Sometimes service at a restaurant is so fluid and unintrusive, you forget about it.
At the new Circa restaurant in Regalia on a Saturday night in June, we had the feeling that the ordering and arrival of food and drinks was perfectly timed and effortless. We decided to have our dinner in the bar, which has soft light and soft white leather chairs on high legs, and is generally more cheerful than the dark, insistently glamorous dining room. But we were certainly not treated like secondary citizens. Our server, who was fast and friendly, was backed by
the efficient bartender, and there was never a lull when we wondered, "Why haven't we gotten a menu yet?" Or, "Shouldn't our wine have arrived by now?" Or, "Didn't we finish the appetizer 20 minutes ago?"
After four years in a solid old Downtown building with an extraordinarily well-designed interior dominated by mellow wood tones, chef John Bragg has taken over a space in a shopping center on the eastern end of the Poplar corridor. Though he kept the signature architectural detail of Circa -- screens of wood and wavy aluminum that can double as dividers and wine racks -- the walls in the new space are deep gray, the high ceiling disappears in a cloud of dark paint, and lights hanging above the tables create intentional drama. (The glamour was foiled by some of Circa's diners: While many of the women wore heels and occasionally dazzling summer dresses, the men with them were often super-casual in polo shirts, sandals, sometimes shorts.)
But back to our table in the bar. We ordered a smoked salmon appetizer, the clean pink fillets rolled on top of three bite-size corn pancakes, topped with crème fraîche and black American caviar. We ordered two glasses of sparkling wine, a Pierre Sparr Cremant d'Alsace Rose for $12 that was surprisingly sweet, and a Charles de Fere Cuvee Jean Louis Blanc de Blancs Brut that was light, likeable and only $8.
An order of duck breast (origin Indiana's Maple Leaf Farms) arrived in the classic mode, a semi-circle of pale-red medallions in an orange-sweetened brown sauce, with a potato gratin that had an intriguing "other" taste. Another root vegetable? Our server reported from the kitchen that it was truffle oil.
The roasted Georgia bobwhite quail was delicious, stuffed with polenta that was studded with golden raisins and almonds. In contrast to the fine-dining practice of withholding vegetables, John Bragg surprises diners by adding them -- an unannounced julienne squash and zucchini garnish filled out the duck and quail plates. We had a peppery Paul Dolan Zinfandel and a velvety Lincourt Pinot Noir, the latter a fair deal at $12. (The knowledgeable sommelier Jay Turney was available in the dining room on both our visits.)
For dessert, we got the "award-winning" apple pie with a rustic crust that lacked flakiness, topped with a lush cinnamon ice cream.
'Inconsistent' is a criticism that has been applied to Bragg's work, and it's a word that described our lunch at Circa. We ordered a Caesar salad, which came with a dressing that was dense with Parmesan cheese and had just a whisper of anchovy, but the chopped romaine was on the verge of being too limp. The menu is refreshingly free of heavy-handed description, so it seemed odd for a restaurant with these aspirations to stress that its Caesar dressing is "homemade." It would be odd if it weren't.
A crawfish beignet was tasty, but would have been more pleasing had it been lighter, drier, more fritter-like. It was nicely balanced by a salad of thinly shaved cucumber slices, or half-sour pickles.
A ribeye was flawless, medium rare as ordered, with a thick, dark sauce, likely red wine and shallots, and loaded with mushrooms and caramelized onions.
But the grilled tuna sandwich was not successful. A huge mound of fries arrived on the plate, and a huge mound went back to the kitchen when the table was cleared. We asked our server if they were frozen -- she seemed surprised at the question and said she was sure they wouldn't be; then we asked her to check. When she returned, her diplomatic answer to the question was, "They're not made here." The tuna was an unnatural neon-pink color -- not the healthy rose color you expect -- and neutral, rather than fish-like, in taste and smell.
-- Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Circa by John Bragg
Address: 6150 Poplar, Suite 122.
Telephone: (901) 746-9130.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner 5-9:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Smoked salmon ($13); Georgia bobwhite quail ($27); Maple Leaf Farms duck breast ($27); ribeye steak, lunch menu ($14)
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars