Reviews


Baltimore Magazine March 10'

50 Best Restaurants
Our Best Restaurants – Fine Dining: The place for special occasions.

#1.Charleston
It doesn’t matter how many awards Charleston and Chef Cindy Wolf garner, the restaurant never takes itself for granted. We always marvel at the stellar service (it almost seems as if the wait staff is telepathic at times); the plush surroundings in soothing shades of peach, apricot and cinnamon; and, of course, the French-inspired, Low-Country cuisine. The prix-fixe tasting menu allows diners to sample from three to six courses, with added wine pairings if desired. Tony Foreman, Wolf’s husband and business partner, pays a great deal of attention to the restaurant’s 700-plus labels. An exquisite Chardonnay is paired with the delectable shrimp and grits. A rich Burgundy sets off the flowers of the roasted salmon. But it’s the extra touches that make a difference: A host plumps a pillow behind a guest seated at a banquette; a vase with two red rosebuds beautifies the table; an amuse-bouche (on a recent night, tempura-battered shrimp) is generously presented in the beginning as is a silver tray of miniature cookies (macaroons, chocolate gingerbread, tiny opera cakes) at the end of the meal. The valet is alerted before you leave, so your car is waiting for you. If you happened to do your own parking, an attendant offers to walk you to your car. Stellar through and through.

Baltimore City Paper March 10'

Dining Guide

Charleston
Although it’s named for another city, Charleston is arguably Baltimore’s best restaurant. The sumptuous yet understated setting, seamless service, and perennially stellar food pyramid. A meal at Charleston is unforgettable, with dishes such as Hudson Valley foie gras over crisp, buttery spoonbread with black truffle oil and crispy bits of smoky bacon; silky, insinuating Blue Point oyster stew; and Chef Cindy Wolf’s signature heads-on shrimp with grits and Andouille sausage. One suggestion: Let the staff choose the wine from Charleston’s incomparable cellar-you just sit back and enjoy.

ICON Magazine March 10'

Destinations – Charm City, MD a Gastronomic Metropolis
By Ralph Collier

Baltimore has all the special occasion restaurants one would wish for. It’s finding the unusual and elegant-without having made a reservation a month in advance. That’s the reason The Charleston inspires such appreciation amongst its regulars and out-of-towners alike. Exquisitely designed and quiet as a church service, diners are surrounded by wine racks and a perfectly trained cadre of servers who begin with an amuse bouche of Cornmeal Fried Oyster with a Lemon Cayenne Mayonnaise. There are exquisite wine pairings for each course. The city loves it oysters from Chesapeake Bay, prompting a friend who quotes the Bard of Baltimore, J.L. Mencken, who saw it as an immense protein factory. The old grouch was a great drinker who described himself as omni bibulous and claimed that the Martini was the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.

Following the first amuse bouche, a second one arrives at table. It is a Scottish Smoked Salmon with Egg Yolk Mousse, Capers and Brioche Toast, abundant as they are addictive. A rich Lobster Soup with Curry is equally habit forming as our first course and the second course reveals a perfectly Pan Roasted Turbot, Oyster and Button Mushroom Fricassee with a Lemon Beure Blanc.

One rarely encounters such unassuming warmth as at Cindy Wolf’s Charleston. Here are rooms as cozy as they are rare, with a menu so doting in its preservation of classic restaurant fare, it could be dismissed as anachronistic if it were not so soothing and wholeheartedly executed. Rather than offer the dinner of a lifetime, the Chef offers a touch that will make everything and everyone else disappear. There is such wondrous originality that each dish reinvents your definition of what food should taste like. Exhibit A is the third course: Pan-Roasted Rabbit Loin and Fresh Truffle Risotto. The menu is more ambitious than it needs to be given the room’s pleasing ambience, but let’s not quibble. This is dining at its finest, dining that is ultimately engraved on your brain.

The genuine winner of the night is a Grilled Gunpowder Farm Buffalo Tenderloin with Oyster Mushrooms, Creamy Polenta and Crispy Shallots. It confirms that – at least once in your life-you must go to the Charleston, if only to encounter this incomparable restaurant, submit to the sorcery of Chef Cindy Wolf and experience the exciting sensation of having everything that surrounds you achieve perfection.

There is a mix of extravagance and canniness on the menu and a particular show stopped is the rolling cheese cart bedecked with some 40 American and European fromages, all at the proper temperature. Desserts showcase the Charleston’s spirit and skill and on a night like this, who could possibly refuse a genuine Guanaja Chocolate Ganache, with Salted Caramel, Chocolate Sable and Malted Chocolate Ice Cream, a markable dessert fantasia.

