Singular Sensation

John Bragg’s new Circa brings uptown style to East Memphis.

Quail stuffed with polenta and chorizo

Justin Fox Burks

As my husband and I walked from our car to the new Circa, we recalled the businesses in the Regalia Center that have come and gone. “Northwest had a ticket office here, remember that?” my husband asked. “And there was that kid’s store where you spent so much money.”
I mention this conversation to explain why I blinked blankly when I pushed open the restaurant’s front door and general manager Jay Turney said, “Welcome to Circa.” Outside, a typical East Memphis shopping center with a few retail memories. Inside, a luxurious cocoon of uptown style where new memories can easily be made.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,“ I said as we sat down, admiring designer Amy Howard’s monochromatic wash of gray and metallic finishes. From our table, we take it all in: a single vase of agapanthus, textured walls with a satin sheen, floors stained the color of fruity merlot, and glass orb chandeliers suspended above the booths like bubbles. Although it’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday and the restaurant is full, our table feels intimate. Except for the friendly sound of ice in a cocktail shaker, the noise in Circa stays muted, thanks in part to serpentine wall screens that double as artful wine racks.

Designed by architects from 3six0, a boutique firm in Providence affiliated with the Rhode Island School of Design, the restaurant is the second location for chef/owner John Bragg, whose original Circa downtown now operates as a small-plate pub called Bar None. His move east was a fortuitous coming together of space and price helped by the economic downturn. Bragg also got lucky with the restaurant’s architects who frequently design for  competition, not construction. “They said if you actually build the restaurant, we’ll make you a good deal,” Bragg explained.

Featured in Architectural Review, the new Circa is sophisticated but comfortable, much like Bragg’s approach to food. While his cooking is grounded in French influences, Bragg’s menu includes the spicy flavors and crispy textures favored in the South. For dinner, we gravitated toward both traditions in appetizers and entrees, starting with roasted sea scallops in a fricassee of seasonal vegetables and pistou broth. Pistou, a French word for pounded, is popping up on menus everywhere these days, but it’s hard to imagine a better version of the provençal classic than Bragg’s: The warm and rustic stew made with pesto, cannelloni beans, roasted vegetables, chicken broth, and a sprinkle of pine nuts is so satisfying that the scallops are like a surprise party guest — welcomed but unnecessary.

For our second appetizer, we tried proscuitto-wrapped asparagus plated with a scoop of shaved melon salad flavored with honey and mint. Bright green and a little crunchy, the asparagus spears made it easy to double-dip the dish of creamy Gorgonzola served alongside.
Deciding on main courses was difficult, but after much back-and-forth, we ordered charred cowboy rib-eye with peppercorn crust and truffled pommes fondant, which my cowboy translated as “the best scalloped potatoes I’ve ever eaten,” and quail stuffed with polenta, chorizo, toasted almonds, and plump golden raisins. At the suggestion of our server, we paired our food with a 2008 Cesari Mara Ripasso, a velvety, full-bodied match for beef and game.

While all sorts of small game birds are common on European tables, quail is the Southern favorite. Bobwhite quail is the state game bird of Georgia, and the farm-raised version that arrived on my plate was a grand slam of aroma and taste. First, I breathed in sprigs of rosemary. They were as aromatic as an herb garden in a spring rain. Next, I tasted the skin’s crispy perfection. And finally, I dipped the quail’s soft, moist meat into Bragg’s veal-reduction sauce, a rich and delicious staple of old-fashioned French cooking.

Later, I asked Bragg how he makes his all-purpose secret sauce in hopes of re-creating my own version at home. “We start with 50 pounds of veal bones, and I doubt you have a big enough pot,” he said. “I figured out once that when you add in time [several days] and ingredients, our veal reduction costs $300 a gallon to make.”

Since we’d hit a home run with one classic French technique, we opted to end our meal with another: gateau opera made by 20-year-old  pastry chef Courtney Powell, a recent graduate of L’ Ecole Culinaire in Cordova. We were impressed with the cake’s presentation and its decadent, creamy taste: almond sponge cake called joconde layered with coffee butter cream and chocolate ganache, iced with chocolate glaze, and topped with a curl of gold leaf.

A week or so later, I returned with a friend for lunch and was pleased to find the same excellent food and service at more affordable prices. First, we ordered crawfish beignets, a signature dish for Circa that includes six beignets with a dollop of sweet pickled vegetables, and then our main courses: a house-ground tenderloin Circa burger flooded with skinny fries, and tuna salad niçoise, seared tuna encrusted with black sesame seeds on top of a colorful cacophony of vegetables, eggs, and olives. I was particularly enamored with the plate’s potato salad: tiny cubes of potatoes combined with chives, mayonnaise, and freshly grated parmesan.

On this second visit, I also noticed the details that add polish to the Circa experience: the floret of soft butter, the paper doily cradling a bowl, the background whisper of a Billie Holiday song, the slivers of artichoke in my cream of mushroom soup. Yes, eating at Circa is expensive, but compared to the cost of a road trip to the beach, I’d say a visit for dinner is this summer’s perfect staycation. M

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