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.
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.
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.
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.