To put it mildly-tonight, guests have truly dined.

Baltimore City Paper March 09'

Dining Guide - Southern - Charleston

Somewhere along the line, Charleston became the grand dame of Baltimore’s fine dining establishments; the first place locals think of when they really want to go upscale. And while there are numerous restaurants in this city worthy of the special-est of occasions, Charleston’s reputation is well deserved. Chef Cindy Wolf’s Southern-inspired menu is, well, inspired - the seafood bisque and creamy foie gras are particularly transcendent, but there are no wrong turns here - and the small plates format allows you to get a variety of tastes. Just keep in mind that there is no such thing as a cheap meal at Charleston.

Baltimore Magazine March 09'

50 Best Restaurants

#1. Charleston
The grande dame of Baltimore’s restaurants is very much a celebration of the grande dame in the kitchen, Chef Cindy Wolf. Her signature is inscribed on the plates, and her presence is everywhere. When an amuse-bouche of artichoke soup arrives, we are told that Chef wants us to have it. Desserts are compliments of the Chef as well. Portions are relatively small, and diners choose a range of dishes or give themselves over to Wolf’s suggestions. Either way, patrons can count on hours of excellent food, service, and wine, from that first cup of savory, steaming broth to the last tiny chocolate truffle. The menu relies on local ingredients and changes constantly to reflect what’s in season, but a favorite is Wolf’s signature heads-on shrimp over creamy tasso-ham-studded grits. On a recent visit, other choices included a lemony arugula salad, a rich seafood bisque with chunks of lobster on top, and slices of luscious magret duck breast in a puddle of sauternes. The seafood, including a sweet rockfish and piquant ahi with olives and capers, might be best of all. Every dish is beautiful with interesting accompaniments, such as packed pears for the duck and roasted root vegetables and butter beans for the chops. This is what best is all about.

Baltimore Magazine May 08'

Local Flavor Dining Guide

Chesapeake Bounty: "Soft-shell crabs bring Summer to our tables" By Suzanne Loudermilk

I was living in Florida a few years ago, feeling a little homesick for Maryland when Bon Appétit Magazine landed in my mailbox with a feature on soft-shell crabs, including a recipe by Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf. Oh, happy day--a piece of home.

Not only did it give me a boost, but the recipe has turned out to be one of my favorites. Now, back in the Land of Pleasant Living, I look forward to our soft-shell season from late May through September when I can savor the bounty of the season with this easy preparation.

Wolf, whose fancy fare at Charleston is well-known, is a great fan of the soft-shell crab. "We love it," she says. "It's kind of crazy. You eat the entire thing."

This recipe works because of its simplicity, she says. "It's the execution. The breading is light. You fry it quickly. The lemon brown butter sauce makes it."

Cornmeal-crusted Soft-shell Crabs with Lemon Brown Butter 1 cup buttermilk 4 fresh, soft-shell crabs 1 cup yellow cornmeal 1/4 cup all-purpose flour 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper peanut oil (for frying) 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1 large bunch watercress (thick stems trimmed) 1 English hothouse cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into 2-by-1/4 inch strips (about 2 cups)

Clean crabs, or ask your fishmonger to do it. Pour buttermilk into a 13-by-9-by-2-inch glass baking dish. Add crabs to buttermilk; turn to coat. Let soak in refridgerator one hour, turning occasionally.

Whisk cornmeal, flour, salt, and cayenne in medium bowl. Drain crabs; add to cornmeal mixture and turn to coat both sides generously.

Pour enough peanut oil into heavy large skillet to reach depth of 2 inches; heat oil to 360 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in small skillet over medium heat. Cook until golden brown, stirring occasionally, about four minutes. Stir in lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; cover to keep warm.

Working in two batches, add crabs to hot oil and cook until cornmeal coating is golden and crabs are cooked through, about 2-1/2 minutes per side. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Toss watercress and cucumber in large bowl; sprinkle with salt. Divide among four plates. Top each serving with one crab. Drizzle with brown butter. Makes four first-course servings.

Baltimore Magazine March 08'

Best Restaurant Category: Charelston

Charleston features a “tasting menu,” from which diners choose a number of courses—meals are priced accordingly—each a “small-plate” serving that allows you to sample such fine fare as shellfish bisque, baby arugula with Stilton in a lemon-vinegar dressing, pan-fried wild rockfish, grilled lamb with pomegranates, country chicken, English cheese, and oysters fried in cornmeal, which are wonderful. The prix-fixe choice reduces the decision-making and offers some extras, such as a lovely cheese service... ...At Charleston, the exquisite flavors and beautiful plates just keep coming—but each in their own time...with an extensive wine list, an innovative approach to dining, and artfully prepared food, Charleston continues to distinguish itself among area restaurants.

