Let’s get this straight – we don’t have anything against fine dining and aren’t worried about splashing a bit of cash when it comes to great food. However, for whatever reason and despite only living down the road, we never made it to Circa while the two-hat dining room was under the ownership of John and Lisa van Haandal. We had this – possibly misconceived – idea that it was a bit stuffy and pretentious, sort of old school. But who knows? Had we gone, I trust we would have had a lovely evening, and still be paying off our credit card.
When we did finally get round to visiting (a couple of weeks back), the Prince of Wales empire had been trading as part of the Melbourne Pub Group for the best part of a year. Although strangely, we couldn’t find any other blogs that have covered the place since it joined long-time chef Paul Wilson’s portfolio of venues that have been given the (to coin the British phrase, which I am not convinced will ever take off here) gastro pub treatment – the Newmarket, Albert Park and Middle Park hotels. Not even Time Out has caught up with the news – their last review (updated 5 July 2011) states the spend per head here for drinks and wine is $101 and above. Oh, Time Out (and to everyone else who hasn’t been yet), you are missing trick.
Retaining head chef Jake Nicolson, the menu spans Asia from Korea to Laos to China, with a nod to southern US dude food and a smattering of Mexican influences. Not to mention the robata wood barbecue – a Japanese-inspired grill that cooks with aromatic fuels such as eucalyptus and mesquite. Wait a minute – sliders, tacos and yakitori?! Surely the menu is just a Frankenstein’s baby of current Melbourne food trends, you shout. It might be, if everything wasn’t so damn good, seamlessly matched and bursting with complementing flavours and textures. Take that, cynics. Plus the indigenous ingredients – such as lemon myrtle, wild mango, native lime and quandong – are a really nice touch.
The dining room is big, with an almost a separate area at the back that is perfect for large functions. We didn’t quite get to the bar, but the new layout does make the whole place look super-inviting. Overlooking Fitzroy Street it is light and airy during the day, yet intimate and softly lit in the evening. Service is attentive but not smothering. Overall, it feels smart, yet unpretentious – a special occasion place that doesn’t need an occasion.
Sitting down and ordering pre-dinner cocktails, we are taken through the menu – from the small $12, medium $20 and large $30 offerings on the left-hand side, and the robata wood barbecue, feasting options (which require a minimum of two people to order) and main plates, through to vegetable sides, cheeses (all French, which is a real shame seeing as the rest of the menu reads like a locavore’s wet dream) and desserts.
Wanting to try as much as possible, we navigate to the left-hand side and select four small plates and two medium plates. If we hadn’t been heading to Senorita’s later that evening to try their new late-night bar snack menu, Antojitos – meaning ‘little whim’, we might have ordered more, but luckily we exercised some restraint as this lot had us full to the brim!
Possibly the dish of the night – rice cracker dusted calamari with green tea and sesame aioli. Every flavour held its own in this delicate, fresh-tasting dish. As the first thing to come out of the kitchen, we knew we were in for an evening of fine feasting.
Crispy lamb ribs with Sichuan eggplant san choi bao. Tender, melt-off-the-bone ribs, while the eggplant carried the rich, oily, chilli-spiked Sichaun flavours perfectly.
Seared tuna with spring pickles and sriracha – the crunch of the pickles, the spice of the sriracha – another well-balanced offering.
LA-style Korean-inspired Wagyu taco and Napa cabbage slaw consisted of two sweet as a button tacos presented side by side in fluffy tortillas that, sadly, did disintegrate a little. But probably only because each were packed to bursting with juicy meat.
Sticky pork buns with green mango and Vietnamese herbs. Whether they are poshed up or served as part of a dodgy Sunday yum cha session, pork buns are always a winner in our book. These were caramelised to perfection, while the fruit and herbs added a refreshing mouth-cleansing zing.
We were really excited to see pork and prawn laab with fragrant savoy cabbage on the menu, after falling for the spicy, herb-infused meat salad during our travels in Southeast Asia. This dish didn’t quite hit the mark, as far as our memories serve, and was overwhelmingly spicy – but we both enjoyed it. Unfortunately, as the last dish to arrive at our table, we were having a little trouble breathing by this stage. So on a second visit, it might prove to be just perfect. We are planning on wearing something with an elasticated waistband when we return – surely the new-look, laid-back Circa won’t mind?
Good value share plates that pack a flavourful punch. A $75 five-course chef’s menu. The ability to phone up and … wait for it … make a booking. Chin Chin, we think we have found your nemesis.
Circa, The Prince
2 Acland Street
(03) 9536 1122