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Charleston Revisited

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Lucien Walsh May 29, 2001 05:08 PM

Well we had a gift certificate burning a hole in our bellies, so, and especially given the animated debate here recently, we absconded to Charleston for a well earned meal alone.....

I have to say that my humble opinion, namely that Charleston does fine dining better than anyone within a 45 mile radius, is unchanged. The food is not pretentious, it does not favor flash and fashion over content and taste, and still has a better wine list than 90% of the places in DC.

Kirsten started with chilled peach soup laced with Gosling's Black Rum; it was a perfect balance between sweet fruitiness and tangy appetite whetting lightness. This with a glass of rose champagene. I too had a glass of the pink bubbly, but with the seared fois gras, which was served with a savory buerre noir and sauteed nectarine. ot the best food/wine match, but I was in the mood for bubbly, so the hell with it. :-)

On to salads- black beet for me and 5 herb for Kirsten. Both light, delicious, and with flavors thoughtfully chosen to marry well with each other. Vinaigrettes were expertly balanced between viscosity and acidity.

We both fell for the soft shell crab main course. These whale sized beauties were lightly dusted in cornmeal, then flash satueed over high heat. Slightly crispy on the outside, the cornmeal provided a neutral vehicle for crisping without doing anything to mask or obscure the heavenly sweet crab itself. Served with watercress, crunchy plump snowpeas, and a clarified lemon butter drizzle. Outstanding with high end bottle of German Riesling from Dr. Burklin-Wolff.

Lastly, we ponied up for the cheese cart, choosing a selection of Pierre Robert triple cream, Cashel blue, Alsatian Muenster, and a sharp yellow cheese whose name I cannot recall, but which resembled a cantaloupe melon. This with a bottle 1998 Beau Sejor Becot St.-Emilion, which we slurped down gratefully.

I watched the kitchen for quite a while, too. No one is allowed to speak without permission, and all work with the efficiency of a Special Forces platoon. Chef inspects every plate before it leaves the line, and hte whole operation was fascinating to watch.

Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Hell yes. Service was, as it has been every single time I have ever been there, first rate. They put every one else to shame. I am dismayed at the negative reviews, but must recognize that different people have different tastes. That said, the few restauranteurs I know all agree that this is the place to go for a great meal.

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    chopin RE: Lucien Walsh May 31, 2001 10:43 AM

    Lucien,

    Thanks for another great review. I have one question for you that I neglected to ask in our previous discussion: Would you still consider this restaurant the best for fine dining if you eliminate alcohol from your criteria (I myself do not drink any alcohol so this is one less criteria I use when evaluating restaurants)?

    ---Chopin---

    7 Replies
    1. re: chopin
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      Lucien Walsh RE: chopin May 31, 2001 12:02 PM

      Hee hee....good question, Chopin. I personally would...

      Cindy is an incredibly hard working, dedicated businesswoman. She is well trained and well travelled, and it shows (to me). She has evaluated many of the world's fad and classic restaurants personally, and has made her own decisions about what is good food and what is passing fancy. Take them or leave them, but her personality is imprinted on the food she serves. I think the soft shells are a good example. There was no creamy drizzly thing that would look flash on the plate, no stuffing, no heavy breading, no elaborate construction of thinly sliced veggies that looks great but topples over when one attempts to actually eat it. Just big ol sauteed softshells, with a little lemon and clarified butter to set them off. OK wait, wait wait.....I'll let her tell it:

      "Charleston's cuisine is designed and executed by Chef Cindy Wolf and is her personal cuisine. Chef Wolf's cuisine is American -- based on classical French cuisine but inspired by the traditional and modern foods of the American Southeast. Although Chef Wolf does not prepare a specific regional cuisine, the tradition of the Low Country is the foundation of many of the components of her cuisine.

      Many elements come together in Charleston's cuisine: the finest traditional Southern ingredients and preparations, classical French technique and finesse, and 300 years of traditions and history of Southern entertaining. Charleston's constantly changing daily menu focuses on natural preparation of the very best products, purity of flavor and visual presentations that are elegant and uncluttered."

      o.k., minus 10 points for over-zealous use of the word "cuisine." I am not saying they're perfect! ;) but you get the idea.

      As for service, I certainly think that no one is better. 1 in 10 waiters that goes to work for Tony is there a month later; most "waiters" aren't used to being held to as a high a standard as this restaurant demands. Gotta know food, gotta be willing to learn wine, and the restaurant spends the money to ensure its staff is up on both. If there is a complaint, management swings in to action to address it. I personally have never gotten anything but outstanding service, and have never witnessed this professional staff deliver anything less to my fellow diners. Reflective of Tony's disposition, the staff is not fawning, but will do everything in its power to ensure the comfort and pleasure of guests.

      *phew* Sorry. But too many times I have been elsewhere and said to myself, "A Charleston server wouldn't have missed that," or "Charleston wouldn't let a table get this wobbly." And these are places charging as much or more.