AOL City Guide February 07'

Charleston: Best Restaurant Category

...The menu changes seasonally to take advantage of the freshest ingredients, but two prix fixe meals are offered nightly. If your heart is set on a la carte, Charleston is more than willing to oblige with tasty regional treats.

Sample crispy cornmeal oysters with lemon-cayenne mayonnaise or heads-on gulf shrimp served with andouille sausage, tasso ham and creamy grits. Soups are delightful and salads are bountiful, but don't overindulge before the main course. Beef, chicken, pasta, seafood and wild game dishes are stirring forays into the low country. Between courses, partake of a Charleston specialty -- artisan cheeses are served tableside to cleanse the palate and whet the appetite! -- Pete Kerzel

Baltimore Style Magazine November 06'

The Style 100

#71

You’d be hard pressed to find a wine list with more depth, variety and “wow” factor than Charleston. It’s no mere “list” at all, but rather a collection, as owner Tony Foreman travels frequently, tastes wines constantly and seeks the rare, treasured “trophy” wines that are selected with a keen eye to chef Cindy Wolf’s signature dishes. Charleston even has unique by-the-glass offerings, like viognier and gruner veltliner in 3- or 6-ounce pours. From Riedel Crystal glassware in the appropriate size and shape, informed advice in selecting just the right wine to complement your meal and consummate professional presentation at the table (the server has a small sip of the wine, to make sure that it is not corked), wine is not an afterthought, but a non-negotiable part of the Charleston experience. —M.Z.

Wall Street Journal October 06'

Dining The Prix Fixe Is In

The fixed-price meal has become a restaurant staple. But is it a good deal for diners? Why chefs want you to leave the ordering to them -- and how to get your money's worth. By MIKE SPECTOR

The most expensive option for diners at Dallas's critically acclaimed Abacus Restaurant is a nine-course tasting menu that goes for a fixed price of $90. One of the menu's main ingredients: fish scraps.

The scraps are leftovers after Abacus cuts up fish into larger a la carte portions. They could be thrown away. Instead, chef Tre Wilcox turns them into culinary gold: minute portions for his tasting menu. The menu, which changes frequently and recently included Kobe beef carpaccio and Alaskan king crab ravioli, yields about a 75% gross profit margin, the difference between his menu price and ingredient costs, says Mr. Wilcox. That's compared with a 66% margin on his a la carte menu.

A fish appetizer is excess trimmed from another diner's entree. Whether it's a prix-fixe meal or a more elaborate tasting menu featuring smaller dishes, the fixed-priced option has become a familiar sight to diners across the country. No longer just at the highest-end restaurants like Charlie Trotter's or the French Laundry, the approach continues to spread, as chefs from small, neighborhood joints to downtown boîtes see it as a way to spotlight key dishes and showcase their best work. In a sample of top U.S. restaurants, consumer researcher Mintel International Group found that 21% offered a tasting menu in this year's second quarter, up from 18% a year earlier. In New York, Washington and Los Angeles, more than half of the top 10 Zagat-rated restaurants offer bundled meals for a set price.

Another reason diners are seeing so many of these menus lately is that the fixed-price route often delivers a better gross profit margin to the restaurant. Chefs can buy fewer ingredients for the more limited menus and save money ordering them in bulk. In the kitchen, it can mean fewer staff, fewer stations -- and the chance to use food that might otherwise be thrown out. At the table, revenue becomes plentiful and predictable as customers spend a substantial amount each time they dine.

A close look at the economics of more than a dozen restaurants' fixed-price offerings, as well as interviews with consultants, economists and leading chefs, suggests that contrary to what some diners might think, going for the prix fixe isn't always a bargain. Indeed, these menus can cost 20% or more than ordering a la carte.

At Boston's newly acclaimed French spot, the Craigie Street Bistrot, for example, a three-course prix-fixe meal is priced at about $70, while ordering an appetizer, entrée and dessert separately adds up to $55. And diners who request the six-course tasting menu at New York's famed Davidburke & Donatella will pay $85, or 27% more than ordering a three-course meal a la carte. The gap becomes much wider for people who typically skip dessert and order only a salad and entrée.

