Food critic

This restaurant is in Tom Sietsema’s Hall of Fame.


Grilled veal sweetbreads with maitake mushrooms in cognac cream at Charleston. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Charleston

(Superlative)

When chef Cindy Wolf and co-owner Tony Foreman renovated their Harbor East restaurant in 2005, turning the establishment into something that resembled a home with grand taste, they also changed the way customers ordered. Out went a la carte, and in went a tasting menu that gives diners free rein to create their own three- to six-course meal from the more than two dozen dishes on the list.

Wolf is still letting patrons have it their way, and she continues to offer some of the finest cooking in the Mid-Atlantic. Her favorites — lobster soup laced with curry oil, grilled French quail enhanced with peaches in summer — are likely to become yours, and if Wolf gets tired of serving fried oysters, a dish she has been making since the ’90s at Georgia Brown’s in the District, she also says “I’d be run out of town” if she took off the cornmeal-crusted bivalves enriched with cayenne mayonnaise. Frying and sauce-making are arts here, and meatless dishes are being recognized as never before. To taste the chanterelle mushroom sable tart is to taste a bestseller — and tarragon, shallots, garlic and more in the accompanying “snail” butter. “I will cook until the day I die,” says the constant presence in the open kitchen.

The niceties start with delicate cheese puffs in one of three hushed dining rooms and pile up throughout the evening, with wine from Foreman’s impressive, French-heavy cellar and a respectable cheese cart. The dishwashers must be careful; the china is Bernardaud.

All of which compels me to say: Just give her the long-awaited James Beard award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic already!

4 stars

Charleston: 1000 Lancaster St., Baltimore. 410-332-7373. charlestonrestaurant.com.

Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday.

Prices: Prix fixe $79-$124.

Sound check: 65 decibels / Conversation is easy.

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The following review was originally published as part of The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.


Executive chef and co-owner Cindy Wolf. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Charleston is one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best restaurants

(Excellent/Superlative)

“Have you ever been?” I overhear a woman ask a companion as they’re being led to their seats in one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best restaurants. “You’re in for a treat!” That’s an understatement. Almost everything about Charleston is designed with a diner’s well-being in mind, from the acoustics and roses on the table to a lengthy list of dishes that allows you to compose your own tasting menu. “Everything’s a winner,” a server tells us in the Wine Library, plush and cool as a cellar (bring a wrap). The line grates, but it’s hard to prove him wrong after tasting a dreamy crab bisque shot through with sherry; ribbons of grilled calamari in a lemony salad of white beans and arugula; and the best duck in recent memory, sporting potato tiles and lapped with spicy lentil cream. The source is Cindy Wolf, whose constant attention in the semi-open kitchen makes for beguiling eating. The height of decadence on Charleston’s current menu, a dish featuring grilled sweetbreads, was inspired by a spring fling at the famous Benoit in Paris. In Wolf’s version, nuggets of the organ meat, tender macaroni and foie gras share a bowl into which is poured a cream sauce ennobled with cognac and mushrooms. “My favorite dish,” says Wolf when she sees it dropped off. And now one of mine, although the entree has serious competition in a snow-white Pavlova made refreshing with grapefruit anglaise and candied orange, the perfect way to conclude a feast here. By the time you read this, the James Beard Foundation will have doled out its prestigious chef and restaurant awards at a gala in Chicago (May 1). Among the nominees this year for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic is Wolf — a finalist for the sixth time. Just give it to her already.