Circa, which opened in June, is a relative newcomer to the row of South Main Street restaurants north of Beale, which includes The Majestic, Bluefin, Wang's, and Sauces. This tiny fine-dining spot, which presides over the southwest corner of Main and Gayoso, is the handiwork of chef/owner John Bragg. This is actually his third restaurant in four years: He was chef at River Oaks in East Memphis last year, and in 2004 reopened Park Avenue fixture La Montagne with a fresh menu (which has since closed). In fact, having sampled Bragg's cooking at both previous restaurants, we had a sense of déjà vu with some of the food we had at Circa.
This latest effort, like River Oaks, reflects lavish attention to décor, the wine list, and upscale touches such as valet parking and the little amuse bouche snack served before the meal. Unlike River Oaks, it's spare and dark, with unique squiggly wood-partition walls that double as wine racks. These create a lively and modern feel, but have the potential to be dizzying after a few glasses of champagne. In terms of staff, Bragg has brought in Randy Caparoso as general manager, an experienced hand whose résumé includes working as the head sommelier for the restaurants at Georgia's Sea Island Resort and many years in the wine business, including producing and importing wines.
On our first Circa visit we tried the sea scallops appetizer, beautifully cooked and accompanied with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus (and I mean the entire stalk wrapped up tight as a mummy). The panko-crusted soft-shell crab was a delight: Fresh with a lovely greaseless crust somewhere between flash-fried and chicken-fried. The sauce was a creamy tarragon mayo.
Bragg also brought us each a fresh oyster topped with a zesty Bloody Mary granita to try, a delightful and refreshingly cold appetizer that has since been added to the menu.
Of our entrees, the pair of large Georgia quail stuffed with grits and chorizo was delectable, tenderly roasted to perfection with plenty of the spicy grits stuffing. The grouper filet with gulf shrimp, crabmeat, potato puree, and hollandaise was as extravagantly rich as it sounds, the fish perfectly done, the shrimp huge, and the sumptuous potatoes and sauce positively over the top.
This visit was enjoyably wine-centric, as we enjoyed the attentions of Caparoso, with his incredible knowledge and sense of fun with wines. Our waiter, too, had great recommendations. That's important, since the list has virtually none of the usual suspects and many unusual wines.
Our second visit we started with comma-shaped crawfish beignets, which combined crawfish tails with the scallion flavor of hushpuppies, coated with the same excellent panko-crumb crust as the soft-shell crab. The chevre tart was completely dominated by the fluffy cheese, and while the cheese was delicious, you barely tasted the caramelized onions, wild mushrooms, and other elements. The smoked salmon timbale consisted of thick salmon slices served with a caviar crème fraiche.
From the salad menu we tried the lobster salad, which was fairly bland in flavor, the meat chopped into small bits. The chopped salad was a basic dinner salad with green beans, tomatoes, and artichokes that just happened to be chopped up, not very interesting.
Among the entrees, the hearty osso buco was masterful: The gelatinous meat was cooked fork-tender with deep, complex flavor in the meat and cooking juices and accompanied with shoestring fries, which were literally as thin as shoestrings. The Tasmanian king salmon was a lovely preparation: The filet was wrapped around seasoned cooked spinach and served with a marinated tomato and cucumber dice. The duck entrée combined seared foie gras, a confit leg, and roasted duck breast, all served with a demiglace tinged with sun-dried cranberries. The golden sea bass with caviar buerre blanc was nice enough but not a standout, the fish a nuance overcooked.
Circa's menu includes suggested wine matches for each dish, something that's annoying at chain restaurants but welcome here, given the restaurant's wine savvy. For this meal, we stuck with those recommendations, and were not disappointed. (The list includes about 100 wines, 40 of them available by the glass.)
For dessert, we were captivated by Il Diplomatico, a signature Bragg confection of dark chocolate mousse and rum-soaked cake coated with chocolate ganache. The bananas foster soufflé, which sounded fabulous, was so bland and overly sweet that it was outshone by the vanilla bean ice cream that came with it.
As for service, it was downright fawning our first visit, as we were treated, well, like food writers. We clearly had the best waiter, whose timing was close to flawless and who knew the menu and wine list well. The attention of Randy Caparoso added enormously to our experience, with his sunny charm and expert wine recommendations. The second visit our server was competent, but, in contrast to our previous visit, virtually ignored our wine after bringing us our initial glasses. After the lavish attentions of the first visit, it seemed weird not to be asked what wine I wanted with my entrée until the very last minute. On both visits, basics such as refilling bread and water, and clearing dishes were well attended. The staff at the hostess desk was especially welcoming and friendly.
We found Circa to be an attractively modern fine-dining restaurant with good service and consistently well-prepared cuisine. Several dishes — the soft-shell crab, the oysters, the osso bucco — were memorable, yet others — the lobster salad, the sea bass, the bananas foster soufflé — were bland and uninspired. Circa's most potent charms lie in its looks and its wine program. It's a fun place to try different wines with food, and to be inspired by Caparoso's exuberance and expertise.
Circa 119 S. Main, Pembroke Square 522-1488