      So there it is. My long-winded missive. :)

      1. re: Lucien Walsh
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        chopin RE: Lucien Walsh May 31, 2001 12:38 PM

        Lucien,

        Interesting. In a previous post, I posted I had absolutely poor service at this restaurant (1 and 1/2 years ago on a Sun. pm) and my entire party agreed to tip appropriately. My friend even made it a point to complain to the manager on duty of our problems and he came back saying the manager was apathetic at best (we wish we would have gotton the person's name).
        Although I was unimpressed w/ the dishes we had (I do respect the creativity though)(except for the cream of crab soup which was fabulous), I recognized the potential/talent that Cindy has and have informally monitored the progress of this place through other people (I trust) who continue to dine there sporadically. I still believe Charleston has the potential to be a great restaurant one day.
        Perhaps a visit in the fall might be appropriate but there are so many restaurants to try in the meantime and my negative experience makes me a tad reluctant.

        1. re: chopin
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          Melissa Garland RE: chopin Jun 1, 2001 10:32 AM

          I have to agree w/ Chopin. I've only been to Charleston once and the service was good, but not outstanding. The waiter brought the wrong desserts to us (and looked absolutely flabbergasted when I pointed this out), for one thing, and the cheeses weren't brought by our table (but we noticed that they were brought by other diners' tables). The service was fairly unobtrusive, however, which is a good thing. The food (with the exception of the she crab soup, which was excellent) was nothing to write home about. It was good, but not great. All in all, both of us were rather disappointed since we had heard such great things about the restaurant.

          I still don't think that Charleston is one of the best restaurants that I have been to in Baltimore. I've had better food at the Helmand, and for a fraction of the price. If you really want to spend a huge chunk of money, in my opinion it would be better spent at the Black Olive.

          It's all about the chow.

          1. re: Melissa Garland
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            Lucien RE: Melissa Garland Jun 2, 2001 07:11 PM

            I don't think I can really say anything else at this point, except to wholeheartedly agree that it is indeed the chow. Different strokes for different folks, eh? ;-)

            FWIW, you are right about cost. I can only afford that 2-3 times a year.

            1. re: Lucien
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              chopin RE: Lucien Jun 3, 2001 03:12 PM

              Lucien,

              From the limited time I have been on this board I have noticed that part of your evaluation is based on the wine list and that's fine (I myself do not drink).
              In my opinion, Baltimore has not reached the level of fine dining yet. At this stage of Baltimore's dining evolution, all I ask is that the higher price places (like Charleston) raise the standard of cooking/service if they wish to charge the same prices as 1st tier restaurants in other cities.
              WHen Baltimore reaches the next level, I fully expect Charleston (if Cindy is still around)to be at the forefront of the BMore's charge.
              Keep your reviews coming.....

              1. re: chopin
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                Lucien Walsh RE: chopin Jun 4, 2001 07:59 PM

                Quite true. I appreciate the fact that you do not drink; for me, wine is an integral part of my dinner table at home and and in a resturant (although it ain't always in the budget when eating out!)Also, I find the wine list is a bellweather for how much attention is being paid to detail. If there are well thought out choices that make sense for the cuisine at hand, I'll have higher hopes for the chow on the way than if I see a list that has been thrown together by one wholesaler who no doubt is getting the business in exchange for a bunch of free leather menu covers or something. This applies mostly ro places with fine dining pretensions of course; I am not going to frown on my favorite crab house simply because they only sell Sutter Home, 'cause crabs is about beer, limeade, and iced tea anyway!

                I'll use Melissa's beloved Helmand as an example. Nice atmosphere, superb ethnic cuisine, and a wine list that, while generally average, has some genuinely well chosen items. Compare this to Thai Landing- also superb ethnic cuisine, but do I have to put the fire out with yet another Singha when I'm dying for a glass of Riesling or Vouvray? Yep, because I don't thing the lame banal wines on offer will get the job done. Luckily for me in this case, there is Thai Landing's yummily sweet, creamy, non-alcoholic yogurt drinks to the rescue- Thank God, or Buddha, or Allah, who cares, at least I got that yogurt............ but I digress.

                Wine has been a part of my food experience since I was 10 or 11 and, while not the only criterion by which I judge a "fine dining" restaurant, certainly has a big imact on my impression of the people behind the plates. There is a lot of margin to be had there, and they bloody well better do at least a little work to ensure customers who do drink are getting somethig worthwhile that makes sense with the food. There. Boy I'm long winded. Sorry.

              2. re: Lucien
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                Melissa Garland RE: Lucien Jun 4, 2001 02:25 PM

                Yes, we all are entitled to our opinions :-) Your reviews are very good, so please keep posting them!

                I'm interested in finding some good south or central american places in Upper Fells Point. I've tried a couple of places there and I haven't found anything great yet. Let me know if either of you discover anything good in that area. New restaurants are opening up all the time in that area, but it's very hit or miss. I keep alive the hope that on day I'm going to find something awesome there. It's only a matter of time w/ all of the people moving into the area from Central and South america.

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        Larry RE: Lucien Walsh Jun 7, 2001 08:24 PM

        Excellent review, and completely agreed. We've driven from Alexandria to Baltimore three times this year just to eat at Charleston, and had an outstanding meal each time, both food and service. We consider it the best in Baltimore, and enjoy it more than any place of comparable cost in DC.

        On our visit in early April, the cheese cart offered four excellent Welsh cheeses. During the following two weeks in Wales, we were unable to find a single restaurant with that many.

        Tip for even better than usual service: ask for a table served by John (thirty-ish black waiter), and take his recommendation on wine. He knows his stuff.

        -- Larry

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