Cafe Reviews

Guinea Piggery

There are a barrel of jackasses out there in foodie land who insist I'm never supposed to visit a fresh grubbateria until it's survived six months or so, and to these jackasses, I say: Eat my ragged Speedo! My five-year mission as your Captain Kirk of comestibles is to explore strange, new menus, and not sit on my fanny awaiting an invite from a restaurant's management.

Conventional wisdom as spouted by these dunderheaded donkey-kongs holds that the public should serve as grateful guinea pigs while an eatery's crew works out the kinks. So if you stop by some novel nosherie and pay, say, $125 on a mediocre meal, it's your loss, bucko. Those in charge cannot be blamed during this unofficial honeymoon period, according to the pedantic pea-brains who spend their leisure hours crafting these nonexistent "rules."

That's why restaurant critics exist -- to play guinea pig so the public doesn't have to blow its waddage on establishments that haven't gotten their mallards to march in single file. Restaurateurs should look on early so-so notices as constructive criticism for their budding businesses. Either that, or as a sign from the heavens that career change is an option they should seriously consider.

For the owners of Circa 1900, this review fits the former category. After all, the owners of Circa 1900 are also the proprietors of the long-running Coronado Café, and I have confidence in their ability to eventually pull off this new enterprise. Downtown needs them to succeed, as the area has a dearth of worthwhile bistros. The setting of the century-plus-old Silva House, a quaint bungalow with wooden floors and a wide porch, makes the place a no-brainer, ambiance-wise. Moreover, the service I experienced on recent visits proved both warm and professional. Now if they can only get the food up to snuff, the Coronado clan may have another dependable supper shack on their hands.

Chef Chris Curtiss' bill of fare is pretty much California cuisine -- so pervasive these days, it might as well be called "American standard." Not much on this menu raises an eyebrow or strikes you as daring. Despite the artisan adjectives, we're mostly talking about stuff like salmon, steak, duck, and pork chops, all prepared to appeal to the yupper middle class with only the occasional curveball in the bunch.

The most unusual entree was Atlantic skate wing over mixed veggies, and this could have been exceptional were it not for one serious flaw. You see, you're brought two pieces of skate, one atop the other, and in my case, the one on the top had been cooked a bit longer than its companion, leaving it browner, greasier and tasting more like the pan than the sea critter's flesh. The ray-wing beneath it, however, seemed almost poached by comparison and had a fresh, oyster-like taste to it. Had both been in this state of toothsomeness, the entree would have been smashing, a real standout.

I wasn't wild about the "wild salmon," which offered another near-miss. Almost everything about the plate was outstanding but the salmon. I loved the warm tomato tart beneath it, with pesto and slices of heirloom tomato. And the creamy tomato sauce that surrounded it was nice enough. But the fish itself was ordinary, like any hunk of salmon you'd get almost anywhere. Nothing offensive about it. I just believe Curtiss can do better.

I found the rib eye disappointing as well. Curtiss trims the cut to make it look like a filet, and in doing so, removes all that juicy fat and flavor. I would rather have had either a true filet, or a flat slab o' rib eye, ringed in blubber. Had no problem, though, with the bordelaise sauce the meat was swimming in, with mushrooms and roasted cipollini onions. It was the meat that ill-served the sauce, rather than vice versa.

Now, the Four Story Hill Farm pork chop? A thing of beauty, and a main course for which I would certainly return to the year Circa 1900. It was thick and juicy, and my knife cut through it like butter; and yes, I did gnaw on the pig's rib to ensure that none of its flesh was left. The spaetzle that came with it was wunderbar, but then I'm a spaetzle addict from way back. Quite enjoyed mixing it up with the chop's leftover demi-glace, and cleaning my plate of each and every spaetzle bit.

The extra sides I ordered -- fingerling potatoes and braised greens -- were near perfect. The fingerling potatoes came as tiny, slightly sweet potato chips. The braised greens, a mix of kale, mizuna, arugula and turnip greens, were soft and pleasantly bitter. Might have liked a bit of vinegar with mine, but that's just the Southerner in me.

Both the starters and the desserts delivered only half the time. The big fault with the bruschetta was the bread, which could have passed for Melba toast. No matter how tasty the topping, if the bread beneath is rock hard and unappealing, the bruschetta is a bust. The béarnaise-drenched asparagus was passable, and the terrine-like beet salad with ruby red grapefruit and avocado was somewhat refreshing. (Wish it had been chilled, though.) Best of the bunch was the duck confit, a slightly salty drumstick and thigh on a salad bed of walnuts, shredded Napa cabbage, and golden raisins in a honey vinaigrette. Bravo, chef Curtiss! More like this, please.

The panna cotta has the distinction of being one of the few panna cottas I've ever come across that I haven't enjoyed. What was that strange, aspartame-ish aftertaste? It annoyed me for the rest of the night. The cheesy-iciness of the mascarpone sorbet was intriguing, if hardly engrossing. But the dark chocolate bread pudding and the miniature banana cream pie were each superb, assuaging the taste buds with a rich, old-fashioned sort of creaminess.

My meals began with an amuse-bouche of basily tomato-water, not nearly as bad as it sounds. Still, I initially had to suppress a gag reflex as I downed the rust-colored H2O. I know tomato-water's all the rage, but I can't help thinking of dishwater when they bring it to me. Might I suggest, for these soon-to-be summer nights, a melon gazpacho, or something along these lines?

In any case, I'm pulling for Circa 1900, if only because Phoenix deserves more from its metropolitan center than alimentary alter kockers such as the Compass Room, Pizzeria Bianco, and dear old Séamus McCaffrey's. If Circa's masters make a few improvements, blessed longevity should be their ultimate fate.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons