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Jun 4, 2007 10:17 PM

Charleston. Seriously.

Wow. 270 dollars later for two of us, I'm still regretting that I didn't call the kitchen out for serving "risotto" made with Uncle Ben's - on two separate dishes! Or the "nicoise" olives that still had the taste of the tin can they came in. Or the sauces on some plates that you could see, but that produced no actual taste. Or countless other things - very nitpicky - like the service which may have been patient and overexplanatory in its zeal to inform, but was much more likely just condescending, or the ridiculously cold dining room - maybe there's temperature control to treat the wines (stored in the dining room) properly, but it makes for uncomfortable dining.

I went to Charleston with high expectations, I'll admit. But if you advertise yourself as the best restaurant in Baltimore and plaster your signature on the doors, menu, and even the plates, you'd better be able to withstand them.

Really, the sweetbreads, fried green tomatoes, and mascarpone mousse were shining examples of great ingredients and technique. But places like The Black Olive and Chameleon Cafe are doing that consistently across their menus in an atmosphere much more conducive to actual enjoyment of the food. Where did this place get its reputation?

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  1. Your single dining experience is contrary to the half dozen or so that I have had at Charlestons, and I'm sure many, many others will concur. Kitchens can have off nights and perhaps your expectations were set too high. Judging from your review, it seems that you were taken aback by the price tag and perhaps the portions you received. This is a restaurant where its not about quantity but quality, where money is no object, since the least expensive bottle of wine is probably $50. I'll agree that spending nearly $300 for two for one dinner is a lot, and I have personally spent more than that for two people, but it has always been worth it. Quite simply, it isn't just me and many others who will agree that Charlestons is Baltimore's best. Cindy Wolf is the only Baltimore-based chef to be nominated for the James Beard award, and I believe that is recognition enough.

    2 Replies
    1. re: jrussd

      Really. 300 for two for dinner is a lot, you're right, but far from outrageous or even uncommon - if the food is good. I just spent far more than that at wd-50 in NY, but came away from it feeling like I had absorbed the restaurant's gestalt, not to mention innovative, well-executed, (and occasionally slightly chemically tasting) food.
      The ingredients problem that I spoke of is something worse than an off-night. If the menu is written daily (as was explained by our server), why would it not be written around the fact that they obviously had no arborio rice in the kitchen? To serve that and call it risotto is an affront.
      Cindy Wolf was nominated for the James Beard Award, yes, but not until almost ten years after Nancy Longo, who was (maybe) after Mark Henry. And she received negative votes!
      The people that I have spoken to about this tend more to agree with me the more they know about food. The Charleston is certainly a slick operation, and maybe is a nice place to go to convince yourself that you're eating good food, when you know that that is nigh well impossible in Baltimore. Like the Oregon Grille or Milton Inn, you know?
      I'll try it again someday because it gets so much love here, but I think we may all have been duped.

      1. re: zaybot

        i agree w/ your assessment of the charleston. i must admit though, the last time i was there was appx. 3-4years ago. party of 2, dropped 350. even at jean georges, we were able to get a 5 course degustation for 300. is charleston jean georges?? probably not but the value was def. there. all i can remember now was that most of the sauces on the menu were standard demi. basically a brown mother sauce either from dark chicken stock or veal demi. a brown sauce is just that... the salmon was cooked w/ standard s&p. farm raised, on top of grits i believe. then again it was 3-4 years ago. imo wylie dufresne's menu is really out of this world.....

    2. Here's what I think the deal is. When one drops 3 large on dinner, there are only one of two outcomes. Either: (1) it is the best meal you've ever eaten (or close to it), or (2) it sucks.

      Okay, maybe that's a little hyperbole, but I think not too much. For example, I went to CityZen the other day. In retrospect, I can see how much effort, thought, care, and ingredients went into the meal. But (for a variety of reasons), I did not love the meal, so when I talk about it, I'm a little harsh.

      Charleston and CityZen are two really good restaurants that are technically excellent but trying to do some things that perhaps not everyone is going to like. Perhaps that's the curse of being a $300 a meal restaurant--everything has to be perfect. Charleston, IMO, is still the best restaurant in Baltimore; the one place that attempts to be world class. Sometimes she gets there. Sometimes she doesn't. But I'm glad she's trying.

