A little more than a year ago, I wrote a review of Faidley’s crab cakes. At the time I said Baltimore wasn’t really a city worth traveling to for food. Since that review, I have been back many times and nothing had changed my mind. But now that I have been to Charleston Restaurant, I’m not so sure. Chef Cindy Wolf does amazing things with food that make Baltimore worth a visit.
Charleston is located in the upscale Harbor East neighborhood. The welcoming bar has a view of the water and fantastic cocktails, including “a penthouse in Manhattan.” It’s a strong but magnificent twist on the classic Manhattan using port in place of vermouth. They also have an extensive wine lists and course by course pairings under the direction of Tony Foreman.
The service at Charleston is formal and traditional and the décor is modern, elegant. There were a couple of small service errors on the evening. Nothing that I would normally mention, but given the otherwise flawless evening this was the only fault to find. On the first course servers mixed up the orders at the table and for dessert, they brought the wrong order all together. The second was actually a blessing as it resulted in two desserts. The wait staff was knowledgeable and chef paid a visit, which I always appreciate.
I wish more restaurants used the format of Charleston’s menu. You can choose from three, four, five, or six courses, not including an amuse bouche and dessert. Wine parings are available and selected for every menu item. I decided on five courses, which was a large meal. A light eater could get away with three courses, but four or five will be right for most. I also took the wine parings, but with their bottle list I would recommend taking a look at bottles if you are celebrating a special occasion or if someone else is paying.
The first course was Norwegian Salmon Tartare served with lime, cucumber, chive, crème fraiche, and crispy potato. The fish was perfectly fresh but what put this dish over the top was the crème fraiche. Combining the raw fish with just a small amount of cream and the saltiness of the potato won the dish. I followed it up with a Rich Lobster Soup with Curry. The soup is presented as a mound of poached lobster then a lobster stock reduction with cream and curry oil is added tableside. The soup is silky and poached lobster is sweet and tender. There is a slight heat from the curry oil that perks up the bowl.
The third course of the meal was not just the best of the evening but one of the best I have had in a long time. The base of the dish was a bright, acidic artichoke risotto enriched by aged reggiano. It was then topped with Pennsylvania rabbit leg confit. The sweet leg meat, which was cooked in butter and deboned, was incredibly tender. It all came together so beautifully and the rabbit was so impeccably cooked that you could open a restaurant around this dish alone.
Next up was an overly generous portion of foie gras. It was served with a port wine reduction and amazing blackberries. The berries lacked both sweetness and tartness, the two flavors that seem to alternate most times I eat a pint of them from the store. But yet somehow, they truly tasted like blackberries. The waiter indicated that it was both the choice of berries and the poaching, but I believe there must be some other magic to make them such a wonderful accompaniment to the foie gras. Last was lamb tenderloin. I actually had a choice of three tenderloins, the lamb, beef, or buffalo. Before dinner I considered getting all three, a trio of tenderloin if you will, but in the end I settled on the lamb and enjoyed it. Not to the level of the rabbit or foie gras, but it was cooked rare, as I requested, and served with rice and braised kale, a very good final savory course.
Feeling rather full at this point I opted for a light crepes suzette for dessert and a glass of port (or two). My favorite part, besides the port, was the cognac ice cream, which was rich and delicious. I don’t know if they serve it on its own, but I would order three scoops of cognac ice cream if they would let me.
After a little more than four hours of dinner and a long day before it, I was ready for a little walk and then bed and that’s what I did. I woke up the next morning feeling wonderful. Few things make me happier than an incredible meal. For the second time Cindy Wolf is a James Beard Award finalist for the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. I certainly hope she wins. She deserves it. And while I have a general rule against eating at the same restaurant twice when traveling, I cannot imagine a trip to Baltimore without dinner at Charleston Restaurant. I just hope the rabbit is still on the menu.
1000 Lancaster Street
Baltimore, MD 21202