Posted by: wrmcnutt | February 15, 2011

Restaurant Review: Circa 1886 – Charleston, SC

Well, I have been taken to task. Apparently, I have more than neglected ya’ll. And so, with that in mind, I will be providing, just for you: a restaurant review. Remember, I travel to these cities, eat this food, and then write about it, so that you don’t have to.

With that in mind, let us turn our minds to the Holy City, spoken of thusly by the natives because in the heart of the city you cannot face any direction without seeing at least four church steeples. I refer, of course, to Charleston, South Carolina. The original capital of the state of South Carolina and the location of the signing of the Articles of Secession, the city of Charleston has absolutely no concern about going her own way. In fact, back in the day, it was cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy who were manning the Battery when the Star of the West attempted to re-supply the Yankee fort at Fort Sumpter, firing the first shots of the War of Northern Aggression. To this day, the SCMA supports a scholarship named for the action: the coveted Star of the West award. What does that have to do with the restaurant review I promised you? Well, I’m not sure. I got a little carried away. Has to do with being Southern To the Bone.

Tonight’s venue is called “Circa 1886.” “Circa 1886” sets the goal of being a fine dining establishment, and according to “other reviewers,” holds both a Forbes Four Star and a AAA Four Diamond rating. Are these ratings valid? Well, we’ll be the judge of that, won’t we? The Chef d’Cuisine’s name is Marc Collins, and apparently, Marc cuts enough ice that they like to wave around his name in their press releases. You can find Circa 1886 and Marc Collins in Wine Spectator and, of course, the local paper, the News and Courier. The cellar holds over 250 vintages, all of which are stored in the original wine cellar of the Wentworth Mansion, upon whose grounds the restaurant has been constructed. The restaurant proper is in the original carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion, and the bar is located in the old blacksmith shop. The blacksmith shop has the original floor, a red hardwood timber whose species I was unable to determine in my suit and tie. I’d need to need kneel down and would require a glass or loupe to be sure.

The dining room has a mixture of booths and tables, but the word booth really sells these dining pods short. A quick study of my restaurant reviews will frequently, nay, often, note that most dining establishments in the United States over sell their floor space. Jammed in elbow to armpit, diners are expected to manage their gustatory battle on a space about the size of a bar stool. Tables that any rational human being would say are clearly “two tops” are treated as four tops, and “four tops” are expected to seat six. The wait staff has to turn sideways to move between tables, while juggling multiple trays of food and drink. It’s a wonder we don’t all drown, and the dining experience has all the ambiance of a high school cafeteria at Friday lunchtime. Circa 1886 does not do this to you. All of the tables are appropriately sized for their task, and there is plenty of room to move between the tables. The floor is carpeted, and the booths are not booths in the “diner” sense, but more like a traditional English “snug.” The main dining room is quiet and softly lit, well suited for a romantic Valentine ’s Day dinner. I should probably also give you a quick notice of the attractive garden with outdoor seating, no doubt ideal for drinks and dining in March and April, after the winter winds stop blowing but before the humidity returns to the Holy City for its annual summer siege.

And since I’m making quick notes, it’s worth mentioning that the Wentworth Mansion was built in 1886. In 1886, an intraplate earthquake rolled in from the Woodstock and Ashley River faults, giving a new meaning to the term “rock the house.” Much of the city that didn’t fall down or catch fire was bolted together using “earthquake bolts,” and still stands today. The Wentworth Mansion, however, was built on the foundations of an earlier building, and over a century later, is fully restored to its original grandeur, but that doesn’t include the carriage house, which is where I had dinner. (Note the elegant circular pattern of imagery, leading us back to the dining venue. Damn, I’m on tonight!)

(Well, the Local Critic, reading over my shoulder, is dissatisfied that I have not gotten to the food. So, out forks, and to work, withal!)

The Valentine’s Day dinner for 2011 was a Prix Fixe menu, with wine pairings. The first course was a house made Tennessee Duck Prosciutto. Served with Beet Barigoule, Poached Egg, Frisee, and John’s Island Honey Vinaigrette, and bee pollen, this served as the salad course, in the North American tradition, at the head of the meal. The vegetables were without exception, fresh, crisp, and flavorful. The vinaigrette was crisp and tart, providing a wonderful accent with the frisee and beets. The poached eggs were slightly different than I have had experience with, although by no means bad. The yolk was a golden yellow, but firm, rather than runny. This, to my mind, is a soft-boiled egg, not a poached egg. (For that matter, it was almost certainly not stolen from a hen house in dark of the night. And hence, unlikely to have been “poached.”) The texture was pleasant and the flavor rich. If I have a complaint, the portion was a little too small. I’ll be the first to admit, perhaps, that my belt is having to work a little too hard to support the additional “me” that has shown up here on the high side of 40, but still, I could have done with a little more salad.

The second course was a “Crab n’Truffle ‘Pot Pie.” The asparagus was treated in an original manner in my experience, split up the middle, no double to speed the cooking time. Cooked to doneness, it was still firm to the tooth, providing a pleasant texture while still packing a strong asparagus flavor. The Sauce Béarnaise was thick, rich, and flavorful, providing a complex mixture of carbohydrates to the palate. The “crust” was so crisp and tender that I suspect that the preparation was not at all traditional, but instead a puff pastry applied to the filling just before serving. Tender, flakey, and tasty, it provided an ideal accent. Again, however, my portion was roughly three tablespoons.

