On a recent Saturday night, diners strode into Charleston's main dining room with confident smiles. They couldn't wait for the evening to start. They knew, either firsthand or by reputation, that they were in extremely capable hands.
When Charleston opened in 1997, diners were primed for something wonderful. The new restaurant's co-owners, Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman, were coming off a first success, Savannah, in the Admiral Fell Inn. When Savannah closed, Wolf and Foreman took a chance on a nearby Lancaster Street location. Back then, this neighborhood had no name, but a few years later, its developers gave it one — Harbor East.
From the beginning at Charleston, these two things were true:
First, that Wolf made the Low Country cuisine of her native South Carolina into fare fit for fine dining, as beautiful as it is delicious. As in all good design, there are no wasted moments or gratuitous gestures. If an ingredient appears, it contributes — aesthetically, gastronomically and emotionally.
And second, that Tony Foreman had a vision of how a first-rate wine program could contribute to a restaurant, and he had the energy and passion to see it through.
Some things have changed. Since Charleston's opening, Foreman and Wolf have opened other restaurants; good ones, too — Petit Louis, Pazo, Cinghiale and, most recently Johnny's. But Charleston is their masterpiece, and not for a moment is there any indication that attention has wavered.
The biggest change, though, was in 2005, when the interior was remodeled and the menu format revamped into its current state.
The dining room, eight years later, remains sedately and warmly lovely. Nearly all of its color comes from the persimmon-tinged upholstery on the high-back chairs. Designed by Patrick Sutton, it's a subtle room that you might consider boring — if you were boring.
The pay-by-the-course system introduced in 2005 endures, too. From a changing menu of 20 or so items, diners choose anywhere between three and six items, which are presented in courses. The cost ranges from $79 for three courses to $114 for six, not including dessert, which is gratis. If you want wine paired with each course, it will cost about 25 percent more.
The menu is arranged top to bottom, from soups and appetizers to meat-based dishes. Ordering a meal is, in fact, as easy as pie, as long as you follow the menu's tacit guidelines, which are in place for a reason. They work.
Let Charleston be Charleston. Let your waiter help you design your meal, and by all means accept the wine recommendations, which are designed by Foreman and which are uncannily perfect.
Then, the courses begin, none arriving a minute too late or too soon.
At the beginning, there's an invigorating lobster bisque, flavored with lobster stock, finished with cream and heightened with arugula oil and curry oil. And then a plate of five cornmeal-fried oysters, served with lemon-cayenne mayonnaise. Just beneath the gently seasoned breading, each oyster is intact, creamy, juicy and hot.
Now in November, the flavors are wild. There's a salad of roasted red beets with crispy bacon, frisee, a fennel-flavored bread crouton and a raspberry vinaigrette so tender and so alive that you realize the reason you hate raspberry vinaigrette is that everyone else does it wrong. If you see Wolf's lemon beurre blanc on the menu, order whatever is attached to this glorious sauce — a sterling plate of chanterelle mushrooms and fresh artichokes, or the grilled rockfish, with a fricassee of oyster and button mushrooms.
Wolf is known for her way with seafood. The shrimp and grits, always on Charleston's menu, were an early calling card. But the three meat dishes we tried — grilled tenderloins of beef and buffalo, and a pan-roasted magret de canard — were unexpected highlights.
Magret, the breast of the prized Moulard duck, is one of those words you see on a menu that stop making sense, until a chef like Wolf comes along and shows you what's it's all about. Now, pan-roasted magret with roasted root vegetables and pecan stuffing is the one dish you want every food-lover in Baltimore to have.
Charleston, more than any other restaurant in Baltimore, asks a diner for a complete commitment.
I don't think you can truly enjoy Charleston unless you commit, in advance and at the table, to the experience. It's a investment of concentration, time and money. You'd do well to shine your shoes, turn off your phone and set aside a wide span of an evening — figure on three hours, minimum.
Charleston shouldn't be part of your evening, it should be your evening. The least amount of money you can expect to spend here is $100, per person, but if you're able and willing to spend more, the pleasure you receive will increase accordingly.
There are no diminishing returns at Charleston.
Rating: 5 stars
Where: 1000 Lancaster St., Harbor East
Contact: 410-332-7373, charlestonrestaurant.com
Open: Dinner Monday through Saturday; closed on Sunday
Prices: The menu charges by the course, from $79 for three courses to $114 for six
Food: Low Country-inspired cuisine
Service: Highly informed, empathetic and disciplined
Parking/accessibility: Complimentary valet parking
Noise level/televisions: The main dining room is quiet with no ambient music. There are no televisions.
Dress code: The restaurant's website advises, "A jacket and tie are most comfortable but not required."
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]