This is it. The last of many reviews after several years of being the chief asshole of City Paper restaurant reviewing. And when the last review comes, one has to choose from among the considerable number of fine dining establishments that routinely enjoy local and national praise, between neighborhood favorites and those often overlooked. With this last critical column, I want to tell you about Circa 1886, a place that I love.
Chef Marc Collins plies his trade in the little carriage house behind the Wentworth Mansion, serving a cornucopia of seasonal Lowcountry flavors, as he has for some time now, but when the tastemakers from the big metropolitan papers or the James Beards come calling, you tend to hear about the jewels of East Bay or touristy joints like Jestine's or Hominy Grill. From that small dining room, Collins has spent the last few years honing a genuinely distinctive cuisine, combining locally sourced ingredients with traditional Lowcountry technique and keeping an eye on the avant-garde.
To dine at Circa is an ethereal experience. I like to linger in the garden before dinner, stroll along the little allée that leads up to front door, and sometimes take a peek into the mansion, just to imagine myself a prince for the day. Circa's dining room is small, but it's a jewel box tucked into a masterful landscape meant to be enjoyed. There are flowers in bloom, and the fragrance often follows you through the door.
I always get a window seat in one of the big light-filled bays that used to service horse-drawn buggies, but the romantic nooks on the opposite wall are just as appealing. Sometimes I arrive early just to sit at the cozy little bar for a drink and wait for my date, but most of all, I come for the service and a menu that flows with the seasons.
I've noticed over the years that restaurant service tends to fall into two camps. One is so impressive you're almost contrite, wowed by the finely honed attention to every detail and scared stiff to pick up that third fork from the left. The other is so amateurish you're left marveling at the incompetence of young college kids who don't even know how to pour water. But Circa gets it just right.
For me, getting it right means providing a comforting and comfortable experience. It means knowing that they will make it good, even if it goes bad. I've seen a waiter drop an entire tray of glassware in the middle of that dining room and then admired the grace with which the staff handled the mess. I've asked for a Negroni and been told they "don't have a bottle of that," but was soon handed one because the guy cared enough to go inquire anyway, unprompted. It's that kind of service that draws regulars. Unpretentious, with the skill to handle a room full of people while making each table feel as if they are a favorite of the house.
I usually start with an appetizer and a glass of champagne — and always one of the rice bread rolls made fresh in-house. Why doesn't every place in town have rice bread on the table?
On my last visit, with the late summer menu waning, I chose the Cucumber and Tuna ($12). Here, in a deconstructed garden plate, one can discern the efforts that are transforming the cuisine of Charleston. This medley, a cube of tuna seared and plated, almost steak-like in its toothsome texture, speaks to the international. There is a shot glass of green liquid, some type of cucumber froth, and a small scoop of cucumber sorbet, a cold, clean bite that cuts the saltiness of olive tapenade strewn about the plate. On top of the shot glass rests a thin round of tomato, a dried chip for nibbling and dipping among the various flavors.
It's a whimsical exhortation, a conscious effort to break down the flavors of summer into an artful plate. Collins is surely not the only chef whose experimental cuisine treads this ground, but he should be lauded for his efforts. He joins others, more decorated than himself, in melding the local and the historic, with a forward-looking style that doesn't speak so much to fad or fashion as it does to a new Charleston cuisine.
When Collins serves a Lowcountry One Pot ($9) filled with beans, ham, turnip greens, "truffle potlikker," and a hunk of cornbread, he's clearly not negating the farm or our traditions. And if his interpretation of a local tomato salad ($11) includes bacon gelee and foamed romaine lettuce, then the interpretation is no less flavorful than one whose ingredients are more traditionally presented.
Within these dishes lie novel juxtapositions of flavor — unexpected, distinctive nods to familiar notions. Antelope ($35) spiked with horseradish gets served alongside fried okra and a sherry demiglace. A charred beef tenderloin ($33) rests beside a playful gratin of collard greens. Slow-roasted local bass comes plated with pickled peaches and the floral herbaceousness of freshly shorn basil. Circa rivals McCrady's in its innovation, Charleston Grill in attentive service, and Carolina's in its out-of-the-way character.
For the main course, my date chose a pheasant breast ($26), cooked two ways with a pan-seared breast and a bit of confit, presumably a nod to the sanctity of the entire bird. There were cipollini onions (sweet and glazed), snap peas, and a rich risotto tinged with spinach. But here Collins cuts that sweetness with the bitter notes of cacao, distilled down into a stark reduction and laid against the vegetables of the summer sun.
There was also the salmon ($29) to try, with a beet couscous redolent of damp earth, flavorful sautéed mushrooms that tasted of the woods, and a bit of sorrel bringing sprite acidity to the plate.
Where some establishments chase an identity with pure conviction — a laser-like focus on "local" seasonality or a tribute to historic cookery — Collins blends a menagerie of influences. The local bass and the West Coast salmon, a Carolina watermelon and pecan salad, and farm-raised antelope. He incorporates ingredients and methods ranging from that delectable rice bread to the Catalan foams of Ferran Adrià. That makes his cuisine cosmopolitan, something that Charleston used to be long ago, and something that we aspire to again today.
I often finish with a bite of the Jelly Donut ($11), mostly because my wife loves them. I stick primarily to my glass of grappa. By this time it is dark outside, and the twinkle of the lights reverberates in the glasses and off the silverware set on pale linens. And I think about what a shame it would be for someone to review the place and reveal such a well-kept secret. I'm hoping that Collins will save me that window seat next time I come by and keep a little slug in the grappa bottle for toasting such an exemplary meal.