EVALUATING PRIX-FIXE MENUS

• Hear more about prix-fixe menus in a podcast by reporter Mike Spector. • Compare five prix-fixe menus at restaurants across the country. Fixed-price menus generally come in two incarnations: the prix-fixe menu and the tasting menu, although chefs sometimes mix the terms. Prix-fixe meals usually offer an appetizer, second course, main course and dessert. Comparably priced tasting menus offer more courses -- often as few as six and as many as 14 -- in smaller, three-bite portions.

Chefs say these presentations allow their guests to savor several courses of their finest -- or most interesting -- cuisine, encouraging them to experiment with less risk. And because fixed-price menus involve multiple dishes, chefs also tend to give diners more leeway on how long they occupy the table.

For Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf, husband-and-wife restaurateurs in Baltimore, the decision to switch to prix fixe started with cheese. Charleston, which describes its cuisine as low-country with French influence, started with an a la carte menu when it opened in 1997. Mr. Foreman says he soon got bored with the format and wanted to adopt a fancier approach.

He started by adding a cheese course, a personal favorite. He had a cheese tray built, which at first included Brie De Meaux, Morbier and Valençay. Then he began writing a "suggested" menu of whatever his wife thought was best on a particular day, and by 2001, debuted an official prix-fixe option.

Still there were frustrations -- only about a third of their customers were ordering from the prix-fixe menu, Mr. Foreman recalls. He felt they weren't getting the full experience. "It's very much like our home, and I want you to see what we have," Mr. Foreman says. "Maybe some people are there all the time, but some people are there once a year, and it bothers me that maybe you miss this, maybe you miss that."

In July of last year, Charleston made the switch to an entirely prix-fixe restaurant. Now, complete meals range from three to six courses, with prices from $67 to $102. The restaurant also offers a separate six-course seasonal menu for $84, or $124 paired with wines.

While he won't give specific numbers, Mr. Foreman says sales have been slightly higher since Charleston made the switch. Mr. Foreman says he can now consistently count on higher per-patron bills, which in turn, has allowed him to make the place more intimate by decreasing capacity to 94 seats from 128, without sacrificing revenue.

Tony Maws serves several prix-fixe menus at his Boston restaurant, Craigie Street Bistrot. They include a nine-course tasting menu for $95; a three-course "chef's market" menu for around $70; and a three-course "neighborhood" menu for $36. More than half of his customers order from one of the fixed-price menus, Mr. Maws says.

Mr. Maws's is a small operation, employing five cooks and bringing in annual sales of about $1 million. Because he changes his menu daily, he orders a limited amount of ingredients that he's sure he can sell. For his mid-August "chef's market" menu, the 36-year-old chef created a three-course preparation of clams with zucchini noodles; braised, slow-cooked Kobe short ribs; and a fruit crisp topped with walnuts and ice cream. He paid $3.25 for the clam-dish ingredients, $11.50 to prepare the ribs and $2 for the dessert. The menu's price: $73. That's a 77% gross profit margin -- not bad for an industry where chefs aim for a margin closer to 60%.

Gross margins, of course, don't tell the entire economic story. After covering ingredient costs, restaurants wrestle with labor costs and expensive rents to stay in the black. Net income at most restaurants tops out at around 7% of revenue, and often less than that. But the higher gross margins -- and the predictability -- of fixed-price meals gives restaurants a safety cushion. "We'd probably be doing a lot worse without a lot of these menus," Mr. Maws says.

At Abacus in Dallas, Mr. Wilcox says about a quarter of his customers order from his tasting menu. One recent lineup included monkfish with tiger-shrimp dumplings and Kobe beef, which Mr. Wilcox purchases for a cheaper bulk rate of $29.99 a pound instead of a regular price as high as $39.99. Costs of the nine-course menu's items range from less than $2 to $6. All told, producing his August tasting menu -- which also included wood-grilled wild king salmon in a lemon sauce and duck prepared three ways -- cost Mr. Wilcox about $25.50. His customers paid $90.

Though modern diners are accustomed to having many menu options, fixed-price menus were historically the standard approach at most restaurants. At the turn of the century, diners ate whatever the local innkeeper had prepared, for a preset price. The practice was known as "table d'hôte," or "table of the host." Hotels offered something closer to today's larger tasting menus, but in more of a bonanza. Menus could contain 400 items, with several choices offered over seven courses.

In the early 1900s, food was considered a money loser; local taverns made most of their money on alcohol. Things changed when Prohibition killed that cash cow and people began traveling more and visiting more restaurants. Customers began to demand choice, and a la carte became the preferred format.

