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RESTAURANT REVIEW: Circa 1886

Marc Collins orchestrates a harmonious menu

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Circa 1886
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown
149 Wentworth St.
853-7828
Dinner (closed Sun.)

Walk around Charleston long enough and you will undoubtedly stumble upon the massive Wentworth Mansion, a brilliant example of Empire style, built in 1886 by a wealthy pyromaniac with a penchant for European detailing, taken over by Scottish Rite Masons, and once reduced to a drab behemoth of an office space by the Atlantic Coast Life Insurance company. It undoubtedly represents some of the finest craftsmanship in the city, a space that I have always admired for its beauty and resiliency.

Through the Tiffany glass, I have admired the garden, the ornate chandeliers, and the intricate joinery in the elaborate trim, but I have never loved the restaurant. A smallish space, stuck out back in the old carriage house, it feels separated and pedestrian compared to the exquisite glory of the main house, even if its transformation spared no expense. The floors still shake your water when a big person walks by.

Perhaps because of its status as an old garage, I always feel a bit underwhelmed by Circa 1886, relegated as it is to a comparatively bland space that denies my desire to sit amongst the beauty of the main house. Maybe I just don't like eating in old garages. But, then, a few nights ago, I stepped into the same space, but the place proved different this time, serving me a meal that bordered on perfection, and I suddenly saw Circa 1886 in a brilliant new light.

When you spend as much time as I do eating and analyzing food, you relish that religious moment when the flavors and the scene come together in such perfect concert, balance, and beauty that you're forced to close your eyes and savor the sublime taste of perfection. Unparalleled wine service — approachable, expert, and unobtrusive — and Chef Marc Collins' perfectly executed dishes have placed Circa 1886 in my pantheon of personal favorites. It's simply capable of some of the finest meals in town.

The journey towards that designation begins with the "Carolina Crab Cake Soufflé" ($11) and a wonderful salad called "Coastal Greens" ($7). A beautifully-presented crab cake swims in a mango puree with little chunks of pineapple and fried sweet potato to gild its warm, golden crust. The crab cake possesses a tremendous concentration of flavor, as if the sea had opened up and allowed its very essence to penetrate the tropical accompaniment — a powerful melody of flavors, yet ethereal and incredibly balanced.

The Coastal Greens layers a gaggle of crisp roughage inside a feather-light phyllo basket studded with black sesame. The greens intertwine with a concentrated tomato, almost devoid of moisture, the crisp snap of crosnes (the tubers of the invasive betony plant), and the earthiness of woodland mushrooms. A light dressing brings the dish together without being overassertive.

Cheese courses don't merely consist of a couple slices straight out of the fridge and marked up 400 percent. The cheese at 1886 is made in-house. The Umbriaco, which, if translated to English would simply mean "drunk," features a raw cow's milk cheese with a grapey flavor that's achieved by aging in the lees of an Italian red wine barrel. It comes slightly melted over pine nut pancakes with a pineapple syrup that's been burnished over flame and strewn about the plate, providing sweetness and another tropical note to a menu that plies the latitudes like an early Jimmy Buffett album.

The featured entrées bear this wanderlust out. You could go north for a "Carolina Flounder" ($26) stuffed with lobster mousse and plated alongside truffle brie asparagus en croute and a lemon cream and the "Hunter Spiced Pheasant Breast" ($26) served with smoked maple bourbon syrup and a foie gras butterbean cassoulet, or venture back into the tropics for the "Hearts of Palm" ($21), a vegetarian option with the opulence of a Mercedes. The dish includes a saffron potato mousseline and a vegetarian demi-glace among a "parade of root vegetables."

Over the course of our meal, we were most impressed by the "Lamb Pot Roast" ($27), a substantial haunch of flesh served up in a seasoned cast-iron skillet and topped with a knot of wilted spinach. The braised meat comes on top of a pile of pureed potatoes infused with bay and guarded by whole-roasted shallots which inhabit a moat of jus that teems with the exotic spice of cinnamon pomegranate molasses. The flavors meld into a coherent whole, hard to separate and identify, incredibly assertive but fleeting, rolling across the palate — the gaminess of lamb, the richness of the glace, a smooth cream of potato all playing together in perfect concert.

Dessert's hard to even think about after such a meal, but we stuffed in "A Harvest of Doughnuts" ($9), pumpkin, custard, gingersnap, cider, and cinnamon — it wins awards and certainly deserves them. As does Circa 1886.

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