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Review: Circa 1886 in downtown Charleston remakes menu to honor Native, African influences

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Southern grilled cheese with pimento cheese mousse, grilled brioche, surryano ham, paddlefish caviar and cured yolk powder served at Circa 1886 on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Pleasure seekers with deep pockets have become accustomed to flecked gold in their burgers and shaved truffles on their fries, but Circa 1886 chef Marc Collins may well have devised the authoritative Cinderella treatment for pimento cheese (which, like the fairy tale heroine, is just as lovely without the gussying up, but deserving of an opulent night out in a mansion with a trellis leading to its front door).

What Collins is calling a “Southern Grilled Cheese” is rigidly rectangular in the manner of a proper French omelet or trimmed katsu sando, depending if you take your food analogies from West or East. The latter might be more appropriate in this case, since the bundle takes its shape from two slices of buttery grilled brioche with pimento cheese spread between them. Whipped with cream before melting, the assertively orange cheese is rich and sharp in equal measure.

That sandwich is then wrapped tightly in a slice of dry-cured Surryano ham that looks about big enough to double as a doll’s blanket. And right in the center of it, where the frill pick would typically go, sits an absurdly ample mound of paddlefish caviar, so the salt of Southern streams mingles with the fat of peanut-fed Virginia pigs.

The answer to the question you’re no doubt asking is $39. But it’s rare at any price to find such a complete spectrum of flavor and texture, with a scattering of cured egg yolk besides. If Circa wasn’t home to one of the state’s great pastry talents, I’d advise any diner who overlooked the appetizer when ordering savories to make a final cheese course of the sandwich. It’s really a joy.

But it’s far from the delight I thought I’d find when I returned to Circa 1886 for the first time in almost two years, drawn by an online menu that made my eyes pop. I was scanning the internet for the answer to a reader question involving some kind of game meat, which is one of Collins’ kitchen avocations.

And that’s when I discovered the lauded chef, who has been in his current position for longer than some downtown Charleston dishwashers have been alive, this year decided to radically remake his menu as “a journey through the belly of South Carolina foodways,” according to the restaurant’s website.

In normal person-speak, that means the menu is now divided into four sections, reflecting the four major cultural influences on area cuisine. There are two appetizers, two entrees and one dessert apiece beneath the headings of “Tastes of Native Tribes,” “Flavors Brought from Africa,” “Influences from Europe” and “South Carolina Today,” which is where you’ll find the pimento cheese.

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Shrimp and rice grits with cabbage leaves, Burden Creek Dairy goat cheese, smoked ham hock gravy and scallions served at Circa 1886 on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

On the second of my three visits, a dinner companion who didn’t initially notice the labels commented that the scheme could function as a personality test. (Granted, a three-course meal is a shade pricier than the average DNA testing kit, but surely more delicious). On another visit, Collins came by the table to explain it.

As he elaborated in an email the next day, “I was struck with the ideas that cooking local should go deeper than just sourcing local products … we owe our existence to those who came and cooked before us.”

That perspective is admirable, as is the very act of acknowledging indigenous and enslaved people in the context of a fine dining restaurant in downtown Charleston. While it may only advance the conversation one inch down a many miles-long road toward social justice, it’s at least progress in the right direction, which is why I wish I could tell you Circa is now doing astounding things with squash seeds and bear tallow.

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Preserved rabbit with corn cob bouillon, Seewee bean succotash topped with bear tallow served at Circa 1886 on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Unfortunately, the vast majority of dishes attributed to pre-Columbian North America and Africa lack the polish and sparkle that unifies the long-term residents of Circa’s repertoire. It’s revealing that the preserved rabbit with succotash, a starter in the “Native Tribes” category, is nearly indistinguishable from the vegetable one-pot, an entrée listed under “Flavors Brought from Africa.”

Both are murky, too-salty stews crammed with undercooked beans and speckled with tiny wisps of greens that merely hint at bitterness, like the superscript number for an unread endnote. The vegetables taste slightly scorched, but, toggling back and forth between pictures of the rabbit and the one-pot, the only way to tell the dishes apart visibly is the pile of rubbery hoecakes which accompanies the latter.

What’s especially baffling about the stark similarity is guests are encouraged to assemble their orders from different menu sections, so it’s conceivable the two dishes could be served back-to-back. (And while we’re on the topic of minor menu gripes, I actually found the regimented three-course setup confining, since I’m typically in the four-course camp.)

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African peanut soup with apple ribbons, toasted bene seeds, celery and pig ear poured tableside at Circa 1886 on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It’s not all grim in the stretch sections. Even though it sometimes feels as though peanuts and tree nuts are applied indiscriminately to paper over problems, those ingredients figure into the most successful items, including a chestnut-crusted trout with braised mushrooms aboard and a silky, resonant peanut soup. Shrimp-and-grits, which apparently gained entry to the African column via rice middlins substituted for ground corn, are made dapper by Johns Island goat cheese.

Desserts are great across the board. Pastry chef Scott Lovorn, who has continued to insist on exacting elegance at a time when so many restaurants are limiting their sweets to a scoop of ice cream, created a stunning squash cake for “Native Tribes.”

A purple-hued celebration of vegetal and fruit sugars against a black background, the cake plate is an artful arrangement of sculpted white chocolate, dusted with juniper ash, ripe blackberries which appear on the brink of bursting and a compote inspired by a Plains Indian sauce. It looks like what you might dream after spending a summer day in South Dakota.

Still, for the most part, Circa’s strengths lie much closer to home. In addition to its finesse with pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes and local fish, the restaurant boasts the kind of hospitality that helped put Charleston on its current course of culinary preeminence.

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The dining room at Circa 1886 on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

As dining rooms go, Circa 1886’s is pretty drab. Its upright leather-backed chairs are positioned in fairly close proximity to chairs at the next table, but the ceiling is low and the floor is carpeted, so it’s one of the quietest restaurants in town.

Also contributing to that status might be the surprisingly high number of guests who whip out their phones at Circa’s tables. To be fair, I visited the restaurant during the baseball postseason and impeachment pre-season, but I also wonder if the restaurant lacks that air of specialness that encourages polite behavior. If that’s the case, dining room manager Charles Adkins is doing his best to improve the situation.

Adkins is a wonderfully professional presence whose warmth disguises his efficiency. He’s the kind of dining room manager who seems unhappier than his guests when the kitchen sends out lukewarm rolls. His style of service would likely be considered oldfangled by diners who don’t care for tablecloths, but it’s awfully nice to know Circa hasn’t bent to trends.

Of course, it’s not surprising that a restaurant with a 19th century date in its name would excel at what’s associated with the past. But, even if the new dishes aren’t dialed in just yet, it’s exciting to know it can look to the future, too.

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Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.