The menu endured, but prix fixe started to make a comeback in the 1970s and 1980s. Fast-food chains eventually introduced "value meals" for a set price -- they became a mainstay by the early 1990s. Traditional prix-fixe and tasting menus began appearing in upscale restaurants with more frequency.

The depressed economy following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led many restaurants to serve prix-fixe menus as a promotion to entice customers. Today, diners who have elevated chefs to celebrity status are more willing to let a chef orchestrate their meal while they enjoy the performance in a sophisticated atmosphere. "Americans are learning rapidly, and they have embraced the notion of the chef being equal in stature to a concert pianist," says Patrick O'Connell, the head chef at the Inn at Little Washington, one of the country's most renowned restaurants.

Susan Wilkofsky, a frequent diner, says she enjoys the $43 three-course prix-fixe menu at Lola, a Dallas restaurant. "It's usually worth the value," she says. She feels she gets a better deal on one of her favorites, foie gras, when it's included on a fixed-price menu.

One way to figure out whether a fixed-price menu is a good deal is to examine the basic ingredients. Salads, pastas, chicken and salmon, for example, are typically wide-margin items that restaurants can sell at a hefty markup -- combined into a set menu, that markup is even more opaque. Also watch for descriptions laden with fancy-sounding ingredients that are relatively inexpensive ("tomato carpaccio" means slices of tomato; "beef daube" is restaurant-speak for stew).

Another potential prix-fixe trap: pricey wine pairings. Nearly all multicourse tasting menus will offer wines with each course, and some are beginning to add cocktail and beer pairings. The glasses will be smaller, and the bill potentially 50% higher than it would be without the wine.

And then there are those scraps, like the ones served at Abacus. Tasting menus, which commonly comprise many small plates, are an ideal solution for chefs trying to avoid waste, since the ends of fish and beef don't make sizable entrée portions. Chefs may also take the remaining amounts of large vegetable deliveries and place them on a tasting menu, knowing they won't get used otherwise.

These servings may not be the premier cuts or selections, but chefs say they're usually fresh and taste just as good. The end of Abacus's monkfish has the same taste as the rest of the fish, just in a more modest form, says Mr. Wilcox. "We don't want to throw anything away," says the 30-year-old rising star who has been nominated for a James Beard Award. His restaurant posts annual sales of about $1 million. "Most chefs are trained to utilize every bit of food we've got -- to move it, to get it into somebody's mouth."

As with any menu, where the food comes from matters. If dining in New York, for instance, and the restaurant is "bringing in salmon from Norway, I'd rather have a bluefish from Montauk, N.Y.," says Michael Moran, a chef instructor at Florida International University in Miami. He says a 50-mile radius is a good benchmark to ensure food is fresh and not handled too much.

A potentially good sign: tasting menus that bear no resemblance to a la carte offerings. This can mean the chef has taken extra time to prepare a unique creation with fresh ingredients. And in a pinch, don't be afraid to ask for a substitution. Though they don't advertise it, many chefs are willing to switch out items that might be intimidating to some diners.

Some chefs don't regard prix-fixe menus as a total fix. For instance, Messrs. Wilcox and Maws fear that making their establishments price-fixed-only can backfire by driving away patrons who lack time for a leisurely, multicourse meal, or prefer choosing their own menu.

"I think the consumer wants the option of spending what he wants to spend and telling you how much time he wants to spend in the restaurant," says New York chef David Burke, who serves both an a la carte and a tasting menu at one of his restaurants, Davidburke & Donatella. Mr. Burke says he employs the tasting menu to showcase his work -- and provide a revenue cushion. It costs him about $35 to serve one of the five-course meals, for which he charges $85 a head.

Mr. O'Connell, the chef of the Inn at Little Washington in Northern Virginia, says he used to serve an a la carte menu, but decided to convert to an all-prix-fixe format in 1987 after he noticed too many customers nibbling at salads while other patrons who might have spent more were turned away.

Today, the 56-year-old restaurateur can count on $168 a head for his four-course menu on Saturday nights, or $178 -- $278 paired with wines -- for a larger, seven-course tasting menu. "It allowed us to stay in business," Mr. O'Connell says. Most of all, he relishes the fact that his guests must put themselves "in the kitchen's hands." The prix-fixe menu, which Mr. O'Connell likens to an admission ticket, allows him to show guests that he knows what's best when it comes to dinner fare.

