Nine or ten years ago my wife worked in downtown Washington. Once a week or so I would drive in from Reston and meet her and we would go out to dinner. Then, one of our favorite restaurants was the just opened Georgia Brown's on 17th Street just south of K. Over the first year of its operation we must have had ten or more dinners there. At some point Georgia Brown's opening chef, Cindy Wolf, left for Baltimore and we followed her to Savannah, her new restaurant in Fells Point. For a year or so we trekked the hundred + miles roundtrip from Reston to Baltimore to share some of the same food that we had first experienced in D. C. Over time the distance became too great and we forgot about Cindy Wolf and Savannah. Our occasional treks to Baltimore focused on crab cakes, pit beef and, occasionally, fresh seafood at the Black Olive.
Well, today Cindy Wolf has grown up. Savannah has moved ten blocks and morphed into Charleston and Baltimore now has the world class restaurant that it has lacked for so long.
Tonight my wife and I landed an early reservation at Charleston, by far the best and most stylish restaurant that has ever opened in this city. What follows has less in common with the Prime Rib, Tio Pepe, Danny's and the Pimlico Hotel and more in common with Citronelle, Laboratorio and Maestro which Charleston is only a short rung on the ladder below. In fact for style Charleston is directly reminiscent of San Francisco's Gary Danko, a Zagat 29 for food that Charleston is not that shy of.
This is an elegant restaurant in an office building just outside of Little Italy. The glass enclosed kitchen is framed at the end of one of the dining rooms so that the nine in the kitchen react quickly to Cindy Wolf's barked commands. I note this here because at, say Maestro and Kinkead's in Washington, the chefs orchestrate the orders through headphones. At Charleston, for many of the diners, Cindy Wolf is plainly heard throughout the closest dining room. This, in a restaurant that might run $300 + for two people, is inexcusable. This criticism aside, much of what is produced from her demands is remarkable.
There are two prix fixe menus, a seven couse at $79, another six course at $70. Wine pairings are offered for $115 or $107 respectively Beyond this are six first courses, a la carte $8 to 19, six second courses, a la carte $8 to $14, six third courses a la carte at $30 to 34. Beyond this is a cheese course which is extremely noteworthy at four selections for $11 and the dessert menu.
Charleston has several Great dishes: cornmeal crusted oysters with lemon-cayenne mayonnaise is outstanding. This points out that frying seafood can be truly an art when in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing...and is willing to use fresh, clean oil. Chilled plum soup is fresh and delicious and an excellent counterpoint to the fried oysters. On the prix fixe the second course is a cornmeal fried softshell crab with lemon brown butter. The first time I had fried soft shell crabs I was fortunate: this was at K-Paul's in New Orleans at its height in 1981. A revelation of sorts it started me on years of ordering soft shell crab only to have every one come up short of the Chartres Street classic. Until tonight. Cindy Wolf's version is delicious, easily in league with New Orleans' best.
Charleston tops out with the best crab cake that I have ever had: incorporating tabasco, mayonnaise, lemon, whole grain mustard and shelled peas and fresh husked corn this non traditional, definitely not Maryland style crab cake beats out the Narrows and every other great crab cake that I have ever had. With the texture of crunch along with flavor I cannot tell you how good this was. I also cannot tell you how disappointing it was to know that the traditional Maryland style crab cake is not the best that I have had.
A salad of romaine, hearts of palm and nectarines with a citrus-muscat viniagrette was really quite plain with, really, a lack of real flavor. Coming after the big flavors of the previous three dishes this was actually a real disappointment.
The next course put Charleston back over the top: a grilled veal tenderloin with lump crab and chive beurre blanc with fresh asparagus. Just superb. A great dish. I literally licked the fork clean.
Charleston has an excelent cheese cart which I suspect that most diners overlook. Perhaps 20 to 25 selections with a half dozen triple creams and three or four bleu cheeses and roqueforts there is an exemplery selection.
Dessert for us was an overall disappointment. Superb, creamy ice creams with intensely flavored sorbets yet a pedestrian, if you will, cheesecake, highlighted a menu that I believe really needs work.
The wine list is superb, fairly deep and reasonably priced with 100% markups on average.
Charleston does NOT have the spectacular presentations that you will find in Maestro or Citronelle. It lacks the six inch high "constructions" or unusual trapezoidal or hectagonal shaped dishes that command the diner's attention. It is not an "electric" or exciting restaurant, does not have the stemware or porcelain or a two or three starred Michelin restaurant. The service, which is attentive from teams, is not Michelin correct yet it is excellent and polished nevertheless. Cindy Wolf stands at the front of her glass enclosed kitchen in total command. I suspect that this woman knows exactly what she wants. I also suspect that she is a taskmaster who pays an incredible amount of attention to detail. She has fashioned Baltimore's best restaurant as well as one of the best in the mid-Atlantic area. Unless I am mistaken I believe she has also been justifiably nominated for a James Beard award.
How good is Charleston? We drove from Reston and felt that it was well worth the drive. Frankly, with the $79 prix fixe and suppliments for cheese the check quickly runs up north of $300. It could be considerably less if ordered a la carte and with a judiciously inexpensive bottle of wine. But, I believe, to fully experience it the prix fixe is best. In this league it has to be measured against Citronelle, Maestro and Laboratorio. Against all three it falls a bit short. (Were I Zagat and the others were 29 for food Charleston would be a 27, perhaps a 28.) Still, it is heads and shoulders above any other restaurant in Baltimore. And Washington. Charleston is a great restaurant well worth driving out of your way to experience. Simply, Cindy Wolf (who I have never met) has grown up from my first experience with her cooking at Georgia Brown. Today she is just entering the world stage. I think she and Charleston are ready for it. For Baltimore she is a real treasure. In fact she would be treasured in any city.