29 November 2010
Circa, the Prince @ 2 Acland Street, St Kilda
Having been open for over a decade, Circa, the Prince recently underwent a radical transformation to provide its diners with an experience that is less "fine dining" and more "casual dining" - consistent with the trend in the Melbourne dining scene generally. Gone is the formal setting with its white linen table cloths and heavy draped curtains and in its place is a refurbished dining room dominated by urban and grungy tones - again, consistent with the current restaurant vogue.
The current setting has a bright airy spaciousness which creates a comfortable informal feel. At the same time, the use of separate adjoining rooms connected to the main dining room fosters the impression that the dining room is smaller than it actually is and manufactures an element of intimacy. Unfortunately, the adjoining spaces were not as well attended to by wait staff on our visit and, as a result, service in those areas was not merely inattentive but, at times, was non-existent.
Over the years, the Circa kitchen has played host to a number of highly acclaimed chefs. Now at the pass, where the revered Andrew McConnell - most recently of Cutler & Co and Cumulus fame - once stood, Jake Nicholson is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the esteemed Circa reputation. The current menu appears to have moved in step with the dining room refurbishment and, with its basic bistro style food, exudes simplicity.
At $55, our first dish of white truffle risotto was a particularly expensive entrée option. It arrived as a thin layer of pale creamy risotto with half a dozen slices of Alba white truffle resting on top. It was magnificent, comparing favourably to the similar dishes of truffle risotto at Vue de monde and truffle tagliatelle at Per Se in New York. In this case, the use of white truffles, instead of black, provided a sweetness and depth of flavour which were absent from both the Vue de monde and the Per Se variants. While the serving size was conspicuously small, particularly given the exorbitant pricing, the decadent richness and powerful fragrance of Circa's white truffle risotto ensures that it is a dish that this reviewer would eagerly order again.
The second entrée, which had the unfortunate task of following the truffle risotto, was a dish of jamon broth with Hunter Valley snails and crisp pig’s ear. It was pleasant enough with the jamon broth providing a subtle smoky savoury note to complement the fried crumbed pig's ear and the snails which were encapsulated in moulds formed out of an aromatic herb, presumably parsley, paste.
Our first main consisted of smoked duck breast with crisp confit leg roll and maple sauce. The slices of duck breast were cooked to a rare perfection with the merely subtle smokiness allowing the rich flavour of the duck to transpire. The accompanying confit leg roll consisted of tender shreds of confit duck leg encased in a crisp pastry skin and provided a powerfully gamey duck flavour which was occasionally punctuated with subtle aniseed notes. The sweet and sticky maple sauce provided the crowning element of luxuriousness to a wonderful dish.
The second main dish was centred around a very flavoursome medium rare wagyu rump steak. It was served with oxtail, baked polenta, parsnip puree and cabbage marmalade. Although the steak was not as tender as would be hoped, it was juicy and carried a rich characteristic wagyu flavour. The earthy oxtail and the velvety smooth parsnip puree added additional flavour depth while the cabbage marmalade provided a jammy sweetness which perfectly complemented the nuttiness of the wagyu. It was a very simple, very old fashioned but very well executed dish.
The side dishes were sadly disappointing. The dish of cauliflower, farro, cranberries and labneh was a fairly pedestrian dish that was dominated by the grainy texture of the farro and was strangely devoid of the acidic sweetness that had been anticipated from the combination of cauliflower and cranberries. Similarly, the chat potatoes roasted in duck fat, rosemary and garlic were lacklustre with the potatoes being starchy and only mildly flavoured by the accompanying rosemary and duck fat.
The desserts that followed were, thankfully, consistent with the main dishes and superbly executed. The first dessert of nougat praline parfait, strawberries and warm doughnuts had a vibrant combination of flavours. The nougat praline had a pleasant balance with the sweetness of the nougat blending well with the slight saltiness of the peanuts. Accompanying the parfait were a sweet strawberry compote and three small jam donuts, each bursting with warm strawberry jam. The second dessert was one of honey panna cotta with poached rhubarb and blood orange sorbet. The panna cotta was smooth and well made while the rhubarb was cooked to perfection. The sorbet had a bold fresh blood orange flavour but suffered from having a few lumpy ice shards.
In all, our meal cost a total of approximately $230 – not cheap by Melbourne fine dining standards but also not particularly expensive. The deceptive simplicity of Circa's dishes conveys a false impression that Circa's prices – around $20 for entrée, $40 for a main course and $20 for dessert – are excessive. As this reviewer has stated previously, premium products justifiably command premium prices – a principle applicable to Circa.
The mediocre service standards at Circa are an unfortunate blight on an otherwise respectable high end dining establishment. Despite this shortcoming, it is reassuring to know that in Jake Nicholson, Circa has found a head chef who is capable of maintaining the Circa legacy forged over the past decade. While Circa does not provide an overall top tier fine dining experience, it is worth visiting, and revisiting, for the quality of its food. On current form, it appears that Circa’s place in the upper echelon of Melbourne’s culinary institutions is secure for the foreseeable future.
Food - 8
Service - 4.5
Value - 6.5
Overall - 6.5