Baltimore Magazine October 06'

Diners Club

Our 12 Favorite Restaurants (and why we love them)

Why fly to Paris for a world-class celebration when you can just drive down to Harbor East? Charleston can easily compete with any of the world’s top-flight dining destinations. Cindy Wolf’s precision Low-Country cooking with French technique has won national acclaim (including a recent James Beard nomination), Tony Foreman’s wine list has similarly won major kudos, and the server here is so polished, it shines. With last year’s renovation of interior and menu, Charleston is even more beautiful and better then ever. We love the new fixed-price, multi-course, small-plate format—it helps us defeat the paralysis that used to set in when we had to decide on just one entree out of the whole beautiful line-up. And besides, to sample the wonders of Chef Wolf’s cuisine—say, her signature shrimp, andouille sausage, and grits, or her cornmeal-crusted oysters, or her fried green tomatoes with crab-and-lobster hash—is to experience the glory of local ingredients in intense and stunningly original creations. In fact, Baltimore has embraced Chef Wolf’s cuisine so wholeheartedly, her signature dishes really fell local—as if they’ve become true Baltimore cuisine. And for that, we Balimoreans can be proud.

Baltimore Magazine October 06'

Cooking with Wolf Getting into the kitchen—and life—of Baltimore’s best-known chef. By Linda DeLibero

Cindy Wolf—“Chef,” as she is always addressed here—is frying up a big batch of white onions in the Charleston kitchen. It is around 3 p.m., prep time for tonight’s dinner service, and she is making a tomato-saffron risotto for the menu.

“I love frying onions,” she says enthusiastically, not an ounce of irony in her cornflower-blue eyes. “I love the smell and the sound of them in the pan, and the way they look there.”

Frying onions: not exactly something you’d think would turn on the chef of what’s frequently touted as Baltimore’s premier dining establishment. But there is almost nothing about cooking, no matter how small or menial the task, that does not arouse in Cindy Wolf a gleeful enthusiasm.

Behind that enthusiasm, however, is a large, stubborn reserve of determination, and it’s the combination of those two elements—not to mention a healthy dollop of talent—that have spurred her to success in a highly competitive world that still doesn’t easily admit women.

Her cooking has been recognized in most top gourmet magazines in the country. This year, she was nominated as a finalist for Best Chef for the mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation, perhaps the greatest honor a chef can achieve—and the first Baltimore chef to be nominated. She has, along with husband Tony Foreman, turned Charleston into an “uncontested world-class dining destination,” according to international wine guru Robert Parker. Not to mention her creative input into the couple’s two other restaurants, Petit Louis and Pazo (another restaurant will open late this year, the details of which Foreman is keeping mum about). The New York Times’ R.W. Apple Jr. called them “the undisputed prince and princess of Baltimore gastronomy.”

In an era of celebrity chefs—from Wolfgang Puck to Nigella Lawson—Wolf may come as close as Baltimore gets to a culinary marquee name. But she could be far better known than she is. “I don’t play the game,” she explains. “I don’t like to schmooze or hold big events.” She has played with the idea of writing a cookbook, one that “people can actually use.”

“I think I’d call it Cooking with Wolf,” she says. Other possibilities for the future include running a cooking school or opening a very small restaurant open only five days a week.

But the idea of being a TV celebrity doesn’t interest her: “I just can’t cook in front of a big audience. I get stage fright!”

Wolf isn’t afraid to ask for—and get—what she wants in her kitchen. “I really admire what she does,” says Rose Lansing, who works at Petit Louis. “She’s very talented and, yes, demanding, which I guess could be a problem if you don’t want to work to her standards. The easiest way to work with Chef is to follow her lead and do what she says.”

“She knows what she wants, down to the smallest detail,” says Judd Antin, a graduate student (and former Baltimore intern) who worked for her as a garde manger in 2002 shortly after graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York. “She was always patient about mistakes, but just insisted that I learn from them.”

Whatever comes next, it’s literally miles away from where she started, though at the same time her progress seems almost inevitable. Born in Richmond, Virginia, Wolf (who says she hails from a long line of excellent cooks, including her mother) claims that restaurant work is in her genes. Her grandparents were butchers, and her father was in the food industry, working for, among others, Hardee’s and Ponderosa, in jobs that moved them from Virginia to North Carolina to Indiana—and, later, to Charleston, South Carolina. “An aunt told me that I was saying I wanted to own a restaurant when I was, like, 9 years old,” she says. “Isn’t that ridiculous?”

At 16, Wolf entered her first industry job at what she calls a “fake Mennonite restaurant” in Indiana. “I was so excited to be working at a restaurant!” she says. For a moment she looks wistful as she muses about the women who cooked in the kitchen, “all really great cooks and remarkable women. Being a woman, I could’ve ended up in a very different place than I did.”

