Apt as I am to be cynical of certain fine dining establishments and their massively inflated prices (read: egos), there's a reason why some restaurants are simply better than run-of-the-mill. While atmosphere has something to do with it, many restaurants try to get away with fixing huge prices on tiny portions, drizzling an infused sauce of some kind, and slapping it on the very best china served to you by staff who seem to think they are tipped on their ability to make you feel unworthy as a human being. I'd rather pay exorbitantly to eat exquisite food off of the floor than sub-par food off of a Royal Copenhagen plate.
I'd felt an aversion to The Charleston for this very reason. It's in a neighborhood I frequent, it's advertised in in-flight magazines as THE restaurant to hit while in Baltimore, and if you Google "Best Restaurants in Baltimore", it pops up BEFORE favorites of mine like The Black Olive and Cinghiale. Still, the pedigree isn't a guarantee. Pazo also appears but, quite frankly, the last time I went there I ordered what I thought was an array of different tastes and wound up with four plates of fried things with different sauces accompanying them. I can go to TGI Friday's for that.
(No, but seriously, I really dislike Pazo. I thought I would love it. I mean, the prime decor feature of the entryway are those fabulous couches where one can sip wine. Because sometimes all that's missing from the restaurant experience is feeling like I'm at home on my couch drinking wine. No lie. But I hated Pazo. The food, that is. I've never been offered such a dizzying array of fried goods, and in my mind I have nicknamed Pazo "State Fair.")
But when a bunch of your friends decide to hit up a restaurant you've been avoiding, it seems rather silly to not tag along. Even if you're only going just to prove to yourself that your instincts were on par.
Mine were not.
I was dead wrong.
I had taken two sips of a pre-dinner Ketel One martini when I was presented with a bowl of truffle oil potato chips and a creme fraiche dipping sauce. Truffle oil is, quite possibly, one of my Most Favorite Things; right up there with boutique vodka, certain Oregon pinot noirs, and Ricky Gervais. If I were to somehow find myself floating gently in a sea of truffle oil, sipping organic botanical vodka with the good Brit entertaining me, this would not be a bad day.
And this, mind you, is Charleston's take on that free petri dish of salted nuts that takes up bar top real estate. I'm already ever-so-slightly on board.
Charleston's menu is prix fixe, which I actually like. It seems to me that most restaurants are really capitalizing on their chef's ability to prepare lots of little dishes (which usually means a handful of really great basic products, like seafood and beef, prepared a multitude of ways) as opposed to the Olden Days when you went to a restaurant and ordered an appetizer to share, an entree, and maybe some dessert. This type of formulaic menu seems so limiting now, in the era of tapas and prix fixe, and best reserved for steakhouses and other places that specialize in certain entree items.
I chose the 3-course option ($76; 4 courses are $88, 5 are $100, and 6 are $111), and selected these gems:
1st: grilled romaine and warm goat cheese salad with chive and basil vinaigrette
2nd: sauteed Hudson Valley foie gras with local quail's egg in brioche toast
3rd: grilled lamb tenderloin with eggplant "caviar"
The grilled romaine and the lamb tenderloin were positively succulent, beautifully presented, and decent-sized portions. The server had informed us as we were seated to be prepared for "tasting portions." I'm not surprised at this fine print. I imagine many of their patrons arrive, look at the prices, and are expected to be served their food in a trough. But; surprise, surprise; sometimes the more expensive the food, the smaller the portion. These however, were perfectly sized for one such female as myself who can pack away a decent amount of food when hungry enough.
And...the foie gras. Oh. My. God:
Look. I know what foie gras is. I do. I swear. And, believe me, I am not so much on board with this practice and I completely understand why it's inhumane and horrific and torturous.
But...but it's so delicious...
It's incomparable. It's delicate, it's succulent, it's meaty and yet beautifully absorbs the flavor of whatever sauce it's wearing. It's the little black dress of meat products. And paired with brioche toast and the quail egg...it was rich and yet somehow light. Perfectly grilled, melted in the mouth.
I fricking love foie gras.
I didn't want to like The Charleston.
And I didn't.
I loved it.
I am going to have to get four more jobs and run ten marathons so that I can eat there at least twice a week, afford it, and not get fat.
I think it's worth the effort.