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18 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: All In at Circa 1886

            Next to Oak, the fine dining restaurant I've spent the most time at in the last year or so, is Circa 1886. Located in the original carriage house of the historic Wentworth Mansion, Circa is a restaurant that exudes gilded-age charm. The most striking feature of the space are the arched booths along the wall, deeply recessed and mirroring the old carriage doors. At times the space can feel a little too stuffy and old-fashioned, but it is generally warm and inviting. With its location off the main tourist haunts, Circa tends to be a more sedate dining experience than many of Charleston's fine dining joints.
        In my trips to Circa over the years, I have seen a marked change and growth in Chef Marc Collins's cuisine. Early on, many of his dishes felt stuffy and over-done. Often it felt like he was cooking to match the venue. Over time, though, he seems to have really shown joy and comfort in the juxtaposition of the Victorian space with nouveau cuisine.  The growth and maturation of the cuisine has helped push Circa into a more prominent place in Charleston's food scene.
       To start the meal, Chef Collins sent out an amuse of cauliflower soup with truffle oil. Creamy and balanced and exactly the kind of soup The Girl can drink down by the gallon. When it gets colder, I might have to see if we can pick up a few pints to go. The rest of the dinner will be 3 courses for $30, the only menu Circa offers during Restaurant Week (which they carry over for an extra week).
      For my appetizer, I went with the Poached Garlic & Wild Mushroom Custard with carrot puree, celery espuma, banyuls emulsion, and truffle powder. This is a fun and mildly rich dish. The custard itself is creamy and gives a wonderful rice flavor. Paired with the celery espuma (a type of whipped foam formed from stock) and the carrot puree you get a wonderful flavor reminiscent of a mirepoix based stew.
    The Girl, surprisingly, went with the Spicy Grilled Shrimp with fried green tomato, fennel infused chowchow, and tomato coulis. The shrimp turned out to only be mildly spiced, which allows the shrimp the chance to shine through. The tomato coulis has a flavor that is very similar to a vodka marinara, with a nice mild acidity. The Girl doesn't care much for any chowchow, but I found it to be pleasant and finished it off for her. The stumbling point is the fried green tomato. While the seasoning was fantastic, it was obviously cooked at the wrong temperature. The breading slid right off and was on the mushy side.
    Before we get to the entrees, a gentleman walks into the restaurant with his wife. He is wearing a polo shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. Don't be this guy. I'm out for a nice meal, got my baby doll with me, and in you walk looking like you're Jeremy Piven in PCU. Someone needs to check out The Art of Manliness (
    On to the entrees. The Girl, red meat carnivore that she is, picks the Red Maple Farms Grassfed Beef Tenderloin with Anson Mill's grits, mushroom sausage, poached egg, arugula, and maple whiskey reduction. This take on steak & eggs hits on all cylinders. The perfectly poached eggs, laid across the grits, mix for a creamy side dish. The tenderloin is a perfect mid-rare, well seasoned, and buttery good. The two stars of the dish, however, are the mushroom sausage and maple whiskey reduction. The faux sausage tastes almost identical to a British black pudding, with a proper amount of caramelization. The maple whiskey pan sauce is thick, only mildly sweet, smoky, and the kind of sauce that would make an Applebee's steak taste good. Kudos!

     I went lighter with my entree, deciding on the Blackened Loup de Mer, with watermelon & feta, baby spinach, caramelized onion puree, quinoa, and avocado puree. The loup de mer (a fancy way of saying sea bass), was delicate and meaty. The Girl actually found it to be a tasty piece of fish. We are officially up to three types of fish she enjoys. The avocado puree gives a nice creaminess and point of contrast. The classic pairing of watermelon and feta bring a brightness that elevates the flavor of the fish.
   The Girl, chocoholic that she is, goes with the El Ray Chocolate Panna Cotta with passion fruit syrup as her dessert. Simple and elegant, the chocolate pairs nicely with the passion fruit. This is a very large dessert, though, maybe a little too much for just one person. I stick with my go to dessert, and choose the Pistachio Creme Brûlée. The pistachio flavor pairs wonderfully with the brûlée, though I would have preferred it a little creamier in the custard. All in all, a wonderful way to finish a well-crafted dinner.

    After dinner, we were lucky enough to have Chef Collins make an appearance. After promising to make sure the issue with the fried green tomato was fixed (and his tweet of 20 minutes later said that was done), we had a nice conversation about Restaurant Week. One thing that impressed me is how all in he is with his Restaurant Week menu. Unlike many restaurants, Circa ditches it's normal menu for a purely Restaurant Week offering. Chef Collins avoids the trap of cooking down to those who come in for this less expensive menu, instead delivering a meal that is full of poise and elegance. Balance and freshness seem to be themes that run throughout the menu.
    Our dinners at Circa 1886 have allowed us the unique perspective of watching a talented chef grow. While Chef Collins isn't the most avant-garde chef in Charleston (that award goes the Sean Brock), nor the most high profile (see previous parenthesis), his balance of modern technique and classic preparations are sometimes more successful due to their approachability. I think The Girl will let me bring her back.

The Scores
Ambiance: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 9/10
Value: 5/5 (Note: This is based PURELY on Restaurant week. Normal menu not this cheap!)
Overall: 23 out of 25 Modern techniques and fresh ingredients serve a capable chef well.


  1. It was nice meeting y'all last night!!! Looks like we have a lo of restaurants to try in the Charleston area still! (Can you ever possibly eat at all of them?!)

  2. Had fun meeting you too! As far as dinning at them all, it is worth a shot!



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