BALTIMORE – For the past 17 years chef Cindy Wolf has been wooing local Baltimoreans with her southern-infused cuisine, offering diners a fresh take on the familiar fare they expect: fried oysters, shrimp and grits, fresh rockfish, and oyster stew. Doing it her way means doing it with flair, and even those of us who don’t have those Southern classics imprinted into our DNA can see that Cindy does what she does with professional expertise and a palate that is right on.
Her fried oysters allow the saline, sea-rich aroma and flavor of the local bivalve to come through vibrantly, carefully encased in a crispy, cornmeal-rich batter made to dip into a forward-flavored lemon-cayenne mayonnaise.
In her hands, shrimp and grits rise to new heights (I would love to eat these once a week for the rest of my life). The creaminess of stone-ground grits pairs with the bite of giant shrimp, set off by the smoky saltiness of Tasso ham, a delicate dish that does not stand on the sidelines but speaks with its own voice.
Dish after dish, flavors come through boldly, so that there is no question on the diner’s mind: mushrooms taste like mushrooms, artichokes scream “I am an artichoke,” grilled zucchini holds its own grassy flavor, and more.
Ceviche – that ever so lightly marinated fish creation that can range from bland to spectacular – is one of my favorite dishes when done well, and one I often use to judge a chef’s prowess. Joël Robuchon sets the standard with his dorade (sea bream) offering at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, where the fish is marinated in a lime juice-rich concoction and showered with Espelette pepper and freshly grated lime zest. Cindy’s version, prepared with local rockfish, is a dream come true, arriving as thin petals of fish topped with a crunchy, brilliant, bright-flavored blend of fresh lime, cilantro, shallots, and jalapeño peppers. The dish sings, almost leaps off the plate, and is so very much at home with sips of flinty white Sancerre.
Wolf’s partner, Tony Foreman, selects the restaurant’s wine list, which is extensive, international and well-chosen. Their dining menu also reflects a good deal of thought, and rather than the traditional appetizer/first course/main course routine, they list the 20-or-so daily offerings on a single page, , giving Fresh Artichoke Soup and Grilled Beef Tenderloin equal weight. Diners choose anywhere from 3 ($79) to 6 ($114) courses, and have the option to enjoy wine pairings with each dish. It’s a brilliant concept and one I would like to see more restaurants would embrace.
The dining room at Charleston, in the Harbor East neighborhood, is comfortable, grown-up, understated, and amazingly quiet for a rather large, expansive room open to the bustling, pristine kitchen. My single regret is that Cindy is not in my back yard.
CHARLESTON | 1000 Lancaster Street at Exeter | Baltimore, Maryland | Tel: + 1 410 332 7373 | Open Monday - Saturday 5:30-10pm | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.charlestonrestaurant.com | $79-114 for 3-6 course ($120-182 with wine pairings).