But in the attempt to get where she was going, Wolf first took a false step and enrolled in college in Evansville, Indiana as a business management major. “But it wasn’t working,” she says. “I’d be sitting in calculus class reading cookbooks. At last I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

She dropped out in 1984 and headed for the Culinary Institute of America, then and now the premier cooking school in the country. She made it through the difficult application process, eager to learn from some of the best chefs in the country. “Some of them were not too thrilled to be teaching women students,” she remembers. “But I was so proud to be there.”

Her first apprenticeship took her back to her parents’ new hometown: Charleston, South Carolina, where she worked at Silks (then the city’s finest restaurant) and learned the nuances of her signature regional Low Country cooking with French technique. “They were serving things like pheasant and snails,” she says. “No one was doing that back then!” Wolf credits her experience there with molding her into the chef she is today. When she graduated from the CIA in 1987, Wolf returned to Charleston to work at another restaurant, where she was quickly promoted to sous chef. When it folded, she moved to Knoxville and to another restaurant, where she once found her head on the wrong end of a sawed off shotgun. “I think they must’ve gotten $10,000. And I was thinking, ‘Please, take the money. Just don’t kill me!’”

Soon after, that place closed, and Wolf was once again in a quandary about what to do next. When her then-boyfriend started school near Washington, D.C., Wolf followed him. Her hope was to get a job with legendary chef Jean-Louis Palladin, but instead she found herself working at a series of restaurants where, she says bluntly, “they had nothing to teach me.”

Finally, she landed a management job at the corporate headquarters of Capital Restaurant Concepts.

Capital owned numerous D.C. restaurants, including the chain Paolo’s. The Georgetown branch was losing money, and Wolf was put in charge of stemming the leak—within a month, she’d turned the financial situation around. Wolf is known as a fierce manager of the kitchen, with an instinct for keeping an eye on the bottom line, no matter how rich the food is.

As a result, she ended up basically trouble-shooting for all the restaurants in the chain. But it wasn’t really her thing, or her kind of food. When she and her boyfriend broke up, she found herself in a city she didn’t love, working a job that wasn’t satisfying her ambition. She went back to South Carolina to regroup, thinking she should probably stay there.

But fate intervened: She went back to D.C. to collect her last check. Once there, Capital, desperate to keep her, asked what she wanted.

“I want to work in a fine-dining establishment,” she said. “And I want to be in charge.” The firm responded by giving her full control over their upcoming venture, a high-end restaurant in downtown D.C. called Georgia Brown’s.

“The menu was basically her menu,” says one of the original Georgia Brown’s servers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “After 13 years, we still have many of the same dishes on there.”

Wolf began working with the general manager Capital had hired to run the front of the house, an ambitious young man named Tony Foreman. Having worked in the restaurant business since his teens, Foreman was a skilled manager and wine connoisseur, bubbling with ideas about food and how to properly run a restaurant. Before long, he and Wolf were collaborating on every aspect of Georgia Brown’s. They dined out a lot together, checking out the local competition. “One day I sort of looked up and realized that I . . . liked him,” Wolf says.

For his part, Foreman recalls the day he first tried Wolf’s cooking: “I ordered a bowl of corn chowder. Then I ordered another one. And then I ordered another one. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. Eventually, she came out of the kitchen to see who the clown was ordering three bowls of the soup.”

Within six months of their first meeting, Foreman asked Wolf to marry him.

From the outside, Wolf and Foreman seem an unlikely couple. She’s shy and doesn’t care much for limelight. He’s brash, outgoing, and happy to advertise his talents (something he has a sense of humor about: his e-mail handle is Spanish for “big head”). But their opposite personalities make the perfect restaurant formula for success.

“I’m the director, and she’s my star,” says Foreman. “When I come up with an idea that seems impossible [like opening a fourth restaurant], she’s the only person I know who doesn’t think I’m crazy. She just says, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”

And Wolf concedes that without Foreman’s impetus, she would not be here. “It’s one thing to say you want to open a restaurant; it’s another thing to actually do it,” she says. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”

“I believe Cindy, in what she does, needs someone to do the other part of the business—all the headache of the front of the house,” says Marc Dettori, former maître d’ at Petit Louis and now co-owner of Brasserie Tatin. “One doesn’t go without the other.”

“Hiring someone to manage the front of the house is a huge ordeal,” agrees Michael Gettier, executive chef at Antrim 1844. “They’ve got the whole equation.”

