Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 22, 2009: Circa, the Prince

Long-time readers will be familiar with the birthday tradition that Cindy and I have developed - the lucky birthday boyorgirl gets their pick of veg-friendly hyper-expensive fancy restaurant for a night of degustation madness. Then you, lucky readers, get posts full of slightly dim photos of gorgeously presented tasting plates and paragraphs of text. Everyone's happy.

For my birthday this year we still got our ridiculously classy dinner (venue: Circa the Prince), but you guys are going to have to go photo-less. And there's no getting around who's to blame. This guy:

That's right, Australia's largest owl species. There's a powerful owl roosting in Flagstaff Gardens at the moment and I ducked over to see my 228th Australian bird species. And to take some photos. Unfortunately, in the course of transferring the photos to the laptop, I left the camera's memory card in the laptop slot, leaving us carmera-less for our fanciest meal of the year so far. Sigh.

Once Cindy had recovered from her initial outrage, we found ourselves able to just sit back and enjoy our meal - there's something liberating about eating without photo requirements.

It's worth mentioning just how veg-friendly the folk at Circa the Prince are. We made sure to stress our requirements when booking but it turns out their veg-degustation is a standard option, available every night and offered to every table (at least to the two nearest us on Friday). The a la carte menu is a bit less impressive, but there's one veg entree and one main available, along with a few sides. Still, if you're going to go upmarket for a night, you might as well dive into the nine-course vegetarian degustation (we didn't think to ask how they'd go with vegan food but I reckon they'd be up to it if you gave them a call ahead of time).

We kicked things off with a pre-dinner cocktail each and, as per usual I indulged in the matching wines with the degustation - the cocktails were both pretty good, and the matched wines really hit the spot. But you don't go to Circa for the booze, you go there for the outstanding two-hatted dining experience. And goodness me is it a wonderful experience. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but the lack of photos isn't going to lead me to write a 10,000 essay here - I'll keep things brief. Suffice to say - everything we had was wondeful.

First up: carrot velouté, curried cauliflower. Out came some small bowls, dotted with tiny pieces of lightly spiced cauliflower, with some sweet (almost candied) slivers of carrot. Over the top was poured a wonderfully smooth carrot veloute. Everything worked together perfectly - it will be a recurring theme in this post, but the cooking at Circa is all about subtle flavours blending together to make something special. While this was called 'curried cauliflower', the curry flavours were mild and complex, not simply hot and spicy.

Next up:
Garden vegetables, goats' cheese emulsion. Circa have their own little kitchen garden at Albert Park and this dish highlighted their seasonal goodies: little pieces of parsnip, carrot, turnip, rocket and some herbs, served on a scraping of goats' cheese emulsion. The cheese provided a small burst of tartness, but the dish was really about letting the fresh, well-cooked vegies shine.

Parsnip, horseradish and black rice risotto. This was the star of the night - a rich, dark risotto that had some sort of smokiness amongst its deep flavours. Really outstanding stuff.

Next up was a cleansing course: Spiced beans, herb cream and fresh ricotta. For some reason I assumed that we'd be getting some sort of beany stew, but this was much lighter and fresher: crispy green and white beans, served with two kinds of pulses that were cooked to be edible but still firm. A very light herb cream and some small splotches of ricotta capped off the light flavours.

In case we weren't cleansed enough: Red Hill golden ale cleanser. This came out looking like a small glass of ale with a generous foamy head, but there was something else going on as well - there were gingery and lemon flavours, which I'd guess aren't found in Red Hill's regular golden ale.

Next up was our ostensible main course: Cous cous and pumpkin brik, ras el hanout spiced carrots and beets. The cute little bricks of cous-cous and pumpkin were wrapped in very light filo pastry, and served with more delicious vegetables, again lightly and subtly spiced. This is on the a la carte menu ($36), and I'd highly recommend it along with the wonderful risotto ($20, as an entree) if you're not up for the marathon.

We'd made it through the savoury selectoin, and it was time for the intermediate cheese course: Comte gruyere, poached quince, brioche. The brioche and quince were excellent in combination with the gruyere. The cheese was a little lighter in flavour than I'd have liked, but still very satisfying.

Onto dessert #1: Confit pineapple, gingerbread crumb, coconut chilli sorbet. This was one rectangular prism of pineapple preserved in sugar, with a scattering of gingerbread crumbs and the most divine coconut chilli sorbet. The pineapple was quite good, but everything on this plate paled in comparison to the sorbet - a smooth, sweet coconut sorbet with just a hint of chilli to sharpen the flavours.

Our final dish: Soft chocolate croquante, orange and mint. Google tells me that croquante translates as 'crunchy', but this was a stunningly smooth little blob of chocolate-y goodness, served up with a couple of little eggs of orange and mint ice-creams. They were okay, but the croquante was where it was at - rich, smooth and wonderful. I think Cindy had better fetch me some chocolate now, I can't keep writing this now I've recalled this dessert.

Shit, there's no chocolate. I'll push on...

Everything winds up at Circa with Brydie's garden tea. This is a tea made out of whatever herbs are ready in Circa's kitchen garden. This week it included lemon verbeena and three or four others (I'm eight wines to the wind at this stage, so the tea ingredients have escaped my memory). It was an appropriately clean finish to the meal, which had been nine courses of clever, understated flavours, with lots of beautiful seasonal vegies and loads of classy touches. The services was efficient, friendly and relaxed - a little less formal than some of our other fine-dining experiences, which suits our style well. It's a beautiful space as well - suitably dim lighting, plenty of space and a general low-key style - you can forget that it's attached to the much less salubrious Prince band room.

Things don't come cheap at Circa, but you get what you pay for - an outstanding experience for a special occasion. Apologies for the lack of pictures - you'll just have to enjoy the owl.

Addressed: 2 Acland St, St Kilda (cnr Fitzroy Street)
Ph: 9536 1122
Prices: Vegie degustation $105, with wines, $200


  1. Even without the photos, your meal at Circa sounded amazing. I literally live right around the corner and I've been dying to try it for ages. Once again, you guys have strengthened my resolve to tick it off the list.

    PS: Cindy, I made your no-meat meat pies last night (or "I can't believe they're not meat pies" or as the guy at the West End Markets in Brisbane calls them "no bull pies") and they were amazing. My first time with puff pastry and it all went well. Thanks so much - this blog has had a massive impact on where and what I eat in Melbourne :) Many thanks to you and Michael x

  2. Well now, happy birthday! And if Circa are vegan-friendly, I think I can see (perhaps in 6 months) a fancy potluck coming up!

    Sounds great, and hope you had a wonderful night :)

  3. Yum! Sounds so good! And, cute owl?

  4. Hi Christine - glad you enjoyed the not-pies so much! It's one of our favourite recipes, and I tend to make a big batch of the filling and reserve most of it in the freezer. To the topic at hand, we can definitely recommend saving your pennies for a visit to Circa. :-)

    That'd be brilliant, wouldn't it Miss T? While our meal was certainly not vegan, the non-vegan ingredients were never the centrepiece - I'm thinking (hoping!) that they'd willingly come up with something impressive for a vegan group.

    Hi Penny! The owl was cute - however, he does seem to like slinging dead possums around. :-P

  5. I am vegan & have held a meeting at Circa before & they were extremely accommodating & made me a fantastic vegan lunch!

  6. Awesome, Vicki! Thanks for confirming my suspicions. :-)