This restaurant is in Tom Sietsema’s inaugural Hall of Fame.
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 put diners in the driver’s seat: They had free rein to create their own three- to six-course menu, from every dish on the list — a poster-size menu running to two dozen dishes, not including dessert. A lot has changed on the dining scene since then, but two things haven’t: 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 serving fried oysters, a dish she’s been making since the ’90s at Georgia Brown’s in the District, she also knows a petition would follow if she took off the cornmeal-crusted bivalves enriched with cayenne mayonnaise. Frying and sauce-making are arts here, but so is the cauliflower puree, a dish so dear to the chef that she makes it herself, with the help of Dijon mustard, lemon and what tastes like sticks of butter. 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. Food accounts for much, but not all, of the allure. Wolf says new servers are taught that the name Charleston is synonymous with Southern hospitality. “We take care of people.” Understatement of the year, chef.
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.
The following review was originally published as part of The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.
Charleston is one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best restaurants
“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.