Impressive all-round. A curated, panoptic collection of the dining style, casual elegance and vivacious APEC cuisines that Melbourne loves.
St Kilda is an inner-city bayside township with a history, and present, of extreme contradictions. Palatial mansions with breathtaking sea views, twin-set pearls and long-established fine dining institutions with soaring prices, juxtaposed against grubby medium-density housing, bohemian hipsters and grungy seedy bars attracting the fishnets and leathers. One of those long-established fine dining institutions is Circa. Dining at Circa has never been about, whether in its previous incarnations nor in the present, a routine of mere mastication. Rather, from start to finish, it continues to offer that elusive dining experience. You find Circa in in a corner building of art deco sensibilities — plain creamy exterior streaked with wrap-around balconies. At an entrance that is little more than a recessed side strip, you deposit your car with the valet at a gratis rate during the day, or for a little surcharge at night.
You are ushered through an area that seems more the reception of a modern art gallery than a hotel lobby, and then up a flight of stairs you go. From here, Circa unfolds like an open-plan house, with that same relaxed exclusivity of a residence. At one side, there is a sun-dappled courtyard where uniformed staff behind a gold metal bar serve customers seated on black wicker-like chairs. On the other, there is a decidedly retro feel in a lounge area furnished with stone grey cauldron seats and honey wood tables. You continue to walk towards the back, reaching finally the restaurant. Especially beautiful during the day, the gradations of the decor’s neutral palette exude a certain elegance — the snow-white walls, stark black light fittings, gleaming chrome sculptures, caramel tables, charcoal banquettes, woven pitch place mats. It’s a deceptively plain canvas for the food that follows.
MoMo & Coco visited the recently revamped Circa for a celebratory lunch. Divided into several chapters — “global street food, soup, korean rice bowls, noodles, wood fire grill, salad and seafood, and desserts” — the a la carte menu was a collection of famous world flavours. From this catwalk assembly, the curiosity of the Australian outback (note, eucalyptus and mesquite), the spice of Sichuan, sourness of Korea, zing of Thailand, aquamarine cleanse of Japan, full-body-ness of America and the flair of French all made a presence. With each dish also available in different portion sizes, thus adaptable for nibbling, sharing or a traditional 3-course affair, Circa’s menu is not an ideal menu for indecisive diners. Finding the “global street food” section of the menu (small $12, medium $20, large $30) particularly appealing for a lovely warm spring day, MoMo & Coco began our Circa experience with a San Choi Bao, the ubiquitous lettuce cup brought alive by a pastry square of crispy lamb ribs seated on a zingy salad of julienned carrots and green shoots. Upon this, we dabbled a teaspoon of dark, salty eggplant sauce but this component proved to be somewhat unnecessary. Reading like a fun DIY dish, we should have relented and ordered the crescents of Korean Lamb Tacos, but had read some past review detailing that they were underwhelming in the thick chewy-ness of their taco wrapping and the shy flavours of the meat. But we had no regrets with any choices made. The skewered Octopus Yakitori doused in black garlic sauce was appropriately slumbering and heavy in flavour and texture, and a good contrast to the surging, untamed flavours of the Grilled Chicken Mango Salad, showcased in a pretty boat-shaped leaf of red and pink tones. Lunch then jumped up a few steps to unforgettable territory with the Sticky Pork Mango Salad, several parcels of pork belly tanned into dark crunchy-ness with a curious caramel/honey/charcoal taste, and seated atop a salad mass that was more subdued than the mango salad used in the chicken dish. But really, it was the Rice Crusted Calamari that we loved especially. Curls of octopus smothered with barnacles of popped rice, grains and pepper were disguised firecrackers. It left one of us who loves spice but has no strength for it gasping for air and water. Spectacular. Because these Dessert Correspondents here are averse to expansive (savoury) meals, we stopped short of sampling from the rest of Circa’s intriguing menu. On a return visit planned shortly, we will have our eyes on the meats from the wood grill that uses a range of indigenous Australian herbs/florals, and the East-meets-West curiosity of the Sichuan Dan Dan Noodle Bolognese and the Shanghai Duck Bao Noodle Soup.
