Saturday, August 19, 2006

Circa @ The Prince Hotel, Acland St, St Kilda

Circa @ The Prince Hotel, Acland St, St Kilda
Saturday 19 August, 2006

No restaurant should have to follow Vue Du's such a tough act to surpass and it was doomed before we even arrived. However, we both agreed to remain fair and take the experience at face value (well, we tried...). Circa has received some great accolades - 3 hats from The Good Food Guide and 3 stars from Gourmet Traveller. The head chef, Andrew McConnell has an interesting background with stints at M on the Bund in Shanghai, Diningroom 211 and Mrs Jones in Melbourne.

Circa @ The Prince Hotel is located at the quiet, residential end of Acland St. There are a handful of restaurants/ bars in the vicinity that were packed. We entered The Prince Hotel and it screams boutique. The mellow lighting, the minimalist design and staff with slick black suits.

The entrance to Circa is up a flight of stairs from the reception area. You walk through a dimly lit bar/ lounge with intense artwork hung on the walls. The Maitre'd saw us approach and continued with her phone conversation. She even turned away to do some work with the till before finally addressing us with the surliest, most bland welcome.

We were then shown to our table in the first of two dining areas. The decor was stark white seating with sheer black curtains hung from each wall and there were stunning flower arrangements in each room. We were handed the wine list and were staggered by the size - it was a thesis of wine ranging from approx. $45 - $3000 per bottle (I'm not joking....there were several bottles over the $1000 mark).

As we studied the wine list we thought it might be nice to see the food menu and tried to attract the attention of a staff menu (this was near impossible and got worse over the course of the evening). The food looked appealing and we engaged in a foodie conversation with the table next to us who shared that Circa was their favourite restaurant and the chef had recently changed the menu.

The menu itself was bizarre. The food menu came out on a massive A3 size sheet of paper but the food was typed in the bottom third - so there was an enormous blank space. They were hard to navigate and you couldn't put them down on the table as they were too large and wouldn't rest between the wine and water glasses. I just don't get the purpose of having such unpractical menus.

For entree I ordered the Golden chicken broth with sesame dumpling, white fungi and tempura pigean breast and my dinner buddy ordered the Spice crusted braised pork cheek, kohlrabi puree, pear & endive salad. Before they arrived we were treated to a white cauliflower and blue cheese soup - delicious and a mix of sourdough and wholegrain bread that was cold (dissapointing).

The entrees were lovely - the chicken broth was delightful. It was heavier than I thought it would be and wasn't like the clear Chinese soup I imagined. It was served as a small portion in the bottom of the bowl with the mushrooms, dumpling and tempure pigeon that was exceptionally tasty.

For main I ordered the Slow cooked chicken with pressed jerusalem artichoke, creamed sprouts and almond crumb and my dinner buddy ordered the Pan fried King George Whiting with fennel custard and salmon consomme. Well, we waited and we waited. Over an hour later they arrived at the table with a meek apology from our over-the-top waiter who really grated on our nerves by the end of the evening. It appeared that the table next to us had complained about their ridiculously long wait and had been delivered a complimentary salad (gee..thanks).

Again, the food was delicious. The slow cooked chicken was so tender and the pressed artichoke was served like a round potato bake - yum. At this point there wasn't much talking as we were too captivated by our food and were surprised by how good it was. We contemplated not ordering desserts as it meant we would be there well after midnight, but caved as soon as the menu was delivered.

I ordered the Circa snickers and my dinner buddy ordered the Chestnut Mont Blanc, drambuie ice cream and hazelnut nougatine. Well, I was completely floored by the Circa snickers - it was absolutely fantastic - the chocolate layer, with caramel middle, hazelnut layer, peanuts and more chocolate - WOW!

It's pretty hard to fault the food but where it just pales in comparison with Vue de Monde is with the service and the overall experience. Our surly Maitr'd did not crack a smile all evening, she was one cranky woman.

Circa @ The Prince Hotel - 2a Acland St, St Kilda - (03) 9536 1122


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