Good chemistry

No weird science at Circa, just exquisite alchemy


Think of Park Avenue's Circa 1926 as the somewhat sedate, slightly older but sophisticatedly blithe cousin to Luma on Park, its appreciably trendier neighbor down the street. Like Luma, Circa has its notable cuisiner ' James Slattery ' a chemist-turned-chef who made a name for himself at Emeril's Orlando, Tchoup Chop and, most recently, as head chef at A Land Remembered, the steakhouse inside the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort. No doubt, tinkering with various edible compounds and calculating proportions then initiating reactions to create flavorful explosions comes naturally to this culinary chemist, but the results aren't products of weird science. Slattery's methodical approach yields dishes that are consistent and creatively plated; there's nothing here pushing the bounds of gastronomic science, but what he does, he does well and with precision.

Take the meticulously prepared seared tuna tacos ($12) for example. The diminutive casings weren't made of flour or corn but crunchy jicama, and a catalyst in the form of a wasabi-avocado emulsion provided the trio of bite-sized shells with a complementary burst. While each crackling bite of the beef and blue cheese flatbread ($10) placated, the starter, even with a lacing of Portobello mushroom sauce, was relatively pedestrian in comparison.

The flatbread is part of Circa's summer menu, a bill of fare that's decidedly less adventurous than its predecessor (no crawfish beignets, chicken-fried frog legs or artichoke dirty martinis), but don't let that deter you. The pan-seared wreckfish ($22), so named for the spiny critter's penchant of inhabiting caves and shipwrecks near the ocean floor, proved to be a buttery wonder atop a mound of sweet corn risotto. Its taste and texture mirror that of grouper, but if you're dining with a conscience, you'll be glad to know that wreckfish are wholly sustainable. Salty crisps of parsnips rounded out the dish. The sizeable, 16-ounce slab of blackened prime rib ($22) seemed over-seasoned at first, but the intensity faded with every ensuing bite until the cut's succulence was all that was left to be savored. One beef: Balancing the prime rib over three garlic-roasted potato wedges was a somewhat impractical plating effort.

You won't exert any effort in downing the strawberry-banana butter cake ($6), a light and spongy capper that staves off gastric expansion. The chocolate cream smore's cake ($7) is a more substantial, if somewhat sweeter, option highlighted by an airy, meringue-like marshmallow whip.

Circa's attractive space is an unquestionable draw for the Park Avenue set ' the open French doors are particularly welcoming, and have an assuaging effect on patrons dining in the front room, as does the pianist clinking standards from the bar area. If you're looking for more intimate environs, the dining room in the back, with its wispy drapes and waterwall, is more conducive to quiet conversation, while the slick SoBe-style lounge upstairs packs trendsters in on weekends.

Judging from all the businesses that have occupied this primo space since 1926, Circa does a revelatory job of hiding its age. Slattery's dishes, conversely, aren't veiled behind masking agents, guises and flavors. You won't find the experimental mad science of Ferrán Adriá or Homaro Cantu here, but the alchemy conjured in Slattery's kitchen is elemental nonetheless.


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