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Charleston: Dispassionate Excellence

  • Joe H Apr 19, 2008 09:15 PM
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In 1993 my wife and I had just become friends. At least once a month we would explore and discover each other at a new restaurant on 15th street in downtown Washington called Georgia Brown's. At some point, several years later and having falling in love with the cooking of Georgia Brown's chef (as well as each other), we discovered Savannah off of Broadway in Baltimore. Later, when Savannah morphed into Charleston, we followed. Not a dispassionate statement since we followed from Reston where we then lived together.

Tonight we returned for the first time in five years to Charleston. It was not the homecoming we had anticipated.

Cindy Wolf has matured greatly from her days at Georgia Brown; in fact it would be fair to say that she has absolutely nothing in common with the developing excellence she once displayed in Washington. I would suggest that today much of what she plates is among the best of what can be found in America: she has become that accomplished. Several of her dishes are among the best I have had on either side of the Atlantic. In fact one dish, succulent, plump cornmeal fried oysters in a lemon cayenne mayonnaise, challenge the best fritto misto I have ever had. On Lancaster street off of Baltimore's Inner Harbor frying has become high art rivalling Milano's best at Al Porto. A salmon entree presented atop a poblano chili was as fine of a version of salmon as I have had in Seattle or Vancouver. Her Charleston shellfish bisque challenges Citronelle's and grilled Big Eye Tuna is reminsicent of Toronto's North 44's filet mignon of tuna-all Great dishes and more than worth the journey to Baltimore. A plate at Charleston is a mecca for this side of the Atlantic, allowing crawling traffic between Washington and Baltimore as little more than an inconvenience to a journey far closer and much less expensive than a 777 elsewhere.

I should mention here that I've decided to edit the balance of my comments about Charleston. The food, as noted, was excellent.

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  1. Joe- I am interested to hear the detailed answer: WHY? What happened at your visit to Charleston to make you believe that Ms. Wolf no longer cares about the food she serves her guests? Am I reading your title wrongly?
    As you may already know, she's diversified her talents into a group of restaurants in Baltimore: Petit Louis, Charleston, Pazo, and the new Chingale. Could it be that too many endeavors have caused her focus to go too broad?

    6 Replies
    1. re: maddogg280

      I assumed he was referring to service rather than food. Just a guess though.

      C'mon Joe, give us a hint...

      1. re: Darin

        These are my original unedited comments:

        Charleston: Disapassionate Excellence

        In 1993 my wife and I had just become friends. At least once a month we would explore and discover each other at a new restaurant on 15th street in downtown Washington called Georgia Brown's. At some point, several years later and having falling in love with the cooking of Georgia Brown's chef (as well as each other), we discovered Savannah off of Broadway in Baltimore. Later, when Savannah morphed into Charleston, we followed. Not a dispassionate statement since we followed from Reston where we then lived together.

        Tonight we returned for the first time in five years to Charleston. It was not the homecoming we had anticipated.

        Cindy Wolf has matured greatly from her days at Georgia Brown; in fact it would be fair to say that she has absolutely nothing in common with the developing excellence she once displayed in Washington. I would suggest that today much of what she plates is among the best of what can be found in America: she has become that accomplished. Several of her dishes are among the best I have had on either side of the Atlantic. In fact one dish, succulent, plump cornmeal fried oysters in a lemon cayenne mayonnaise, challenge the best fritto misto I have ever had. On Lancaster street off of Baltimore's Inner Harbor frying has become high art rivalling Milano's best at Al Porto. A salmon entree presented atop a poblano chili was as fine of a version of salmon as I have had in Seattle or Vancouver. Her Charleston shellfish bisque challenges Citronelle's and grilled Big Eye Tuna is reminsicent of Toronto's North 44's filet mignon of tuna-all Great dishes and more than worth the journey to Baltimore. A plate at Charleston is a mecca for this side of the Atlantic, allowing crawling traffic between Washington and Baltimore as little more than an inconvenience to a journey far closer and much less expensive than a 777 elsewhere.

        Unfortunately, for me, her image of a great restaurant has gone in a different direction than her cooking.

        And her desserts left much on the plate uneaten.