Let’s stop rambling about the savouries because you, of course, love this dessert-only blog for the desserts. At Circa, there are six desserts available, of which we skipped a trifle and a shared dessert. Of the four that MoMo & Coco sampled, each represented a corner of the globe that seemed to inspire Circa’s culinary orientation. If you belong to the class of dessert-lover who prefers ending with a sugar bang (also known as cleansing the palate with sugar), look no further than the “Salted Caramel Sundae” ($15). Presented in a retro-loving green-tinted glass goblet, the wait staff added to the drama of this dessert by pouring at the table, a jug of hot chocolate sauce over the orbs of salted caramel ice cream and caramelised popcorn puffs. An all-consuming dream of every shade of brown imaginable, this dessert was evocative of America — big flavours, big portions.
Paying homage to indigenous Australia, the second dessert sampled was the deconstructed “Native Lemon Aspen Pavlova, Hibiscus Ripple Ice Cream” ($15). It was delicate species of dessert that required the entire length of sampling it to fully appreciate flavours that unfolded like the many petals of a waratah bloom. A triangle of light lemon cream sat in the base of a martini glass. A careful hand embellished this with an artful array of spots of lemon curd, jewels of pink grapefruit, rhubarb and jack-fruit, wide splinters of chalky meringue, and a solitary venous ball of hibiscus ice cream. The hibiscus element was presumably, the swirls of something like a jam in texture and slightly floral, slightly herbaceous in taste.
The third dessert sampled was the “Tamarillo & Lemon Tart, Thai Basil Ice Cream” ($15). Its somewhat unremarkable appearance was met with initial disappointment, but how deceptive looks are! A small tart was filled with a mouth-pinching lemon curd, relieved by the slightly sweet, slightly piquant ruby-red mulch of tamarillo covering its top and droplets of the same encircling the plate. It found a perfect partner with a quenelle of exotically-flavoured, refreshing basil ice cream. Overall, this was a dessert story about the vibrant but beautifully balanced South-East Asian flavours that is Circa’s evident love, fused with a clever trans-Tasman touch from the slightly savoury tamarillo addition.
The fourth dessert that MoMo & Coco sampled was the “Chocolate Coconut Bounty, Coconut Sorbet” ($15), a salute to Circa’s past life as a traditional European dining institution. It was a sculptured model of chocolate — a twirl of tempered chocolate was a millinery creation, betopping a teardrop head of something with a cream cheese texture but strange, almost bland taste (a parfait perhaps?). This intersected with a collar of milky, creamy desiccated coconut for textural contrast, and a skirt comprising a tidy circle of milk chocolate mousse on a thin wafer of solid chocolate. It was dusted with a trail of dark chocolate biscuit and accompanied with a lightly-infused coconut sorbet mound. The latter could have been bolder (we prefer Trocadero‘s version).
Service at Circa was unfortunately, inconsistent. Although we were warmly greeted, directed to our table and promptly given menus and a briefing, it was downhill from there when the wait staff member who greeted us said that another person would be our waiter. Although we have no quibbles about the timeliness of dish delivery, it was most difficult to catch the attention of any waiter to order, to refill our water and wine glasses. Empty dishes remained on the table for a similarly inordinately prolonged period. By dessert time however, a staff member who seemed to be the maitre’d took control, and it all went smoothly. A pity though.
A book becomes timeless because of the quality of its prose and the coherency of its plot, characters and themes. Likewise a museum exhibition becomes an unforgettable one because of the quality of its artworks and the coherency of its sequenced presentation. Quality and coherence. It applies to dining venues as well. Circa is undeniably underpinned by quality and coherence — a curated, panoptic collection of the dining style that we Australians are partial (sharing-style please, but adaptable to traditional too); the atmosphere in which we now prefer to immerse ourselves (anything flipside of a past decade’s penchant for third-world black grunge); and the regional APEC cuisines that we increasingly embrace (the kinetic vivacity of diverse Asian flavours, the complex layers of indigenous Australia energised by a liberal American spirit). Overall, Circa 2012 is an elegant yet exciting statement of Melbourne’s dining landscape today. But for the slight shame of the inconsistent service standards, we love it.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Circa The Prince, 2 Acland Street, St Kilda, Melbourne, Vic, 3182.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Australian, with an Asian and indigenous accent.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert you can fit in.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Impressive all-round. A curated, panoptic collection of the dining style, casual elegance and vivacious APEC cuisines that Melbourne loves.