Cut and pasted from my website. I read a bunch of messages here before making reservations at Charleston last week. Thanks to everyone whose posts I read.
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Last thursday evening I was in Baltimore, MD for work. Baltimore seemed like a pretty nice town to me, though I'll admit I spent practically all of my time in a 1 square mile radius from my hotel near the bay.
We arrived on Thursday, around 11:00, and after checking into the hotel, had lunch at an Italian place called Della Notte (which I hope I'm spelling correctly). I can't comment on the place in general, because all I had was an iced tea and a crab cake, but the crab cake was outstanding. It was a minimalist approach, with basically crab, breadcrumbs, and mayonaise. Mostly big, lump crabmeat with no shells.
For dinner, I was joined by a friend, and we decided on Charleston. Coincidentally, it was half a block from my hotel. (Also within a half-block, a Whole Foods company, and a wine shop called Bin 601; around a block away was the James Joyce pub, which poured a pretty good Guinness, but I digress).
The restaurant looked to seat around 50, I'd guess (though I may have missed part of the place. It featured banquettes around the edge of the room in which we were seated, and two and four top tables in the center. It felt a little full once dinner service was in full-swing, but not too crowded. It was loud, but not so loud we couldn't carry on a conversation.
We toyed with choosing the tasting menu for dinner, but eventually went a la carte (interestingly, the next day I read an article in Gourmet in which numerous chefs derided the tasting menu concept as a way for the kitchen to make additional money off customers, and/or use up surplus ingredients; but I digress again).
The martini was good. Let's get that out of the way first.
Charleston's a la carte menu (sample only, the current menu is a bit different) is divided into three courses and a cheese course, with a separate dessert menu.
For a first course, I chose crispy cornmeal crusted oysters with lemon-cayenne mayonaise ($9). This course made me extremely optimistic about the rest of the meal. The oysters, which were smaller than the gulf oysters I'm used to, were fried perfectly. No other way to put it. The crust was crispy and flavored well, and the oysters were just cooked, and steaming hot. The mayonaise could have used a little more of the cayenne, but that is a very minor complaint, all things considered. The dish came with around 8 or 9 oysters, I think, and they were arranged over and alongside a small salad of cress, which added a nice, sort of spicy bite to the dish.
For a second course, I chose the lump crab and avocado salad with vine ripened tomato and lemon vinaigrette ($12). This was just a bit of a disappointment. The salad was arranged as a napoleon, with slices of tomato sandwiching avocado mousse, and crabmeat dressed with the (creamy) vinaigrette. Cutting into the tomatoes meant that the mousse, and the crabmeat went all over the place, which didn't affect the taste, but could have been avoided by deconstructing the whole thing. The dish was otherwise good.
For a third course, I chose a roasted loin of colorado lamb with duck fat roasted potatoes, fresh fava beans, and a lamb reduction ($33). I am a sucker for both fresh fava beans, and potatoes cooked with duck fat. I also love lamb, so this was a natural for me. The fava beans were very tender, and obviously fresh. You don't see them too often, because it takes a good bit of work to prepare them (a double shelling, to be precise, including - usually - a parboil to loosen an inner skin that covers the beans). But favas have a wonderful, light flavor that I really love. Despite the fact that I think of them as more of a spring vegetable, I had no problem ordering them last week.
The potatoes, of which there were a lot, were also outstanding. Roasted to a generally crisp, browned exterior, but with a light inside, and again, seasoned well. The lamb, on the other hand, was a little disappointing. It was tougher than I would have expected from fresh lamb cooked medium rare (which is how I ordered it, and how it came). I can't really fault the kitchen for that, since on occasion I suppose you're just going to get that black sheep of the flock (I am so verry sorry) whose meat is tougher than the rest.
Anyway, I skipped the cheese and dessert courses, which did look good, in favor of guinness at the aforementioned James Joyce pub with my friend.
The meal was really very good, and I could have happily ordered at least half of the items on the menu with the expectation that the kitchen was paying the same attention to detail they demonstrated in the oysters, fava beans, potatoes, etc. The restaurant was probably 8 to 10% more expensive than a similar meal in New Orleans, but that's a factor of the market, I presume.
One final note about Baltimore. Everywhere I ate (all of three places) I was served good to very good bread. I think it is a sign of the quality of food in a town when the bread you are served when you first sit down is not the homogenized, white-bread crep you find in cafeterias and fast-food joints. Much thanks to the DC/Baltimore Chowhound message board for suggestions on where to eat.
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