Friday, January 9, 2009


For my father's birthday, we had a small family gathering (6 people) at Charleston in Baltimore, one of our old favorite places. The restaurant had just reopened after its holiday hiatus so there were a few empty tables, unusually (or maybe it is the recession) but it was still mostly full.

As always, we had a great meal. I had a wonderful snail tartlet, heavy on the demi-glace, followed by seared tuna, duck breast, beef tenderloin, and a chocolate treat for dessert. Michael had shrimp and grits with andouille sausage first (a signature of the house), followed by a green salad, the tuna, the beef, and a lemon tart for dessert. The other four members of our party made do with one course less.

Charleston's menu is an extremely flexible and user friendly one which starts at three courses (plus dessert, which is always included) for $74 and adds $12 for each extra course. You can pick and choose between hot and cold appetizers, fish, poultry, and game. There are usually three or four choices in each category all of which generally sound terrific and they can be had in any order. For example my cousin Amy on my right started with a hot appetizer, then had a salad, then another hot appetizer before going on to dessert.

All of the food was delicious as is always the case...Cindy Wolf, the chef, won the regional James Beard award a few years back and the restaurant is generally acknowledged to be the best in Baltimore.

With the first courses we had a Zind-Humbrecht Herrenweg de Turckheim Pinot Gris ($84) which I liked very much. It was much less sweet than the PG we had had in California and I thought it was a more balanced partner for most of the food. Michael did not love it, he told me afterward, and found something off about it. With the main courses most of us (except Michael) switched to a 1999 Domaine les Aphillantes Cotes du Rhone ($69) which was delicious and unusual. My parents had discovered this on a previous visit and been most attracted to it...unfortunately I think we drank the last bottle, or close to it. Generally the wine list at Charleston is quite extensive (about 600 bottles) and fairly expensive but with quite a few decent selections in the moderate range for those who are trying to hold down the cost.

My parents, being regulars, had asked for their usual table and their usual service. Service was impeccably professional and extremely friendly. I have never been able to develop the status of a "regular" at any restaurant more exalted than the local Chinese place so have missed out on some of those benefits but it is certainly a bonus to be a friend of the house. Among other things we were all treated to a glass of a delicious, somewhat sweet sparkling wine for dessert (I think it was the Moscati d'Asti on the list but am not sure).

Michael and I rode home in a happy food daze. We agreed afterward that we could have managed quite happily with one fewer course (especially considering the delicious bread -- especially those corn bread sticks that arrive regularly). But with all of the wonderful choices on the menu it was just too hard to limit ourselves.

Charleston once again upheld its view, in our opinion, as the go-to restaurant for a celebratory meal in the Baltimore-Washington area. Certainly there are restaurants in DC -- Citronelle comes to mind -- that have cooking on the same level, but few can put together an attractive setting, great food, an interesting menu, and service that combines professionalism with personality, all at a fairly reasonable cost. AT $86 for the food cost of what we ate, it is one of the great high-end food bargains we have had recently.

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