While I’m aware that many of my readers appreciate and salute the stoicism and general resignation that informs my copy, it may come as some surprise to them that, in private moments, I am wont to indulge in prolonged and baroque bouts of complaint. I find the act of complaining to be deeply therapeutic, cathartic even. Little else fuels my flights of high hyperbole quite like (perceived) grievance. Of late the subject of my choler has been the headlong rush to review restaurants just moments after the gas has been connected in the kitchen. I’ve been guilty of the crime of indecent haste myself, but I’ve never wanted to be merely the chronicler of the new thing, the new place. This is not what serious criticism should concern itself with. I don’t care to have my subject chosen for me, as my editor well knows, but I’ll allow myself the odd exception.
Opened just two months ago (on my birthday, no less) in the former Eaton Square Café space in the respectable village of Terenure, Circa is a labour of love from four industry friends. They have, apparently, conjured into existence one of Dublin’s most exciting new restaurants for some time with the sweat of their own brows. At the helm of the kitchen is chef Gareth Naughton (ex Drury Buildings & L’Ecrivan), another of the principals is Robin Murphy, ditto Drury Buildings but also The Redhead, a much missed restaurant in New York City’s East Village that served some of the best shrimp and grits in the five boroughs. I don’t know what position he held there, but that detail was probably the source of my urgency. Pitching itself as a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ is cute – the price point is not such that most people will think nothing of a Tuesday night spur of the moment walk-in. My own manor is screaming out for an actual neighbourhood restaurant – there’s a sizeable gulf of ambition between Fusco’s and Variety Jones, but then the Liberties is not Terenure.
The pleasant airy room is relatively empty of a Tuesday night (those school fees don’t pay themselves), but we choose to sit at the bar. It’s a thing I love to do when dining as a pair, or solo, and too few restaurants here offer the opportunity. It’s a night of false summer and, from a tight list of aperitivos, we choose a couple of Aperol spritzes. My principal reason to do so is to wring a couple of lines of copy out of the backlash recently suffered by the New York Times when they ran a piece in the food and drink section under the headline, ‘The Aperol Spritz is Not a Good Drink,’ which I have now done. These were good. When you hear that they are marinating the garnish slices of clementine in Aperol you know that these folks are serious about their drinks.
They are no less serious about the food that comes across the pass. The kitchen sends out an amuse of Scallop with Boudin Noir which almost prompts an eye-roll: “Nevin Maguire called from 1998 and he wants his dish back.” It proves, however, to be something of an eye-opener. A beautifully cooked, sweet little scallop sits on the plate next to a roundel of rich boudin and the smoothest cauliflower purée imaginable. The element that elevates the dish is a mahogany-dark sauce vivified with a splash of Pedro Ximinez. It is thrilling. We move from that to a perfectly executed tuna tartare. This is assemblage rather than cooking but the brisk breath of Yuzu and the suggestion of smoked avocado raise this above other crudos or hokey Poke. Crisp discs of radish provide the coronation. Next up is another starter of Buttermilk Fried Rabbit with a Pea Bacon and Lettuce Fricasse. It is a beautifully composed dish, but I would prefer a little more colour on the rabbit and a little more seasoning in the coating. I will be back to give it another shot.
The standout dish is a perfectly rectangular slate of Skate paired with asparagus and morels. It defines the intention of the kitchen. Three components are brought together on the plate and bound to one another with the touch of a master saucier. The Ray Wing is fresher than innocence and is served, oddly, on its front while the bosky depth of these most prized Spring mushrooms – foraged from the pages of the La Rousse catalogue, but no matter – plays beautifully off the delicate verdancy of the asparagus. The sauce doesn’t contain Madeira as I had suspected but has instead been finished with a jolt of house-made seaweed vinegar. The dish is a tour de force.
Another main of Pressed Pig (not pork!) Belly with Celeriac and a phallic confit Pink Fir Apple Potato also delivers a lot of pleasure, but the crackling should yield a little more easily to the blade of a steak knife. In mitigation – Mr Naughton is toiling solo in the kitchen, his sous-chef having broken his arm earlier that day. We finish off with a profoundly rich Chocolate Creamaux with Salted Banana Ice-cream which our server cleverly pairs with a passionfruit sour beer. Bravo! The all-male floor staff provides warm and knowledgeable service throughout the evening. The wine list will not thrill those in the vanguard of the natural wine cult (and that’s just jake with me) but there’s a tightly curated list with good value by the glass. It is a neighbourhood restaurant after all. The cooking on display here is assured, elegant and masculine in a particular mode. It’s woke cooking with a lightness of touch that is sensitive to the needs of its component parts. It is Maia, rather than Eamon Dunphy. Circa is a tasteful, sophisticated restaurant, hitting all the right notes.
On a sadder note, as one bright light appears on Dublin’s restaurant scene, another has lamentably, guttered out. Luna, perhaps my favourite restaurant in the city, has closed its doors just days after being awarded best customer service at the Irish Restaurant awards. I’d like to thank Declan, Vish and the rest of the crew for their service to raising the bar for Dublin dining and wish them the very best in their future endeavours. That Tournedos Rossini will live long in the memory. Sic transit gloria mundi…
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
90 Terenure Rd Nth
(01) 5342 644