The third course consisted of Valencay Goat Cheese, served with Marcona Almond Puree, Blood Orange Jam, and a Spicy Ginger Cracker. The ginger cracker, I suspect, was not baked in house, but was fresh, crisp, spicy, and ginger. The blood orange jam was sweet with a tiny edge of tart. The Marcona Almond Puree was smooth and mild. Valencay Goat Cheese, a new experience for me, turned out to be a mild cheese along the lines of a brie in texture, with a soft, mild rind. The flavors of this course were well balanced and creative. But there was a single cracker the size of a quarter and as thick as a Ritz, a teaspoon of Blood Orange Jam, a teaspoon of Almond Puree, and maybe two ounces of cheese in the entire course. At this point, while my palate was impressed, my stomach was giving serious consideration to pulling up the Chef’s Catalog web site and ordering a set of serving spoons fit for men to serve with for the Chef d’Cuisine.

For my entrée, I selected the In House Dry Aged Grass Fed Rib-Eye. Now rib-eye is not my favorite cut of beef, having in my experience heavily marbling and no small amount of connective tissue. I prefer my beef served warm through and with a very gently firm texture. That is to say, medium rare. What I got was gently seared on the outside with a thick red middle, and a cold center. It was, in fact, one of the best “rare” steaks I’ve ever had. But was not what I ordered. That’s okay – every grill-man has his own idea of what “medium rare” means, and next time I’ll know to order my cow “medium” to get what I want. The service for this course was kind of ballsy – I was given a table knife, not a steak knife, to address my rib-eye. It takes great confidence in one’s butcher and grill-man to expect a steak to be cut with a table knife. Tender and juicy, the steak yielded to the table knife without any attitude whatsoever. The Mushroom Ragu was very well executed, the mushrooms remaining firm to the palate and the sauce well-seasoned.

Now, a word about the Sheep’s Milk Cheese Fries that garnished this steak: I like to try to avoid superlatives in recording this blog. After all, when you’ve said that one chef walks on water, or that one dish is the “best,” what’s left when you run into one that’s better? This was, bar none, the best potato preparation I have ever encountered thus far. And when I say “best,” I mean “sell your children to the gypsies so you can afford more” best. The texture was perfect, and the cheese was a perfect accent. These potatoes are to the average spud what the Apollo moon shot was to the bottle rocket. Enough said. And, as I have been complaining of the portions thus far, it is fair to state that in addition to coming well to the palate, the rib-eye was of a goodly size. The potato garnish, likewise, was a fair amount, but they could have loaded them into the hold of my boat and I would have felt that there could have been more.

My companion ordered the Blackened Wreck Bass with Avocado Mousse, Key Lime Anglaise, Shrimp n’ Grits Croquette, and Tomato Coulis. She reports that the bass was great. It was succulent with a buttery texture, and could not have been prepared better. It did not, however, seem to be “blackened,” per se. She suspects that it was briefly sautéed and then finished in the oven. It was flakey but firm, it did not have that crusty texture that “blackened” brings to mind, but it was none the less delicious. Now, in so far as the Croquette – she reports that the crust was way too thick. It was more work than it should have been to get to the interior. Once the breading was defeated in hand to hand combat, however, the interior of the Croquette was a perfect execution of the low-country specialty of shrimp and grits. The grits were creamy, with a texture almost like risotto, but a little dryer. The shrimp was chopped fine, their flavor suffusing the entire Croquette. At no time, however was she able to detect any hint of key lime. The Tomato Coulis was very mild, and did not have the acid bite normally expected of a tomato sauce and, again, the amount available was more like a garnish than a sauce. Like my rib-eye, there was ample Wreck Bass served.

The crispy chocolate custard which finished the meal was exceptionally well executed. I am not normally a “chocolate guy,” but this stuff was rich, sweet, and tasty. It was, in fact, so rich that I suspect many people might not be able to complete it. Its presentation brings to mind a chocolate lava cake, with an exterior that is not only firm, but, crispy. It had a sort of white chocolate/dark chocolate swirl frosting on the top, and a sidecar of wild strawberry jam, and passion fruit sorbet. I suspect that, were I a chocolate gourmand, the dessert would have been fantastic. Alas, my passions are elsewhere, so I can only report: really, really good. The Sorbet, on the other hand, was in the class with the potato wedges earlier. As I sipped my wine I idly considered gathering the lads together for a night raid on the kitchen to secure the sorbet supplies. Alas, the lads I have to call on for that sort of work live six hours to the north, and out of reach for quick raids.

So, to sum up – we had a great time, with some really masterful cuisine, together with some cuisine that was perfectly adequate, but nothing to write home about. The service, likewise, was perfectly fine. But when I dine out, I don’t want fine, I want to be made to feel as though I can tip like John Jacob Astor.

I give Circa 1886:

  • Five Pints of Five for Atmosphere
  • Four Pints of Five for Cuisine
  • Three Pints of Five for Service

This brings Circa 1886 to a very excellent score of 4 pints overall, and one of the finer dining experiences to date.

The price level is hard to estimate, as we were not ordering off the ala carte menu, but the had the special Valentine’s Day Prix Fixe menu, but I estimate the price level to be:

  • $$$$ – or “Jumping jehosophat, that’s an awful lot of money to spend on one meal.” It was, however, less than Dad paid for my first car, my first quarter’s tuition, or a month’s rent on my first apartment.

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  1. I enjoyed reading your review of our restaurant and hope to see you in again sometime soon. I also liked reading your “Bio” of Douglas Bader. I wanted to be a pilot for the Air Force but found that wearing glasses is not very conducive to becoming a fighter pilot for them so I took up cooking. What an inspiration Douglas is and could be to the rest of the world if they would just remake his movie.


    Marc Collins
    Executive Chef/Owner
    Circa 1886

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