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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dining Notes: Circa

When my sister asked me in early January where I'd like to go for a celebratory birthday dinner, I rattled off a short list of places that I'd been wanting to try for several months.   High on that list was Circa, the Marina restaurant and lounge that's located in the spot that previously housed Cosmo's Corner Grill.   Not only had the restaurant been generating positive reviews and word of mouth since it opened last year, but Executive Chef Erik Hopfinger has a reputation that precedes him:   he was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle's "Rising Stars" in 2002, and he earned numerous accolades during his stints at Spoon and Butterfly.   Yet, what really drew me into the restaurant on that cold Sunday evening was neither the buzz nor the chef;   it was a dish.   And if you read my description of the dinner party that I held in my home at the end of last year, you'll probably
Circa: At A Glance
ChefErik Hopfinger
Pastry ChefLaura Mandracchia
Address2001 Chestnut St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
Restaurant Website

understand why just as soon as I tell you its name:   Lobster & White Truffle Mac-n-Cheese.

The layout at Circa is rather interesting, in that the space is dominated by an enormous square bar and lounge that are located immediately inside the front door.   The comparatively small dining area is then located off to one side, almost as an afterthought or a begrudging concession to the people who might want to go to the restaurant to eat rather than simply to drink and be seen.   Now, that may be a perfectly good strategy for capturing the business of young singles in the surrounding Marina, but it seems to send a subtle message that the service of outstanding cuisine is not necessarily Circa's primary focus or most important concern.   And the dishes that we were served on our visit unfortunately reflected as much.
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To be fair, very few of the things that we ordered that evening were downright bad or inedible.   But apart from the desserts, almost everything missed the mark in one or more important respects, leaving me seriously underwhelmed by the place.   Here's a rundown:

  • Pan seared Hudson Valley foie gras, wild blueberry demi-glace, peanut butter sauce on toasted brioche:   My first thought upon seeing this on the menu was that the pairing of foie gras with peanut butter is an odd choice.   If you think about these two flavors for a moment, you'll probably agree with me that neither is likely to contrast well against the other.   Indeed, the two actually seem to strike a similar tone, and even when either one of them is served on its own, it cries out for something -- such as fruit -- to pierce through its deep and rich flavor.   Doesn't it stand to reason, then, that if a chef decides to combine foie gras and peanut butter, he or she had better make sure to amp up the sweet/fruit component to contrast with both?   I thought so, but the amount of blueberry demi-glace on the plate here was so paltry, that it left the flavors of the foie gras and peanut butter in a muddled mess.

  • CIRCA sliders stuffed with black truffle and Brie cheese, served with Maui onion strings and house made ketchup:   These miniature hamburgers were tasty enough, but they fell far short of the high expectations that had been set by their billing.   Tell me you're giving me a burger "stuffed with black truffle and Brie," and I'm going to be waiting for something exquisite in which the flavors of black truffle and high quality Brie practically jump out of the bun.   That never happened.   The black truffles were barely discernible at all, and the Brie -- remarkably -- seemed like just another cheese.   On the plus side, the accompanying onion strings were very tasty.

  • Smoky roasted cream of tomato soup served with crustless grilled cheese bites:   This was a disappointment.   The soup was particularly acidic and had an odd sour taste, and I couldn't help but think about how Philippe Jeanty's tomato soup is orders of magnitude better.   Now, you would think that preparing a satisfying grilled cheese would be a piece of cake, a slow easy pitch down the middle that any chef could hit out of the park.   But the small sandwich bites served on the side of the soup here were terrible; the brioche was sliced way too thickly, and the cheese was barely melted.

  • Dungeness crab, Ahi tuna ceviche on torilla chips, avocado creme fraiche, sriracha chili sauce: This was one of the few brights spots of the meal.   The ceviche was fresh and nicely seasoned, and the creme fraiche added a cool creaminess against which the spicy kick of the chili sauce played well.   The tortilla chips, meanwhile, added a much-needed textural contrast.   A very good dish.

  • Morroccan Spiced Roasted Austrailian Rack of Lamb "Lollichops," mint chimichurri and pomegranate molasses:   Here was yet another selection that sounded wonderful on paper but fell flat in the execution.   The lamb itself was cooked well past the requested medium rare, and the sauces on the plate never really came together into a cohesive whole.

  • Lobster & white truffle mac-n-cheese:   The ingredients in this dish are so wonderful on their own, that it's almost impossible to imagine how the combination could be anything less than spectacular.   Yet, Circa's kitchen pulled it off.   I was hoping for pasta shells enrobed in a creamy sauce, permeated with a pronounced cheese flavor and punctuated with the distinctive flavors of lobster and white truffle.   What we got instead was a serious letdown.   The cheese sauce had a rather peculiar and somewhat unpleasant flavor, the white truffle was missing in action, and the lobster pieces were so miniscule and scarce that they may as well have been left out.   So, a dish that held such promise -- a dish that had lured me into the restaurant in the first place -- was an abysmal failure.
Desserts from Pastry Chef Laura Mandracchia were more successful.   An Almond & Banana Upside Down Cake was dense and comforting like bread pudding, its clean banana flavor complemented nicely by a delicious caramel sauce.   The Circa Housemade Dessert Sampler was a clever tribute to several of the childhood favorites of my generation, with "premium" homemade versions of Ho-Ho's, Oreo Cookies, Cracker Jack's, Truffles, Rum Balls, and Vanilla Milk.   All of the components here were good, but the real standout was the one thing that I, at least, never had as a child -- the vanilla milk.   As I sipped from the small shot glass, the chilled milk exploding with the bright floral notes of fragrant vanilla bean, I kicked myself.   Why in the world had I never thought of making this at home?!   As I'll describe in a later post, this small spark of inspiration quickly grew into a self-indulgent passion in the ensuing weeks.

Overall, Hopfinger and his kitchen have their work cut out for them if they ever want to make Circa a destination restaurant.   Dishes need to be more thoughtfully conceived, more tightly focused, and -- most importantly -- more precisely executed.   But maybe that's not the goal.   Maybe the only objective is to draw revelers into the bar for a night of drinking, and to serve them passable food when they get hungry.   And maybe for that purpose, the food is good enough.   Maybe.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a bummer! I too was disappointed in Circa, not all the dishes seemed to work, portions were small and pricey. Nothing really stood out as a winner unfortunately. For small plate/lounge/bar food that really does work, I love Lime in the Castro.

February 17, 2007 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I now agree with your dish by dish assessment -- ditto on the foie gras (the PB really didn't work here), ditto on the fanfare-less sliders (though the onion strings rock), ditto on the lackluster mac-n-cheese but also on the good ceviche and desserts. (sigh) Another promising one bites the dust.

February 18, 2007 9:15 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

NS - I would love it you would add your Michael Bauer effect theory to this piece, I thought it was a really interesting observation when you left it on a comment on another blog (Fatemeh's?)

February 19, 2007 10:31 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Amy: Thanks for the recommendation regarding Lime -- I'll be sure to check it out.

Catherine: My biggest regret is that I didn't get to experience the fantastic original version of the mac-n-cheese that you raved about. Oh well -- I'm sure there's somebody out there working on the next great pasta dish...

Sam: You know, I actually debated about whether to include that point when I first wrote the piece. After hearing your suggestion, though, I think I will draft a short insert to the original text.

February 20, 2007 3:11 PM  

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