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Melissa: Charleston in Baltimore

  • c

Melissa,

I have mixed feelings about Charleston. My overall opinion is that I am unimpressed and think the restaurant is over-rated.
In my opinion, Charleston was actually better when it was at Fells Point under the name Savannah (sp?). Ever since they have moved, I have never felt that the dishes lived up to the upscale prices charged. The only exception is the cream of crab which I absolutely love.
The reason why I cannot dismiss this restaurant entirely is that the executive chef Cindy Wolfe still has great potential. She is ambitious and tries to create new sophisticated dishes constantly (the menu changes regularly). She has the potnetial to follow in the footsteps of Susan Spicer (the great executive chef of Bayona in New Orleans) in terms of sophisticated dining. The problems is her dishes don't quite work YET. Perhaps in time but for now I am not willing to spend the $$$ to be the guinea pig. I have friends who still go hoping so I do get updates but nothing has happened recently to change my opinion.
To answer your other question, I have been on a crusade to explore restaurants in the surrounding counties the last few years so my opinions are not quite up to date. However, I plan to start trying places in the city sometime near the end of May/early June. I'll provide progress reports as it happens...

Chopin

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  1. Any thoughts about Louisiana? I know it's also pricey, but is it worth it?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Bob W.
      m
      Melissa Garland

      I went there a little over a year ago and found it to be good (not great). The interior is gorgeous with more ambiance than Charleston, which is now housed in a sterile office building - albeit close to the water.

      If my memory serves correctly the foie gras was quite good and a lobster bique served with a dollop of aged sherry was outstanding.

      The rest of the meal doesn't stand out in my memory. I can't even remember what my entree was (and that's sad) or even if I had dessert.

      I think that it's worth a try. I haven't been there in a year so my opinions may be outdated.

    2. m
      Melissa Garland

      Chopin,
      Thanks for the reply. I have basically the same feelings as you- esp. about the crab soup. It was the best thing that we had the night that we went to Charleston. I don't know much about the chef or her potential. I felt that the dishes weren't too inventive, but that's just my opinion. I mean, salmon in buerre blanc (it was served on a bed of french cut green beans)? It had the flavor/texture combinations of sweet/bitter soft/crunchy but something was missing- there wasn't a sour or salty taste. I felt like she was trying to be safe and appeal to the common denominator. Why is she considered to have such great potential? I don't know much about her.
      Thanks,
      Melissa

      7 Replies
      1. re: Melissa Garland

        Melissa->You actually said diplomatically what I was unable to say in my last post. One of the problems IMHO that holds Cindy Wolfe back from her true potential is that she is trying to be "safe and appeal to the common denominator." One could argue in her favor that this is an economical necessity. Perhaps in another thread in the future we could explore the implications of this possibility (too tired tonight). You and I are on the same page w/ our evaluation of Charleston.

        Lucien-> ""I have spent as much money at other places as I have in Charleston and had far inferior meals. Pick a steak house, any steak house...also...Polo Grill, Spike and Charlie's, Corks....all sucked compared to the 30 odd meals I have taken at Charleston. Pricey? yes. Overpriced? Not compared to some of the crud others are selling for a similar rate.""

        I have so much to say about your quote but will try to keep it short (this is definitely another topic for serious discussion on a different night). I agree w/ you but that doesn't excuse Charleston from delivering better quality dishes at current prices. Fine Dining (at the highest level) has not quite hit Baltimore yet compared to the other major cities in our country but Charleston (and a few others) are trying to change that. BTW, I had very bad service the last time I was there and made it a point to tip 10% and let them know the service was unacceptable. Charleston doesn't have to be cutting edge to reach the next level (I agree w/ your assessment of the style of cookng); however, the dishes still need to be fine-tuned if one wants to compare Charleston to other top restaurants around the country. The potential is there. The last thing I wanted to say about your quote (which I totally agree) is that my similar experiences the last few years (a disturbing trend that has increased in frequency) has caused me to stop dining frequently at the more expensive restaurants and focus on finding hidden gems that produce quality dishes (not necessarily at the level of fine dining) at reasonable prices.
        Thus, my exploration has moved outside the city and more into the counties in recent years.

        1. re: chopin

          "my similar experiences the last few years (a disturbing trend that has increased in frequency) has caused me to stop dining frequently at the more expensive restaurants and focus on finding hidden gems that produce quality dishes (not necessarily at the level of fine dining) at reasonable prices."

          -Amen, brother. Preachin' to the choir. I just cannot justify dropping 2 bills on dinner except for anniversaries or a special occasion. I can cook pretty well (if I do say so my own self), and would rather spend a few bucks on great ingredients and a great wine than 3X as much dining out. Sadly, Baltimore really does lack much in the reasonable price range.

