As far as most people are concerned there are one or two “fine dining” restaurants in the entirety of Charleston. The Grill and McCrady’s.
Not so fast, y’all.
I am always a fan of supporting the underdog. Sure, they mostly don’t have the kind of notoriety that true celebrity brings and maybe they don’t have a gazillion dollars to spend on advertising. There is something so appealing to me about patronizing a restaurant that is off the beaten path. By this I mean a place that isn’t the first place you think of. It’s one of those places where you say “Where should we eat? Hmm…. Oh honey, we haven’t been to ___ in forever! Remember how good it was last time?” Something just barely below your stream of consciousness that when it actually comes to you, you stop and scratch your head and wonder “You know what? You’re right. It was legitimately awesome the last time we went there.”
Of course I’m talking about Circa 1886.
Before you throw your hands up and say “You’re crazy, that’s a stuffy old-people’s place”, hear me out.
I wish I had grabbed some pictures of the interior because it really is gorgeous. It just didn’t seem right to be snapping pictures like the paparazzi at Kim and Kris’s wedding in the middle of a four diamond restaurant.
Situated right across the lawn from the Wentworth Mansion, Circa is housed by the former carriage house building of the inn. Elegant, quiet, and refined, it makes for a gentile night out on the town. An impeccably demure setting for an anniversary or birthday. Which, coincidentally, was why we were there. Sneak peak of the ending:
As you may have guessed, it was Sporter’s birthday. What better way to celebrate than at a classy lady dinner? X, Sporter and I realized at the last minute that we all had the night free and after some frantic scrambling we were ready to dine. But where? We debated between several places but landed upon Circa. I justified it to her as “Honey, it’s your damn birthday. If you can’t justify going out and having a classy night on the town in one of the best restaurants on tonight of all nights then when the hell can you?” My logic is unquestioned.
Since I can’t really go into a lot of details about the atmosphere without you questioning me on the lack of pictures (which once again would have been totally inappropriate on a Saturday night given the setting) I will state the one minute detail that makes me question the restaurant’s judgement. I promise I’m not trying to look for things that are wrong because it’s not in my nature to do so but this was something that stood out almost immediately: taupe-colored tablecloths. I am pretty sure that there is an actual rule that in order to be considered for the upper echelons of AAA certification the restaurant is required to have white tablecloths for dinner service. It’s really not a deal breaker and I can understand wanting to have an artistic choice to break up the dining room but can’t the restaurant do taupe underneath the white tablecloth? I felt like I was at my Aunt Holly’s for Thanksgiving and someone decided to go digging for the “holiday linens” in the basement. When white linens are the norm for upscale restaurants, pardon the cliché but “if it ain’t broke…”
Taupe linens aside, the meal was without question one of the best meals that I have eaten in an upscale restaurant in recent memory. Let’s talk about the food!
I will give it to the kitchen staff, this was a beautifully executed amuse bouche. Granted, we all had a relatively difficult time figuring out how to daintily eat the snapper crudo with pineapple and the crispy plantain in the same bite but that was honestly the largest hurdle. Both ladies loved it and I absolutely agreed with the flavor profile. Unfortunately, I have never been a huge fan of the texture of crudo. I will eat it without question, especially from a chef as talented as Marc Collins. It’s just a weird personal preference of mine that I just cannot seem to get over. I love ceviche and sushi so it’s not a raw fish thing, I just can’t get on board with room-temperature crudo. I was outnumbered because both ladies thought it was delicious.
On to the appetizers.
Did the chef honestly sit down and say, “Ok guys. I want to come up with a concept for a dish that is essentially a ‘Pork Picnic’. There won’t be pulled pork but we’ll have other picnicy elements on the dish so it’ll taste like you’re eating it on a hot summer day outside.” Mission accomplished. Admirably. Potato salad with whole-grain mustard, a house made bread and butter pickle, crispy pork tenderloin, and a delicate variation of ketchup-based barbecue sauce? Seriously, chef, if you’re reading this now how in the hell did you come up with this? It is genius. Perfect textures all around and the dish actually told a story without veering into pretentious categories. Because it was honestly that good. Bravo!