        Over the years I have developed the notion that food is only part of a great restaurant experience. With heavy European travel for almost three decades I have learned that even in restaurants where I do not speak the language that if I show enthusiasm and love for what I am served, almost consistently despite the language barrier, those who genuinely love what they do and serve want to share their best with me. Whether a bottle of wine from an obscure vineyard or an unappetizing sounding first course, I've found experiences that have enhanced, embellished and transformed that which I was served on a plate. The enthusiasm of a waiter, a sommelier or an owner that took the time to question why I was sniffing a course before my first taste, why I stared at a heavily reduced sauce coated on the back of a spoon or smacked my lips after my first taste of ice cream-all of these inspired discussion and sharing of dishes that those who prepared or served them wanted to share with me. They knew how good they were; they knew I would appreciate the effort that had gone into them. They wanted me to taste what they had spent hours preparing or years honing their skill to creatively perfect. And they knew I was more than willing to pay extra or wait longer to taste this.

        I did not find this at Charleston.

        There are restaurants I have been to where the waitstaff have made a difference. Most restaurants in fact. At Charleston today's formula seems to be to hire hordes of staff-most of whom are inexperienced and totally lacking of passion for food-and instruct them to serve mechanically. Little emotion, very little fun, very little enthusiasm for sharing what their kitchen does best. Yet waves of standing staff lining the walls of a dining room, just waiting to scrape a crumb, remove a plate or top a glass. Dispassionately. Nary a smile nor even a grin. Just proper, stilted, straight service. For me an ill informed American interpretation of Michelin correct service.

        Six months ago I wrote this about The Source soon after it opened: "The staff? Another credit to the restaurant and the concept. From South Beach and Penn Quarter those who we met were knowledgeable, all stoked with the vision that they presented. Smooth, Michelin correct and "foodie" enthusiastic they were honored to be part of The Source."

        Tonight I cannot say this about Charleston. I believe that Cindy Wolf and her partner have the impression that the best service is seemingly lifeless, perhaps robotic although I may be accused of exaggerating. Dispassionate, to risk overusing a word. For myself it was a very real distraction. Unlike the energy I noted above at The Source, Charleston is a mechanical presentation of an image of excellence that I disagree with. There was just no "fun" in the room, no sharing of the chef and owner's vision. Certainly no passion for sharing the many excellent flavors I found on the many plates. Not just ourselves: it seemed to be THE STYLE OF SERVICE.

        Even in a three Michelin star dining room waitstaff can feel boundless enthusiasm for the food they represent and may want to share. Even in a one star, even in a room in the back of one's home. Even in my kitchen. But, again, not tonight at Charleston. At times superb, perhaps inspired cooking was dulled by a lack of enthusiasm and feigned formality in a dining room that sought to reach beyond Baltimore, yet only needed to compliment what was served on the plate. For me Baltimore does not need to offer an interpretation of a great European dining room. Rather, just taking the numerous outstanding savory courses that Cindy Wolf does best and enthusiastically presenting them is all that is necessary.

        Another complaint: the desserts: an overly bitter, somewhat flavorless thimble of chocolate mousse and, for those who know me, an absolutely awful, thin caramel ice cream with caramel that had boiled a few second too long. I use two parts Lewes Dairy Heavy cream to one part Chrome Dairy whole milk boiling the syrup from scratch, adding coarsely chopped pecans tossed in unsalted Vermont butter. Ripened in an almost 40 year old hand cranked White Mountain freezer with rock salt and ice, later covered with burlap for another hour. One of about a dozen different flavors I do now. Even Berthillion's Prune and Armagnac. Over the years I've become VERY critical of "homemade" ice cream in better restaurants. For reference both Two Amy's and Kinkead's in Washington have superb ice cream.

        Cindy Wolf is as talented of a chef as anyone on either side of the Atlantic. She proved that to us tonight with a number of her dishes. Despite a full dining room at 8:00 we left disappointed and after first discovering her fifteen years ago, will not soon return to a dining room that we both felt lacked the soul and passion we have found elsewhere. She is a great chef. Charleston, tonight, was not on her level.
        _________________

        This is the balance of what I wrote on Saturday night. I decided not to post it then because I was certain I would be accused of either a Washington bias or a kind of bias that demanded I receive an inordinate amount of attention in a dining room.

