I had dinner on Saturday with some fellow hounds at the newly-renovated Charleston. After their mid-summer closing, this Baltimore favorite has re-opened with both a new look and a new menu. Ill leave it to the interior design experts to analyze the new look, but suffice it to say, it was not a minor face lift. The entire layout, with the exception of the kitchen, is different. The new theme being smaller dining rooms, almost residential in feel, but with a clubby elegance. Speaking of elegance, even if you are showing up to dinner in a 50 foot yacht or a Bentley, it's a little silly that you can't be bothered to locate a pair of pants. [mini rant over.]
The menu layout (available on the website) is also all new and features the increasingly popular prix fixe tasting menu approach. Smaller courses available in three, four or five choices. Cheese is one of those course options, but dessert is offered compliments of the chef. The three of us went with the four-course option for $72.
Dinner began with an amuse bouche of chilled pea soup with rabbit confit. This was delightful. From there we managed to sample twelve different dishes among the three of us, hoping to get maximum menu coverage. First courses: terrine of rabbit, foie, and pheasant; shrimp with ham and grits (a old menu classic, though where were the shrimp heads?); and seared foie gras with quail eggs on toast. The foie gras was the clear winner here. No diet plate, this. But worth it.
Next: Beet salad; lamb carpaccio; and crabcake. Board vets will recall past discussion of the Charleston crabcake. I believe this one to be more traditional than past versions; and so lacking in filler that it was creamy inside. While it was quite tasty, I wouldnt make a special trip for it. The rich avocado accompaniment was a nice, unexpected touch. The lamb was beautiful.
Followed by: Rockfish Provencal; duck breast with fruits; and seared scallops. There was no sharing going on here, which is generally a good sign. My duck was amazingly tender and perfectly medium rare. The warmed cherries and peaches and minimal sauce made for a nice summer version of this dish.
Finally: Braised veal shoulder with grilled sweetbreads; kobe beef tenderloin; and confit of pork. The sweetbreads stole the show in my dish, the best Ive ever had. But the hands down winner of the night was the pork shoulder. A definite wow, and, to borrow a phrase, a great dish. (Order the pork.)
With this we drank Bollinger NV champagne, '99 Laurent Vosne-Romanee 1er Cru, and '97 Bovio Barolo. The latter two recommended by Tony, and all three amazing. This is one of the few places in town where wine recommendations can be blindly followed with confidence. The wine list is incredible, and the prices . . . well, painful. But those prices buy you unparalleled attention to detail in selection, glassware and service.
I hadnt been to Charleston in several years after a very expensive so-so meal there a while back. But after tonight, I am anxious to return to sample the rest of the new menu. There is plenty to choose from to be sure, and the portions are smaller. I left there without that familiar Charleston food coma from heavy reduction sauces. Maybe its a seasonal thing, but subtlety of flavor is playing a bigger role now than in the past.
Bottom line: Can one find the occasional comparable or superior dish elsewhere? Sure. Can one sniff out a better bargain in town? Definitely. But is there anyone else in town operating on this level simultaneously in all areas of food, wine and service? No.