Although it would seem that they don’t spend much time together, they cross paths in the restaurants, constantly consulting each other on decisions. They’re the kind of couple who know without asking what the other is thinking, who finish each other’s sentences. They take regular trips to Europe that sound like a connoisseur’s dream, tooling around the countryside of France or Italy, doing research on food, recipes, and wines to take back to their restaurants.

“I often wonder why I just didn’t have Capital mail me my last check,” Wolf laughs now, noting how that one decision altered her entire life.

Wolf and Foreman’s first collaboration, Georgia Brown’s, was a success, but it wasn’t long before the couple was planning to move to Baltimore (Foreman’s hometown) to find a place of their own. For a while, they were living on their credit cards until the Admiral Fell Inn—which was looking for someone to run its downstairs restaurant—took a chance on the husband-and-wife team.

Despite the location—Fells Point was, at the time, a distinctly less-than-ritzy neighborhood—the new venture, called Savannah, attracted plenty of fans and attention from local critics. But then the opportunity opened up to move to a new neighborhood—one that, while nearby, had a more upscale atmosphere, thanks to the high-rise condos and office buildings going up. It was called Harbor East, and the restaurant was called Charleston.

Now, Wolf spends most of her time running the kitchen in their flagship restaurant. She arrives every day before one o’clock, going over last-minute menu changes with her sous chef, Julian Marucci. Today the weather is so hot that she has already decided to substitute a salmon dish’s heavy sauce with a cool pool of cucumber water and a scallop-and-heirloom tomato hash. “Cucumber essence, not water,” says Foreman, carting in a crate of fresh farmer’s market cucumbers.

“We’ll call it ‘essence’ over my dead body!” laughs Wolf, chiding her husband’s penchant for fancy terminology. It’s the kind of battle she usually wins; Foreman bows before her decisions about food. (At home, oddly, he usually cooks.)

To spend time in Wolf’s kitchen is, in a way, the best window on what makes her food so special. It is, first of all, preternaturally clean. Lines of copper pots and pans—years and years old—hang from the ceiling, all of them so sparklingly polished you can see your reflection in them. Everything is meticulously in place. (“I learned that from my mom,” she says.)

And even with a half-dozen workers going about their prep work, the atmosphere is hushed as a church. “I don’t tell people not to make noise,” Wolf says. “It just seems to happen that way. To be loud is disrespectful.”

In one corner, a woman carefully squeezes crème brûlée custard into rows of ramekins. She works quickly with serious concentration, then crosses this task off her to-do list. Across from her, Julian Marucci empties cucumber water from a blender. Down the way, another prep chef chops every vegetable needed for tonight’s preparations. The chefs are all young, and all work with the concentration and fixity of acolytes. And even though the kitchen is, as restaurant kitchens inevitably are, a tiny space, they all move around each other in carefully concise movements, never bumping or crowding the others. Occasionally one will call out, “Hot behind you.” But they hardly need to—they are doing a very precisely choreographed dance with food.

Wolf tells one young employee, a recent immigrant from Latin America, that he is needed on the line that night to cook. “He knows that means I like his work—it’s a big responsibility,” she whispers to me. “He started out as a dishwasher.”

At about four o’clock, chef de cuisine Michael Carson pulls an enormous roast of pork tenderloin out of the oven; Wolf begins to slice the succulent meat into generous pieces for the staff dinner. She cuts a last, generous slice and shyly pushes it toward me. “That’s the benefit of standing next to the chef,” she says.

The meat’s smell is primal, comforting—as basic as a pan of frying onions. And it’s clear that at this moment, when she’s serving a simple but delicious roast to the people who work for her, Chef is content.

Baltimore City Paper September 06'

Best of Baltimore Edition

Best Fancy Restaurant.

There is a long list of special-occasion worthy restaurants in the Fells Point/Harbor East area (the Black Olive, Kali's Court, Timothy Dean's, Pazo, Oceanaire) without even opening the field up to the rest of the city (hey there, Saffron, Corks, and Petit Louis, among many, many others). But when it comes time to lay out some serious cash on a nice meal, Charleston is still the place we dream of. The service and ambiance are impeccable, and we've never eaten anything there we didn't rave about for weeks to come. We were a bit skeptical about the trendy move to a small-plates menu, but it has actually enhanced the dining experience, allowing you to sample more dishes. Yes, Charleston is expensive--three courses and a complimentary dessert will set you back $67--so we don't make it there very often. Even more rarely if we're actually paying. But Cindy Wolf's flagship is still the best fancy dining experience in town.