          1. re: Lucien Walsh
            m
            Melissa Garland

            Lucien,
            You have hit the nail on the head. This is my biggest gripe about my neighborhood anyway. I am either going to spend $100+ to eat in an upscale place or I'm going to spend $10 to eat in a bar. Where are the mid-range restaurants!? I'm not going to drop $100 every week for dinner. THE only mid-range restaurant (with good food) is Kawasaki cafe at the foot of Ann St., and we eat there just about every week. I wish that Petit Loius wasn't way out in Roland Park. My million dollar idea for Chef Wolf is this- open another one in Canton or Fells Point.

          2. re: chopin
            m
            Melissa Garland

            Chopin,
            You said:
            "One could argue in her favor that this is an economical necessity." I agree, and think that the criticisms that we have of Charleston may be a result of this. She is trying to be all things to all people and it has moved her away from the "heart" of Southern cooking. What I mean is this: A lot of people in the South cook what is in season and/or what is locally available. For example, when in Savannah it's a good idea to eat shrimp, since a lot of the folks living on the outlying islands like Tybee are shrimpers by trade, and the shrimp tend to be fresh and very good (at least this was the case in my experience of years past). It doesn't need to be prepared in an expensive manner, because the quality of the ingredients so excellent. The Black Olive (an upscale restaurant in Fells Point) illustrates this beautifully. They have fresh fish brought in every day. There's no need for complicated, expensive preparation due to the freshness of the ingredients. I think that a different tack to take (for experiment's sake) could be to prepare the regional cuisine of the South using simple preparation and the freshest ingredients for some dishes- shrimp, fish and meat that are found regionally (not salmon- although there was some lump crabmeat in the buerre blanc), - and refining other traditional dishes- like Hoppin John, Frogmore Stew, Brunswick stew, etc. I do understand that Charleston is an upscale restaurant, so a lot of these dishes would need adaptation (think of how much fun that would be!). I think that it's worth a try. I, of course, have zero experience running a restaurant so I don't know much about these things. I'm just musing on what I love about the food of the South.

            1. re: Melissa Garland

              I have ready that Black Olive is "the very best" restaurant in Baltimore. I have also read that it is quite expensive.

              Anyone been there that can tell me what the cost really is and whether it's truly worth it??

              1. re: Terrie H.
                m
                Melissa Garland

                I liked the Black Olive a lot. It is very expensive and you will need to make reservations *well* in advance as it's quite popular. Check out the Chowhound Baltimore tip sheet for more detailed information.

                Link: http://www.chowhound.com/writing/balt...

                1. re: Terrie H.

                  Ate at the Black Olive a couple weeks ago. I was able to get a table for six on a Saturday night by calling about a week ahead, though we had to take an early seating. The food was indeed excellent. We got an assortment of appetizers and shared, and almost everyone got fish. It was a marvel tasting the subtle differences of the various kinds, all grilled and FRESH. Don't miss the opportunity to try some of the high-quality Greek wine they offer, too; it's not easy to come by in this country. The waiters offered knowledgable suggestions.
                  One warning: if you drive, use their valet service! We were "lucky" enough to find a parking spot right across the street, but it turned out to be (very poorly marked) residents' only, and we got a $27 ticket. The doorman, who watched us park and walk across the street, then held the door for us, didn't utter any word of warning.

          3. Wow...I don't know what to say, exactly. I have spent as much money at other places as I have in Charleston and had far inferior meals. Pick a steak house, any steak house...also...Polo Grill, Spike and Charlie's, Corks....all sucked compared to the 30 odd meals I have taken at Charleston. Pricey? yes. Overpriced? Not compared to some of the crud others are selling for a similar rate. Cindy isn't trying to be cutting edge- I would bet she feels fusion cuisine is dead. Her focus is Southwestern and regional ingredients, rendered with classical French flair. I agree the atmosphere is neutral, but the staff is like the green berets of the restaurant business; they never miss a beat and are always ready to satisfy your needs. The wine list is deep, well-executed, with easily half a mil tied up in inventory, plus you get great glassware and a staff that *gasp* actually knows wine and how to serve it! I have never met a chef in this town more passionate and committed to her work than Cindy. She works like a dog, or should I say hound, even through her illness and chemo last year. If the house atmosphere is a little chilly, well, that may be a reflection of Tony's personality, but I cannot fault his passion for great wine, food, and crack service standards. All these are, in my opinion, beyond reproach. Whether I can count them as friends, I don't know; I do believe they are doing the most for the overall standard of food in the B-town area, and have raised the bar for other places to aspire to. Plus, they are hounds themselves. I have had my ear bent once or twice about culinary expeditions to Paris, Rhone, Provence, New York, etc.

            All that said, different people have different tastes, and it is entirely appropriate for all of us to have different opinions about any one place. That's part of the fun, isn't it? Still, any place that renders 20 pounds of bones into 8 ounces of stock over the course of two days is o.k. in my book.