In Which We Gorged Ourselves Silly
6/19/18 12:53pmCaitlin Knudsen • Milwaukee
There’s a certain sadness when a beloved restaurant closes, not dissimilar to what it feels like to read a book you become completely immersed in only to have its events and characters leave your life with the turn of the last page. To celebrate our two year anniversary, my boyfriend and I had dinner at Circa 1880. Walking in the doors felt like any other weekday night. The decor not unlike what you see in other “nice” restaurants these days: Edison bulbs, metalwork, neutral color palette, minimalistic in approach. My boyfriend noticed there is was an option to do a tasting menu, which he eagerly decided to do and I reluctantly followed suit.
A tasting menu feels imposing. It’s a lot of food for one evening and there’s pressure on the chef to present a cohesive variety. There’s pressure on the diner as well to stuff their fat face with upwards of 5 courses, in this case. It feels like a butter-laden marathon. The beginning must capture your attention and the ending should leave a lasting impression. The whole meal should tell a story from beginning to end with fully developed dishes. Did it accomplish this and also serve as a memorable last meal. Oh, did you hear? Circa 1880 closed. I went to its funeral and it was a bacchanalian feast.
Our first dish was a bite of roasted carrot salad adorned with radish slices and served with a dill dressing. When I was in high school, one of my good friends joked that I would take a bath in dill dip because I loved it so much and I couldn’t help but remember the youthful jokes and laughter when eating the creamy and rich dill sauce, an elevated version of dill dip. Youthful jokes that will never repeat because I am no longer young and Circa 1880 is dead.
Bread and butter came next. Standard. Nothing to write home about. The ideal texture for bread is a light, fluffy interior and a crunchy, chewy exterior. You should be able to bite into layers of texture. The rolls were lacking in the contrast I seek in my bread products. The butter itself was creamy, but could have benefited from some flakes of sea salt. If reincarnation exists the bread wasn’t you’re-coming-back-as-a-cockroach offensive, but it definitely wasn’t coming back as a demi-god.
We both had a white bean soup next and as a frequent consumer (I’m talking daily) of soup, I had high expectations. Soup is like a smoothie for those of us who tend towards the umami. The soup was brought in a clear vessel which contained a pile of white beans, kale, and prosciutto. The waiter poured a warm puree of white beans, dairy and aleppo pepper over the textural components. This soup was a revelation with the beans pureed into velvet with a touch of dairy to make it even creamier. Dairy added to soup should be an accent, not a predominant flavor and this struck the balance. My only criticism is the prosciutto was slightly chewy and would have much better served the soup if cooked until crispy. The evening really devolved into a celebration of meats and vegetables from here on out.
My next dish was pork jowl, slow cooked over 24 hours, served over a puree of apple and lemon. Slices of Granny Smith apple and frisee added a freshness to the dish. I typically prefer lean meats for everyday consumption, but the succulent, fatty texture of pork jowl was a treat. It could only be served with flavors that impart freshness due to how heavy it is and how many courses we had yet. The frisee and Granny Smith apple provided contrast. When thinking about restaurants and how effective they are at presenting well made food, my criteria is how the vegetables are treated. Vegetables should be present on the dish, maintain a pleasing texture, and be paired with complementary flavors. Circa 1880 embodied these ideals for me throughout the meal. Throughout my tears for another restaurant lost to the economic difficulties of thin profit margins.
A seafood and a meat course came next. The mains. I chose trout with cipollini onions, quinoa, pickled pepper, and an onion broth. I like quinoa, generally, but it felt a bit heavy in this dish. The onion broth was unctuous and the trout cooked well, but the dish overall felt monotone. The cipollini onions were slightly slimy. The pickled peppers were almost bracingly acidic. There was otherwise little brightness to the dish. I wanted more variety in texture, in flavor. I wanted this restaurant to remain open so I could try their other offerings, see what else they can do with root vegetables and en vogue grains. Alas, many are taken from us too soon.
Beef is another meat I don’t really eat unless I’m out at a restaurant. I chose the veal cheek because it’s a cut that when done properly should just melt and this one definitely did. By this point in the meal I was becoming ridiculously full and actually planned to take half of this dish home as leftovers. I didn’t. I ate the whole thing. The cheek was on top of a bed of wild rice and celeriac root puree, which adds a lovely tang to anything you eat it with. There was rapini for roughage. It was a dark, hearty dish like the course before but this one felt cohesive and balanced. The celeriac root puree really made the dish what it was and was the glue that brought everything together. It was a dish that was reminiscent of winter days with sparse sunshine and bitingly cold air where the only thing that can warm you is a meal. It got me thinking about my own mortality, if I, too, would flicker out like the candle on the table in front of us, helpless against the blast of cold air from Bev over there, holding the front door open a little too long. Get it together, Bev.
We were in need of a palate cleanser after the sheer amount of calories we had consumed thus far. The staff brought out a glass flute filled with pale yellow bubbly liquid. It was a housemade pineapple coconut soda. It was sweet and tropical. It was contrast. It didn’t taste bad, but I wasn’t particularly fond of it as it was a little more cloying than refreshing. I was anxious to try the dessert which promised to be a combination unmatched: peanut butter and chocolate.
Dessert was a deconstructed Whatchamacallit bar which came served in a bowl with quenelle of chocolate mousse, brown butter ice cream, and chocolate ice cream. All served on top of a caramel pond with rice puffs bound together with caramel. As if that was not enough, there was peanut brittle tossed in and crunchy chocolate pearls. Dear lord, was this a tasty dessert. The chocolate mousse was perfectly rich and smooth. The chocolate ice cream was creamy and not too sweet. The caramel rice puffs were crunchy and fabulous. The peanut brittle reminded me of my mother’s baking. The brown butter ice cream was a little monotone and the caramel sauce itself could have used some salt for dimension, but it was a beautiful dessert full of texture. Texture was the emphasis as the chocolate and caramel and peanuts pair so beautifully together a chef needs to make the dessert remarkable in another way. It was a great way to finish the evening and I thought I could die happy, except there was one more offering.
With our bill came a cookie of sorts which was basically corn cereal fused together with white chocolate and orange and almond. Unfortunately, it tasted like candle. No, I don’t eat candle wax. How it smells, you know? I was not a fan, but to be fair, I’m not a fan of white chocolate to begin with. Overall, it was an amazing meal and while I definitely have my criticisms of the food I am a perfectionist when it comes to tasting. Criticism shows there is another place to go with the dish, tweaks to be made to hone one’s craft. Cooking is about exploration, about pursuing all the avenues you can to best represent the ingredients you use.
Just like the warmth and satisfaction felt when finishing a wonderful book, there’s something equally joyful about savoring a beautiful meal never to repeat itself. After such a memorable meal on such a memorable occasion, I felt such disappointment at the news I could never return here again. As the waiter came to our table for the last time, he apologized for the spacing between courses, which didn’t bother me in the moment because I was enjoying the food so much. He also told us to come back if we enjoyed ourselves, to visit again before they close. The most disappointing part of Circa 1880 closing is the loss of potential. Potential meals, the potential that is obvious in the staff there. The potential to make more memories and support food artistry in a sea of carbs, brats, and beer. R.I.P Circa 1880.
Featured photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki