Review: Circa’s Second Take Doesn’t Make the Cut
Chef John Bragg’s Circa opened in 2007 to a chic interior, extensive wine list and a sharp menu that quickly won recognition from Food and Wine magazine among other enthusiasts. Circa had another side too. Commercial Appeal critic Fredric Koeppel knocked Circa for its inconsistency, a claim I fully supported, while other Memphians often found the service too snobby for food too pricey. Whatever the case, Circa abandoned Downtown and reopened in East Memphis near Ruth’s Chris on Shady Grove early this year. But despite a new location, different decor and trimmed menu, Circa is as uninspired as ever — a fine place to spend money but not to eat.
Downtown Circa had one of the classiest dining rooms in Memphis: hardwood floors, walls made to hold wine bottles, spotlights to give focus and emphasis throughout the room. The charm and style Circa once had is gone, and as with most restaurants in shopping centers, the decor feels forced — this one dark and brooding, sprawling and cold with black walls and octopus-like lighting fixtures.
The food doesn’t show any sign of a chef trying to start anew either. The seared scallops in a pistou broth was a lame imitation of New York City’s Daniel Bouluds’ original. Bragg’s attempt is three rubbery scallops lost in a murky green pool of mismatched vegetables and raw pine nuts. The crayfish beignets seemed to lack crayfish while the crab cakes were a tad burnt and two tads too fishy. The lobster bisque with sherry and crabmeat was a creamy bowl of cream, the lobster nowhere to be found. Only the mound of smoked salmon served on a corn cake showed strength, but this depends on whether Circa smokes its own salmon.
Entrees didn’t improve. The rack of lamb and the quail were both drowning in a sharp and aggressively acidic buerre rouge sauce while the salmon with pesto was neither fresh nor flavorful, with the exception of a greasy chip used as a garnish. The polenta battered striped bass was both a choking hazard and a textural nightmare. A mysterious bone-like garnish was formidable enough, but beyond that waited a clash of undercooked edamame, overcooked fish and gummy batter all resting in a watery tarragon buerre blanc. For dessert, there was the forgettable but “award winning” apple pie.
It is a shame that Circa’s new kitchen is serving such flawed food that is memorable only because of its price tag. What is meant to be white tablecloth cuisine — for 5 people, the bill was approximately $400 — sadly comes across as sloppy, unrefined and unimaginative, and if Circa is going to survive the next year, the kitchen will need an epiphany that their best days were c. 2007.