Hooked on Cheese: Le Charme of Charm City
This is the second of two articles on distinguished chefs from Baltimore, Maryland. The Daily Meal Council’s Raymond Hook interviewed the two chefs in a tribute to the thriving food culture of Charm City.
At the top of almost every “Best of Baltimore” list perches Charleston, a restaurant serving Lowcountry (South Carolina-based) cuisine in its highest form. Co-owner and executive chef Cindy Wolf has a long list of credentials to her name: She owns five top-rated restaurants and two wine stores with her partner, wine guru Tony Foreman, and has been lauded by countless national food publications for her exquisite French-influenced preparations of seasonal ingredients.
Before dining at the crown jewel of chef Wolf’s restaurant group, I met with the chef to ask her about her background and culinary vision. Wolf grew up in Indiana as the child of a family of butchers. Her upbringing was very food-centric: “We’d get a pig from one guy, eggs from another, and only ate certain veggies when they were in season out of our family garden,” she told me. She added that nowadays people charge an arm and a leg for “local” and “seasonal” foods, but at the time her family ate locally out of sheer ease.
After a family move to Charleston, South Carolina, Wolf was introduced to scores of great Southern recipes; thus, her passion for Lowcountry food was born. Her love of French cuisine came later, when she attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and received first-hand instruction from several renowned French chefs.
After my conversation with chef Wolf, I went home and read up on her reputation as the darling of Baltimore’s burgeoning restaurant explosion. Suffice it to say that by the day of my dinner reservation at Charleston I was practically chomping at the bit.
I arrived a bit early and took a seat at the bar, which offers a million-dollar view of Baltimore’s inner harbor: The marina is directly across the street and the iconic Diamond Sugar sign shines from across the bay. From my perch, I enjoyed a perfect martini before sitting down to what would prove to be a flawless dining experience. The food was expertly prepared, the room was plush, service was immaculate, and the wine list offered a fantastic range of pairings for every course. I ordered fried green tomatoes — one of the truly Southern dishes on the menu — then opted for the stunning (and decidedly French) cassoulet. As someone who is known around New York City as “The Cheese Guy,” I was impressed by chef Wolf’s extensive cheese cart. My favorite was a mixed-milk jewel from Alta Langa, one of my preferred Italian soft-ripening cheese producers. I finished the meal with a coconut panna cotta — a luxurious way to end the night.
As I nibbled on the complimentary petit fours and observed the diners around me, I realized that the chef’s subtle melding of French and Southern cuisines was not lost on her clientele: Everyone seemed at home here, relaxed and deeply satisfied. As I stopped by the bar for another glance at the view on my way out, I heard two ladies ordering “the usual” from the bartender and knew exactly why they’d come back to Charleston again and again.