      2 Replies
      1. re: BmoreHound

        I think that's a great summary. The expectations are so high when you're going to spend that much money on a meal, that everything should be AMAZING. That has been my experience both times I've been to Charleston, but I've been other places where it's just not quite enough and it just kills me that I spent that much money on a "mediocre" meal. And then we play the game of trying to guess how much we would have spent and been happy with the meal.

        1. re: pigtowner

          I'm glad there's some moderation of the hero worship that Charleston receives. It's not the price I object to but the inconsistency in the cooking. Just as you are exhailing happily over a dream morsel, comes a sauce that is pedestrian, or a fruit that is clearly underripe. It feels like a kitchen with a lot of talent, but nobody who is firmly in charge. IMO the late lamented Due was a better restaurant, because of its consistently high standards and clear flavors. Charleston is a pretty good place, but not great.

      2. IMHO places in that rarefied strata (ie 3 bills for dinner for 2 - in Baltimore, which is not DC or NYC) are not allowed to have an "off night." They don't charge any less for the food, so what you're just paying for the privilege of eating there?? puh-leez. I've only been to Charleston twice, but both experiences were underwhelming. I'll take my hard-earned dining $$ elsewhere.

        2 Replies
        1. re: bkath

          And those hard-earned dining bucks go so much further elsewhere. In the end, I've gone twice, glad that I've done so, had some great dishes, had some unimpressive dishes, and have no need to return a third time.

          1. re: willpfree

            going back to "valuations" if one is to drop the 3-bill range, the expectations are far more north then just fresh ingredient, just proper coking technique or just adequate amount of seasoning (s&p). the expectations are def. higher. for that price point one would expect the unexpected (in a positive way) whether flavor profile, contrasts of textures or a unique approach to the dish. if the only requirement is just proper technique, adequate s&p and fresh organic ingredients, then many other dining options are available in the dc/md area for 1/3 of the price.

        2. Today's Wall Street Journal edition of "Power Tables" has a good analysis of the floor plan at Charleston and labels which are the A++, A+, A and "no label" tables. So, in addition to having high expectations of the food, you'll know pretty quickly how you rate based on where you're seated.

          Scroll all the way to the bottom for the floor plan and profies of stellar regulars and where they sit:

          1 Reply
          1. re: Lydia R

            Here's another link to the chart that I as a nonsubscriber was able to access:


          2. this has been a place that has been on my radar for quite some time, and listening to what others are saying, i am going to cross it off my list. knowing myself as a foodie and one that can tell the difference between good and bad food/ingredients, if the copious money spent does not equal absolute kitchen excellence, i would be severely disappointed. i can see through the facade of many restaurants, especially one that functions off the obvious front that eating there is nothing more than a bragging right status symbol.

            3 Replies
            1. re: wild bill

              Wild Bill - if you live in Baltimore and consider yourself a foodie and don't ever make it to the Charleston, I think that would be sad. It's certainly not somewhere I can afford very often, but it really is terrific. The food is great, the service is great. I've spent more on meals in other cities and have rarely had anything better.

              1. re: pigtowner

                i live in the city, and i'm sure i will get an opportunity to go. i was only saying that based off the feedback, and knowing my personal attitudes, i feel like i would be in the half that is extremely harsh on the place because they tout themselves as the finest dining experience in maryland. if i go anytime soon i feel like i might focus too much on trying to find faults to discuss, rather than embracing the food. i am removing it from my short-list of places that i need to check out in the next few months, and maybe put it back on the list in the spring so it gives me time to forget some of the discussion about it.

                1. re: wild bill

                  I would certainly give it a try. My husband and I have dined at some of the best restaurants around and have found it to be excellent. Everything is not perfect and I will say it is a bit pricey for Baltimore, but the service is just fantastic.

                  I think the major distinction is it is as expensive as some of the best restaurants and not quite up to par. We spent less at Babbo and would not put Charleston in that league foodwise, but the service was better. After spending about the same money at Cityzen and Citronelle, I would not put Charleston in that group either, but some of the dishes were very close and the food is the best in Baltimore.