Charleston Restaurant
1000 Lancaster St.
Baltimore, MD 21202

American | $$$$

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Charleston has been on my radar for some time. Consistently rated one of the best restaurants in Baltimore co-owner and Chef Cindy Wolf is a James Beard Foundation 2014 Best Chef Mid-Atlantic nominee. We had the pleasure of dinning at Charleston  recently to celebrate our friend Elizabeth’s birthday. Charleston is in the Harbor East section of Baltimore south of Little Italy and near Fell’s Point. As with most of the Inner Harbor area parking is at a premium so use the complimentary valet parking.

Chef Wolf has created an interesting menu by doing away with the traditional appetizer and entrée groupings and offering one list of dishes from lightest to heaviest. Diners craft their own tasting menus: three, four, five, or six courses varying in price. Dishes are not small plates or a large entrée but something sized in between. If you wanted three items which are traditionally appetizers at other restaurants just pick. I have not seen this menu design before but I like it. If you’re not comfortable picking Chef Wolf has helped with the “Chef’s Menu of the Moment” showing her picks for a four course meal.

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Under my folded napkin I found this signature plate that was removed before our first dish arrived. I never saw these plates again so I don’t know if they serve on them.

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We started dinner with a wonderful amuse-bouche of Chilled Carrot Soup and Goat Cheese Mousse appetizer. The carrot soup was lovely chilled and is slightly thicker than a broth, just the right consistency. Everything is better as a mousse.

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Chef Wolf’s low-country culinary roots are evident in many dishes including this corn shaped sweet cornbread.

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First the delicate Lobster,

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then the smooth Rich Lobster Soup with Curry and Arugula oils. The lobster was perfect, tender with a hint of curry in the soup.

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My wife chose an incredible Mushroom Soup with Foie Gras Butter-Toasted Brioche and Bual Madeira. I don’t drink and am unfamiliar with how the Portuguese wine Madeira Bual should taste or contribute to the dish. I left the brioche for my wife to enjoy and tried the soup. It was light and as airy as a liquid can be. It was by far the best mushroom soup I have had.

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Eager to experience Chef Wolf’s low-country cooking for my second course I chose the Shrimp & Stone–Ground Creamy Grits with Tasso Ham, Andouille Sausage, and Fresh Chives. Two jumbo shrimp sit atop a bed of creamy grits sprinkled with ham and sausage. A perennial Southern favorite at its finest.

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Elizabeth ordered this beautiful Local Heirloom Tomato & Plum Salad with Medallion of Lobster and Curried Crème Fraiche.

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My wife ordered the Pan-Roasted Dourade with Haricots Verts, Nicoise Olives, Tiny Capers, and Local Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. The Dourade is a fish more common in European restaurants. Nicely roasted with a taste similar to Rockfish.

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My third course was Calamari in a zesty Lemon Saffron Risotto. The calamari was flawless and paired wonderfully with the flavorful risotto. This is a great summertime dish.

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My last course before dessert which would typically be the main entrée was the Grilled Beef Tenderloin on a bed of Creamy Polenta with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Roasted Local Tomatoes. The tenderloin melted in your mouth and the mushrooms were divine. These appeared to be the white Chanterelles and not the golden ones. Wild chanterelle mushrooms can grow large on the east coast but these were medium size and magnificent sautéed.

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My wife chose the Grilled Magret of Duck with Grilled Local Peaches, Toasted Ground Nuts, and Carrot Purée for her heaviest dish. The duck was mild and not gamey. The grilled peach slices sprinkled with ground nuts was interesting. The faint grittiness of the nuts lends an earthy tone to the succulent peaches.

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Elizabeth had the Grilled Veal Tenderloin with Eggplant “Caviar,” Roasted Poblano Pepper Cream, and Grilled Zucchini. The veal was a little too rare for my taste but still good.

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For dessert my pick from the five choices was the Opera Cake. An Almond Sponge Cake with Coffee Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache accompanied by Espresso Bean Vanilla Ice Cream. The Opera Cake was dense with many thin layers and luscious.

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Elizabeth went with the Brown Sugar Pie made with Pecan Sablé, Toffee, Brown Butter Bourbon Cream, and a side of Bourbon Ice Cream. I did not taste this one but noticed it quickly disappeared from her plate.

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My wife often has the staff pick between two dishes when she has trouble deciding. Here she requested either the Poached Local Peach Tart with Frangipane Puff Pastry, Raspberry Jam, and Tahitian Vanilla Bean Anglaise or the Local Blackberry Torte with Vanilla Sablé, Crème Fraîche Whipped Cream, and a Port Reduction. Our waitress brought her both. She liked each but picked the Blackberry Torte as her favorite.

The Charleston’s décor is warm and inviting. The expansive kitchen is mostly visible from the dining room how I like it. When I can see the kitchen I feel like the chef has nothing to hide. Lighting was good and with the restaurant full the noise was mid-range hard to hear at 75 decibels.

Service was impeccable, dishes arrived at just the right time. Without realizing it the dinner had a flow that paced the meal so the next dish arrived just as the last drifted off the palate. Our team of wait staff was friendly and focused, intent on providing just the right environment for enjoying a wonderful meal. I mentioned to the maî·tre d’ we had a wonderful meal at Vetri earlier this year and they deserved the James Beard Foundation 2014 Outstanding Service nomination. I told him I felt the service we received rivaled that at Vetri.

Chef Wolf’s classical French training combined with her love of Southern-inspired low-country cuisine promises an exceptional meal. If you’re a Foodie in the Mid-Atlantic region and have not eaten at Charleston make plans now. It has to be near the top of your “Where to Eat Next” list.