New Charleston turns talents to small plates

SUNDAY GOURMET

August 28, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

How do you like your food?

When you eat out do you want your meal to be a delicious backdrop to an evening with friends? Or do you want it to grab you and demand that you pay serious attention to it?

Do you like to ponder the textural contrast of a tiny morsel of silky salmon tartare with salty beads of caviar, then roll the flavors on your tongue while you sip a chilled champagne? Or do you just like to eat good food?

How you answer those questions may determine how you feel about the newly reopened Charleston in Inner Harbor East.

It's been seven years since my last meal there. During that time owners Cindy Wolf, executive chef, and her husband Tony Foreman, wine director, have been busy.

They opened two other restaurants, a French bistro in Roland Park (Petit Louis) and a tapas "bar" in Fells Point (Pazo). Both have been quite successful.

What spurred my visit to Charleston this time was a complete renovation of the space, to the tune of $1.5 million, and, more significantly, a complete overhaul of the menu.

The cuisine is the same as I remember it, an idiosyncratic version of New American, with Low Country accents and an emphasis on local, in-season ingredients.

There are a few holdover dishes, like the fat shrimp on creamy grits with a miniature dice of andouille sausage and tasso ham.

What's new is a prix fixe menu of three, four or five cour-ses -- not the traditional courses of appetizer, main course, salad and dessert but eight different categories of small plates. These are Hot, Cold, The Season, Fish & Shellfish, Birds & Game, Meats, Cheese, and Sweets.

"The Season" is the only one that needs explanation. That evening it was a choice of three dishes using local heirloom tomatoes. One of them -- a smidgen of fresh gazpacho made with a dice of three different varieties (actually not heirlooms, but so sweet who cares?), a couple of lobster lumps and curried creme fraiche -- left us yearning for more.

A few, but only a few, lobster lumps can also be found in the Fish & Shellfish category in a saute with slices of fresh yellow peaches, local limas, and a splash of cognac. It's a great flavor combination.

The complicated menu changes daily. The idea behind it is noble: To encourage customers to try a dish they might otherwise not, or create a dinner tailored to their individual tastes.

You might not order confit of pork as a main course, but as a small plate you can experience the rich, salty meat with black-eyed peas, a gold-crusted fried green tomato, and a heady bit of whiskey-laced sauce without feeling you're missing out on something else.

If you're craving summer corn, you could have Silver Queen three ways. First in a dainty salad with lump crab, followed by a tiny, fragile corn custard quivering on a luscious slice of heirloom tomato. Matchsticks of grilled zucchini flank it. Then (it's no more a main course than the other two) a baby lump crab cake arrives, transformed into something sublime by a little fresh local corn and buttery avocado, not to mention an elegant drizzle of pale green cilantro oil.

Some small plates are so slight as to be little more than an amuse bouche, like the "napoleon" of beets stacked in slices the size of quarters with rounds of sweet Gala apple and salty Parmigiano Reggiano. There were two of these seductive little bites.

Even the Meats and Birds & Game selections are quite dainty, in spite of how they may sound. Squab with pecans is hardly more than a succulent mouthful. Full-flavored braised veal shoulder with grilled sweetbreads disappears in the blink of an eye. Small, tender pink slices of lamb tenderloin, with pomegranate seeds and a heavenly bit of sliced potatoes baked with butter, will stop you dead in your tracks; but they aren't the equivalent of, say, the four double-cut lamb chops that constituted a serving at the last restaurant I went to.

The food is delicious and quite beautiful, presented on pristine white plates as its canvas. The combinations are creative without being over the top, and delight the tongue. But I have to admit I didn't feel passionate about our meal, in spite of the four stars.

Intrigued, yes. Amused by the whimsy. Fascinated by some of the combinations, and blown away by others (like half a buttery grilled cheese sandwich made with Comte and a slice of truffle). But in the end, the new concept is more an experience than a meal. And it's very expensive.

The restaurant's spectacular selection of cheeses needs to be noted, as well as Foreman's wine list, a document of more than 600 wines -- a little more accessible than I last remember it, with a few more choices at the lower end of the spectrum.

A dessert course that evening was complimentary for everyone, our excellent waiter told us. (He was just about perfect, but he hovered a bit too much at the beginning. Blame the intricacies of the menu for our indecision.) I've heard dessert has been complimentary on other evenings as well.

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