        But I should have posted all of it. After several days of thinking about the experience my wife and I just didn't LIKE Charleston. It wasn't warm, it wasn't friendly, most of all the staff didn't have a kind of boundless pride that I've seen in many great restaurants over the years. I remember my first visit to Emeril's on Tschoupoulitas street in New Orleans in the early '90's when Emeril himself was in the kitchen, every night. We went three nights out of six, shaking his hand although he was gamely tired from having started at dawn. He left the restaurant every evening around midnight. Twice it was my wife and I dining along-once at his food bar in the rear with him serving us, once we hosted a table for nine from my tradeshow which was in town. Each time we had a different waiter or waittress. All of them, to use the word above, were "stoked"-they wanted to enthusiastically, warmly spread Emeril's excellence to everyone that came in. It wasn't just us; every tourist, every local at every table every night. They all shared the same contagious, ebullient need to hasten our culinary re-birth. Right there, each night, in the Warehouse District. Even when NOLA opened a couple of years later we found the same spirit in the room; someone was responsible for this, someone had a vision of how their room should come across. To this day I believe the someone was Emeril.

        When Fabio Trabocchi moved to Chantilly from London and opened Maestro he brought most of his staff with him. He ever brought three waiters. Our first visit to Maestro was soon after it opened six years ago when we were banished to a table in the back of the dining room. Our waiter, originally from Rome (and who knew several of the restaurants we liked there) could not have been friendlier nor more outgoing. When he learned we'd eaten Fabio's cooking at Floriana he wanted to steer us to some of his new dishes that he had created for America. That night led to a dozen visits to Maestro over the years and a private "Chowhound" dinner for 58 which closed the restaurant to the public a year later.

        I've found this countless times in great dining rooms where staff are the kitchen's ambassadors, where they want to share what they are indeed fortunate to taste and serve.

        For myself I thought the staff at Charleston seemed to live in fear of the owners; the room was cold, stiff and overall very formal. It was not like this on our last visit five years ago. It was not like this when it was on Broadway. But for us it was Saturday night. I seriously doubt that Charleston has staff on the level of the three we met in the '90's at Emeril's or perhaps a half dozen that were on Maestro's staff or countless other restaurants where the experience is fully presented.

        For us on Saturday night Charleston was dispassionate excellence.

        1. re: Joe H

          JoeH, while I will agree that the room tends to be on the bit more formal/stiff side, we had a great first experience there within the last month or so. Our main waitperson could tell we were having fun just sifting through the menu and the wine list. Even if she was not the one delivering the food, she checked in with each course and we'd have a brief/quick chat. Hell, Cindy herself stopped by to chat in the latter stages of our meal and she exuded warmth and friendliness and inclusion -- even though the interaction was short.

          Just my two cents.

          www.roguefood.com

          1. re: Joe H

            Wow. Thank you for the unabridged version. The importance of the ambiance of service and the oft-common, oft-american, belief of high dining experience equaling a stiff service of perfection is a very recent topic of debate between myself and my other food-enthusiastic friends (I always hesitate to call myself a 'foodie'). While food can and should transcend at a place such as this, I feel it is ever-important to remember that a restaurant is still very much a service industry.

            The question, I wonder, is if you believe that Cindy Wolfe and company have firmly decided that this is the orientation they want to exude at the Charleston, and if it's the style which they believe either best fits their establishment or even best fits what their customers desire.

            1. re: Wangus

              It is entirely possible that my wife and I had an exceptional experience on Saturday but I believe this is the style they want and strive for.

            2. re: Joe H

              I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments on service and enthusiasm making/breaking a dining experience. Food alone can only take a place so far. I have had similar evenings at Charleston with one exception...made a stop in to the bar after a visit to Cinghiale for drinks and samplings from the delicious cheese cart. The bartender, Jamal, was engaging and absolutely delighful. The bar/lounge area and our "dessert," along with Jamal's knowledge and friendly disposition was the perfect end to the evening. FWIW- the service at Cinghiale, while a casual atmosphere and fun evening, was just average.