Granted, this dish was not quite as high-concept as mine but for what it was it was satisfying and fresh. The dressing was almost a green goddess-like quality with a light summery feel that paired perfectly with the crispy potato strips, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes. Great simple mid-summer salad course.
X’s dish was another high concept yet unbelievably successful first course. Light as a feather anson mills grits “gnocchi” (GENIUS) paired with morels, prosciutto, lemon anglaise, and of course shrimp. It was playful, colorful, and sheer bliss on a plate. X would only give Sporter and myself one bite apiece because there was no way she was parting with any more of it and I don’t blame her, I would have defended it like it was my child.
Annnnnd on to the main courses!
No surprise whatsoever that I got the weird game item. We were in a meat-fueled mood for the evening, it seems. The texture of the antelope was deliciously lean and yet still tender enough without venturing into a super chewy territory. If you look at the pieces closely, you’ll notice that there is just a hint of sea salt cracked on top of each one, counterbalancing the texture with a slight crunch with each bite. For someone as into textures as I am, it was a little piece of heaven. Also, for a piece of meat as lean as the antelope was it was unbelievably flavorful and oh my god those Mepkin Abbey mushrooms set off the entire dish like I can’t even describe. Beautiful plating, expertly seared, spot on recipe. That night, I could have died a happy girl.
Unfortunately, I just couldn’t grab a picture that did this dish justice. See?
You get the idea. I will say that the texture of the tenderloin was unbelievably silky; it could easily have been cut with the side of a fork. What was really surprising about the whole endeavor was the fact that the piece of meat was easily as flavorful as any piece of ribeye I’ve had recently. That’s right folks, Chef Collins has taken a cut of beef with essentially very little flavor and made it as rich and juicy as a Sunday Prime Rib. How is this possible?!? I have so many questions. The rest of the dish was good but rightfully so, the beef took center stage. It was phenomenal.
When it comes to bold flavor however, I think I’ve got to give the grand prize to Miss X. This leg of lamb was just lean enough to be considered an exceptionally well-butchered piece but just fatty enough to be overflowing with natural flavor. The boldness had a lot to do with the sous vide and it was an admirable choice to a cut of meat that is already chock full of rich, delicious, unmistakable flavor. On a side note, I have a tendency to find many preparations that include foam (this one was of a cucumber variety) a touch overdone and usually are used to overcompensate for lack of creative flair on behalf of the chefs behind the line. I will say this: they can put their foam on anything that comes out of the kitchen. They could block out the sun with their foam and the flavors and complexities of their dishes would still shine through. They have earned that right because everything we had was just that ridiculously good.
And then we got dessert.
There is nothing I can say about this dish that will do it justice in any way, shape or form. Except this: this was the best soufflé I have ever had in Charleston. EVER.
And, of course, making an encore performance is Sporter’s strawberry shortcake. I didn’t get a bite, unfortunately, because I was unable to come up for air from my chocolate soufflé.
I have to state a disclaimer as I close: I had honestly almost forgotten about Circa. One of my better personality traits is that I am almost always willing to admit when I am wrong. I also have a strong affinity for pork but that’s beside the point. I was wrong for counting out Circa. They are a strong dark horse contender for “best fine dining restaurant downtown”. I walked away from my dinner this past weekend with renewed amorous feelings toward the playful nature of the restaurant’s concept. I’m both impressed and proud that there is a restaurant in town that can juxtapose the flavors of food that are so comforting against haute-cuisine procedures and textures. Nothing feels stale or like it’s been done before and yet it’s not a re-invention of the wheel; it’s a re-imagining. As in “I’m re-imagining for the third time today when I can dine there again”.
Many thanks to Chef Collins and his exceptionally talented team of chefs in the kitchen for making our special occasion an exceptional memory.