I want to preface this story by saying that despite my best efforts to paint you the most accurate picture possible of our evening at Charleston last night, I will no doubt fail to do the restaurant justice. If, after you read this account of our evening, you are encouraged to try it yourself, I assure you, you will not be disappointed. With that said, I give you an evening at Charleston.
If you are unfamiliar with Baltimore’s Fells Point, or are only familiar with the part of it that houses bar after bar full of crazy, drunken college students, you’ve probably never seen this side of the city before. Turning from Central onto Lancaster Street, the darkness of the city gives way to a classier, refined district, home to valets and doormen. Charleston, situated on the corner of Lancaster and Exeter Street, presents itself as the crowning jewel of the neighborhood, yet its subtle exterior is understated enough to fool you into thinking it’s just another restaurant.
We pulled into the area designated for valet parking and were quickly greeted by an attendant who opened the door for Jen to get out. Entering through the large, frosted glass doors, we found ourselves in a foyer of sorts where we were greeted by Tony Foreman, the co-owner and wine director. He took Jen’s coat, handed it to a maitre d’, and led us to the dining room. Our table was located near the entrance to the kitchen, which was exposed to the patrons so as to give us a glimpse into how our meals are so intricately prepared. On one side of the table was a chair, upholstered in a reddish-orange suede. The other side was a long booth, adorned with the same color and texture as the chair, which stretched half the length of the room. As we were seated, a woman rushed over with a matching pillow that she quickly placed behind the small of Jen’s back before she sat down. If we didn’t already feel a bit out of place, we certainly did at this point.
Years ago when Jen and I started dating, I took her to a fancy restaurant where jackets and ties were required. After being seated, I started to remove my jacket in order to more comfortably enjoy my meal when the waiter leaned over and kindly asked me to leave the jacket on. I was determined not to make any mistakes regarding etiquette this time around so I sat down, jacket on, and waited for our server to make the first move.
Before our waitress arrived, Tony attempted to give us a brief tutorial on the wine list and menu. The “list” could more accurately be described as a short novel with a suede covered binding and thousands of selections ranging in price from reasonable to boing! (picture a cartoon character whose eyes pop out of his head). After speaking about the different regions of Italy and France and what makes one vineyard better than another, I felt intimidated selecting anything so as Tony moved his finger over a bottle of Cabernet, I quickly interjected with, “That one looks good, we’ll take that.” Judging by the look of mild approval on his face, it seemed we had made an appropriate decision.
Our waitress arrived just before our confusion regarding the menu led to us rocking back and forth in our chairs and weeping. Dinner at the Charleston is broken down into courses. When ordering, she explained, you must first decide how many courses you want (excluding dessert because it’s included in the package). From there, you select the courses from a list of approximately a dozen or so appetizers and entrees. If the pressure of selecting from these choices is simply too much for you to bear, Chef Cindy Wolf prepares a four course meal every day with foods she has selected for you. Feeling adventurous and knowing we had a gift certificate in my back pocket, we elected to go for the make-you-own five course package.
While we waited for course number one to arrive, I couldn’t help but let me eyes wander around the room. From what I could tell, we were the youngest diners of the evening as well as the most inexperienced. It seemed everywhere I turned; people of class and sophistication were enjoying their ridiculously priced bottles of wine and talking about their collection of BMW’s. That most likely wasn’t the case, but if you wanted to have a conversation like that, this would be the place to have it. At one point, the couple sitting next to us requested they be moved to a different table because the woman was a bit chilly. The waiter was more than accommodating and was prepared to move them to a table near the fireplace when the woman decided they were fine where they were and simply wished she had a shawl to place over her shoulders. As if like magic, the waiter appeared moments later with a shawl that not only effectively warmed the lady, but also went quite well with her dress. Such is life at Charleston restaurant.
Our courses were served at perfect intervals. It seemed just as we had settled from one course, the next was being delivered to our table. Of the 10 courses between us, only our initial appetizer of the rich lobster with curry soup was duplicated. Jen selected the fried oysters and shrimp with real grits as courses two and three while I went with the white asparagus and duck confit salad. For our main courses, we each enjoyed a seafood entrée; Jen selected the Norwegian salmon and I, the wild rockfish. These succulent dishes were followed by the prime beef tenderloin for Jen and the pan-roasted magret duck for me. Rather than commit the brutal injustice of trying to adequately describe these incredible delicacies, I’ll simply leave it up to your imagination which will no doubt entice you to try the restaurant for yourselves.
As the meal went on, we both felt more and more comfortable in our surroundings. This increased comfort level was helped by the gentleman sitting across from our table who committed the first and only party foul we witnessed. At some point between our second and third courses, I noticed some impromptu action taking place a couple of tables in front of us. It seemed that the man had spilled a drink of some sort. Whether it was water or wine, I am not sure, and perhaps the type of spill may have directly impacted the process that happened next.
In what can only be described as a coordinated maneuver, an available maitre d’ hurriedly, but certainly not recklessly, made his way to the table with a clean and freshly pressed cloth napkin. He, along with another waiter, quickly moved all plates, utensils and glasses out of the way. Then, in one swift aerial movement, he folded the napkin in half and as it slowly fell out of the sky, the waiter grabbed the other end and together, they laid it directly over the spill. In moments, the contents of the table were back in their appropriate places and the napkin was smoothed out so perfectly that you couldn’t tell where it ended and the tablecloth began. Thankfully, I was able to witness this acrobatic exercise while Jen could only listen to my description as her back was to the action.
After enjoying all five courses and slowly polishing off the wine we had selected, we were given several dessert options to close out the dining experience. While sipping coffee and waiting for our desserts to arrive, we noticed a woman entering the dining room from the kitchen. She was dressed in what you would traditionally picture a chef to wear and she made her way over to a table in our section where she exchanged hugs and pleasantries with the guests. I inquired to our waitress if this woman was, in fact, Cindy Wolf and she confirmed our suspicions. Obviously she knew the man and woman at the table she was visiting and for a moment, I thought about signaling to her when she left their table to see if I could speak with her. I thought better of it though as I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or Jen, and assumed a famous chef of her stature wouldn’t be interested in speaking with me anyway.
When she left the table, surprisingly, she made her way around the room stopping to speak to each of her guests. As she headed over to us, I knew I had to explain to her why we were here and I wanted her to know how much we enjoyed ourselves. She introduced herself, inquired as to the quality of our meal and before I could even begin my shtick, she asked why we had come to Charleston. I briefly explained about my impending birthday milestone and the list I had created and she seemed genuinely interested.
“What a great idea.” She said. “I have to sign a menu for you!”
She left the table and headed into the foyer. She returned a few moments later with a signed menu and a note that read: “Happy 30th Birthday! I’m very proud to be one of your 30 things to do.” It was a fitting end to an incredible dining experience. It’s not everyday you get to shake hands with a world-renowned award-winning chef. When all was said and done and we had successfully washed enough dishes to pay for the balance of the check after the gift certificate was applied, we headed home. Unfortunately the rules of the restaurant prohibited use of cell phones, which was the only camera I had on me, so no picture was taken to officially document this event. As you can see however, I did snap a couple of pictures of the signed menu once we made it home so that, along with my description of the evening, will have to be enough for you. If you ever have a special occasion to celebrate and a credit card with plenty of room on it, I highly recommend enjoying a fantastic evening at Charleston. I know Jen and I certainly did!