In an age when just about everything and everybody gets hyped to dizzying degrees, it’s nice to know that there’s nothing exaggerated about the paeans heaped for two decades upon Charleston, the flagship of area restaurants launched by Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman.
As a first-time Charleston customer and innately skeptical soul, I confess that I braced for a letdown. At the very least, I figured, attitude would be dished out along with the food. After all, you gotta be a little suspicious of a place with this dress code advisory: “A jacket and tie are most comfortable but not required.” Oh, yeah? Most comfortable for whom?
But from the moment we walked into the smartly designed restaurant and received a quick, warm greeting at the host station — we looked devastating, of course, but weren’t sporting ties — we felt at ease. There was nary a whiff of condescension from any personnel all evening.
And from the first tastes we had of Charleston — a divine amuse-bouche of eggplant bruschetta with a side of cold, refreshing watermelon soup; scrumptious rectangles of corn bread — we felt downright enchanted and eager to plunge into the menu.
Our stellar server, at once authoritative and personable, helped us navigate that menu, which, as veteran customers know well, is prix fixe and changes frequently (guided by the quality of available foodstuffs in any given week).
The options start with three courses and go up to six. In each case, dessert is a complimentary addition, so even choosing the minimum courses gives you a substantive sampling of the artistry cooked up in Wolf’s kitchen.
Although there’s a food-only prix fixe, it’s hard to resist going for the higher-price level that includes wine pairings, since Foreman’s reputation as a wine maven assures a thoughtful match each step of the way.
Our first course included two exquisite soups. One delivered intense, perfectly blended flavor from a lobster reduction, cream and a gentle curry oil; the buttery poached lobster placed at the center delivered additional delight. A glass of lush amontillado provided noble partnering. The roasted corn bisque, crowned with a dab of succulent lump crab, likewise pleased, and paired beautifully with a white burgundy.
Given the restaurant’s Lowcountry-evoking name, I had to try the shrimp and grits. To tell the truth, I liked the shrimp-ier, grits-ier version at former Belvedere Square restaurant Crush better. Charleston’s preparation wasn’t quite robust enough in flavor or texture. Still, the dish had its charms, thanks especially to the addition of some tasso ham and andouille sausage.
The crab cake preparation also favored subtlety. The fresh, rich taste of the crab was beautifully complemented by roasted corn, fava beans and a mustard sauce. And the artichoke risotto was a little masterpiece of silky flavor and texture.
When we got to the main course, we discovered that Charleston puts the tender in tenderloin.
The practically melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin, grilled to a perfect medium, became a kind of culinary poetry, at once passionate and refined. The zest from a basil and pine nut pesto provided an engaging, if unessential, accoutrement. Haricots vert and nicoise olives rounded out the plate with character.
And the pan-roasted veal tenderloin delivered such deeply satisfying, finely nuanced flavor that I almost didn’t notice a risotto-style potato creation underneath, or an adorning medallion of lobster.
Both meat dishes gained extra personality from the wine choices — a dynamic Chateauneuf-du-Pape for the beef, a velvety Montalcino for the veal.
Desserts — a wisp of opera cake as eloquent as a Massenet aria; a peach crisp of uplifting freshness and finesse — crowned an experience that demonstrated exactly what the overused term “fine dining” really means.
1000 Lancaster St., Harbor East
Cuisine: New American
Prices: Prix fixe, from $79 for three courses to $124 for six ($135 to $222 including wine)
Ambiance: There’s a contented buzz in stylishly understated rooms that include an intimate, clubby spot on the waterfront side and a larger space with an open view of the kitchen where Cindy Wolf works her magic.
Parking: Valet, metered street parking, and nearby garages
Special diets: They can be accommodated; advance notice advisable.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]