slice of duck liver are like Astaire and Rogers, a classic match. Flecked with sea salt and garnished with slightly tart plums and a swirl of cognac syrup, the foie gras is one of those dishes that makes you very happy to be eating it.
Dinner is not a continuous joy ride. Grilled lamb with a mere dot of pommes Anna is flat, and fattier than I would have preferred. And rabbit "barbecued" with curry and Tabasco is strangely void of either vivid flavor. Early on a Saturday night, after a young hostess led a male companion and me to a table within feet of the busy foyer, I asked if we could sit instead at a corner banquette, so both of us would have a view of the space. She hesitated, left to consult with her boss, and eventually led us to the desired perch. "Was there a problem?" I asked. "We usually save this for couples," she said, unnecessarily beginning the night on an off note.
Yet the pleasures outpace the minor disappointments. Confit of pork with crisp fried green tomatoes and hoppin' john (black-eyed peas) hark back to Charleston's roots, and a mustard-laced crab cake, flanked with a delicate salad of corn and avocado, offers a quiet revelation. The cheese course is more varied than I've seen in most Washington establishments and is handsomely staged: A cluster of juicy champagne grapes makes a fine garnish, and runnier cheeses are served in the bowls of spoons. The tasting notes for the cheese are helpful and accurate -- the Vacherin from France, a cow's milk cheese, truly is "buttery, grassy, pungent."
Four courses sound like a lot, but the portions are restrained, and, provided you haven't eaten one too many of the bread basket's delicate corn sticks, you're likely to have room for dessert. Chocolate opera cake is less grand than its name implies. Panna cotta flavored with buttermilk is first-rate, however, as is its escort of sour cherry sorbet. And frozen passion-fruit mousse with a tiny pitcher of warm chocolate sauce presents a tango between tart and sweet, ice and fire, that proves irresistible.
What began as a little sprucing up ended up being an about-face at Charleston. The result: An already great restaurant morphed into an even finer one.
Carlotta Amson is finding it difficult to have it her way when she dines out. "Twice in the past week," she writes in an e-mail, "my order has not been cooked to the degree of doneness" requested. "This seems to be an ongoing problem -- particularly when ordering a hamburger medium-rare!" The Arlington reader says she doesn't like sending food back, but she also doesn't like paying for food that isn't to her liking. Plus, sending her dish back means her husband has to eat alone. "How do we handle this perpetual problem?" she asks. As a guy who generally also likes his meat cooked to a light red, I'm sympathetic to Amson's plight. She might try using a time-tested trick of mine, which lays on some honey ("I love hamburgers, and I really, really like them medium-rare") with a splash of vinegar ("If it's not red in the center, I'll be returning it").
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