When you come to the beautiful and historic town of Charleston, South Carolina, chances are good you’re here to eat. The quaint city, located in the “Lowcountry” of the state right on the Atlantic, is renowned for its food. Whether its shrimp and grits and oyster bakes, hole-in-the-wall joints selling fried chicken and waffles or upscale restaurants offering prime steak and rack of lamb, the nearly 700 restaurants will surely offer something to please your palate. For fine dining in the heart of historic Charleston, Circa 1886 is a perfect choice.
The restaurant is located in the former brick stables of the Wentworth Mansion, a stunning private residence that’s been completely renovated into a five-star, 21-room boutique hotel. The hotel, with Italian crystal chandeliers, hand-carved marble fireplaces, original tile and wood floors, and 23 original Lewis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows, exemplifies the ornate splendor of a bygone era. Twenty years ago, Lynn and Richard Widman, long-time developers-hoteliers in the city, spent $7 million to completely restore the mansion to its former glory and create a small spa and the Circa 1886 restaurant in outbuildings in the home’s yard.
Nestled in leafy shade, the carriage-house-turned-restaurant continues the mansion’s elegant ambiance. Historic brick walls warm the understated grey and white décor to create a relaxing, inviting, and elegant environment.
Executive Chef Marc Collins, also a partner in the enterprise, has led the restaurant’s food team for the past 16 years. Chef Collins draws inspiration from many cuisines around the world, including historic Southern dishes. He uses fresh, local, in-season ingredients and, by using less butter and cream than most Southern chefs, puts a healthful, distinctive spin on classic Lowcountry dishes. The 50-seat restaurant is known not only for its food, but has also been recognized by Wine Spectator and others for its outstanding 250+ bottle wine list.
Duck to Swoon Over
We began our meal with rolls baked by the restaurant’s pastry chef, Scott Lavorn. Made with Carolina rice and wheat flours, the rolls were both satisfyingly soft and chewy and the whipped butter, accented with subtle orange notes, gave them a pleasing sweetness.
When chef sent out an amuse bouche consisting of a single Marcona almond, a small piece of Mozarella cheese flavored with thyme, and a golden raisin, it was immediately apparent that Collins likes to layer both flavors and textures—salty, herbaceous, and sweet flavors with crunchy, soft, and chewy textures. In this case, however, the Marcona’s assertive flavor overwhelmed the other two elements.
Next came tiny cups of dark green vegetable soup drizzled with olive oil. While my companions eagerly scooped up their soup, I found the flavor so “green” it danced on the edge of bitter. A touch of cream would have lightened and smoothed the edges of this healthy soup. I didn’t finish this course and began to wonder if this restaurant would live up to its stellar reputation.
I needn’t have worried. My appetizer, the restaurant’s signature blue crab salad with avocado gelato proved delectable. The salad, a heap of chunky blue crab tossed with a thin, creamy dressing, came wrapped in a nearly see-through strip of cucumber, which lent a nice crispy textural contrast to the crab. I requested salt (none provided at the table) and a light sprinkling brightened the crab flavor even more. Next to the crab salad was a small dollop of satiny, not-overly-sweet avocado gelato atop a bed of crispy frisee, which provided a crunchy contrast, and fresh ruby red grapefruit sections added a bit of sweetness. A slice of heart of palm and the tiniest sliver of Thai pepper on the side seemed superfluous to this excellent salad.
My entrée, duck “au poivre” with gratin potatoes, hit all the marks perfectly. The juicy duck came in four thick slices with flavorfully seasoned and satisfyingly crispy skin. The cognac pan sauce, rich and complex, proved the perfect compliment. I’ve eaten duck all over the world, including Quebec where it’s practically a state dish, and this delectable duck was some of the best I’ve ever eaten. The duck was rich and the portion more-than-generous, but I couldn’t stop swirling pieces of tender duck in that addictive pan sauce until I was too full.
The duck was served with a tiny cast iron fry pan of gratin potatoes. Beautifully crispy on the top and soft underneath, the thin layers of potato were accented with creamy Thomasville Tomme cheese that elevated this iconic dish to world-class. There was also an al dente haricot vert (green bean) salad, served cool and lightly dressed with a delicate Dijon shallot dressing. It added a fresh and crisp balance to the rich duck and potatoes.
By the time dessert arrived, I was sated, but it didn’t stop me from ordering the pastry chef’s lemon cheesecake. It came as a 3”x 7” rectangle of silky cheesecake with a perfect, lemony sweet-sour balance and a thin thyme-shortbread crust. On the top was a slender wafer of dark chocolate and, on a disk of white chocolate, a creamy dome of curd. It all sat on smear of thick delectable blueberry sauce that offered a tasty berry contrast to the lemon. Tiny dollops of brightly-flavored lemon curd and whipped cream added even more jewels of flavor. And the matchbook-sized square of baklava, light, crispy, nutty and not-overly-sweet—was the perfect bite.
Rich black coffee from local roaster King Bean finished what was, for me, was an satisfying and memorable dining experience at Circa 1886. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor