FOOD&WINE restaurant critic, Aoife Carrigy tries out a new neighbourhood restaurant in Terenure that gave her goosebumps for lots of reasons.
Beginnings are beautiful, especially brave ones.
Circa is owned by four young guys with diverse hospitality expertise. Each has put their own money into opening this ‘contemporary neighbourhood restaurant’, without the backing of a money man. And it shows, in all sorts of ways, most of them the right ones.
There was a bitter rain falling on what turned out to be just their second night of proper service (sorry lads). My first impression – other than, oh there’s another restaurant reviewer 'on duty' across the room – was that it was all rather cool. As in, Scandi-sparse with blond wood and spilling foliage, but also cold. As in, do you mind if we move from the window table right beside the front door?
They didn’t, of course, because these are the kind of guys who would trip over themselves – and sometimes each other – to make you more comfortable. Soon their earnest welcome and nervy excitement were warming us up from inside out. And after a while, we also no longer noticed the whiff of loo cleaner, which turned out to be the downside to our cosier relocation, as we nibbled on toast with ‘today’s butter’, intriguingly flavoured with seaweed and yuzukuzu – a fermented paste of fresh chillies, yuzu peel and salt.
Let's look at the bar
I even warmed up enough for a distinctly summery cooler of an aperitif. One of three spritz offered (€9), its balance of Aperol, prosecco and macerated strawberry syrup with hibiscus and green peppercorn confirmed a confident hand behind the bar – not surprising, given that co-owner Ross Duffy was previously bar manager at Drury Buildings (as well as floor manager at 3FE). His co-owners are Robert Murphy, former events manager for All Bar None; Emmet Murphy, who works for Celtic Whiskey Shop; and chef Gareth Naughton, formerly of Drury Buildings and Suesey Street, where he was head chef.
The single-page and largely European wine list speak of confidence too. We beelined to a gorgeously herbal Dafni 2017 from Lyrarakis in Crete (€38). ‘Dafni’ is Greek for laurel, flagging the distinctive notes of bay leaf offered by this ancient grape, which has Protected Geographical Status since it was rescued from extinction by the winery. Other left-field treats include the wonderful Anima Negra from Mallorca and Testalonga Chenin Blanc from Swartland.
Exploring the menu
Taking our cue from a menu that features small and large plates, we shared a selection. Two beautifully cooked mackerel fillets (€11) had had their glistening skin burnt to black, a dramatic touch that overpowered the accompanying flavours of pink Mooncoin Beetroot and seaweed-citrus dressing, and even the punchy baby nasturtium leaves. I felt the nuggets of buttermilk fried rabbit (€13) with tarragon mayo and a fricassee of pea, lettuce and bacon lardons hung together better, even if the peas were oddly (but not unpleasantly) mealy.
Our large plate choice was a fantastic piece of brill (€26), again nicely cooked but overpowered, in this case by seaweed, heavily seasoned broccoli and mussels flagged as smoked but tasting simply salty.
Two more small plates continued this theme of quality ingredients that were well-handled but not always perfectly balanced. Ardsallagh goat cheese (€12) came not with braesola (an intriguing promise) but with boozy prunes soaked in Pedro Ximenez sherry, discs of crunchy mooli and a brilliant sweet-sour squash carpaccio – a convivial gathering that made redundant the accompanying pink beets and stalky tasting squash seeds.
Tuna tartare (€14) looked pretty but arrived unfinished, delivered by an over-eager waiter without some key elements. Once questioned, and quickly rectified, the dish soared from decent to memorable with flavours of smoked avocado and toasted nori bringing to mind a deconstructed sushi roll.
Desserts proved controversial. My date declared the kaffir lime parfait (€7.50) unpleasantly soapy, while I found its intensity nicely countered when sampled with the tart passionfruit sabayon and sweet white chocolate bark, suggesting that a tweak in the plating might elevate the eating experience. Some perfectly pitched stewed rhubarb (€7.50) came with homemade rhubarb ice-cream and chewy meringues dusted with dehydrated rhubarb. An excellent double espresso (3FE of course) was served with honey – a revelation that gave a rounded sweetness to the coffee.
We left feeling altogether charmed by the great promise of this plucky venture, and by each team member that we encountered. Sure there are kinks to be ironed out, but they know it and they’re on it and have the youthful energy for it. Whether Terenure has the youthful energy to match might prove pivotal to their success, but I for one will be back to grab a stool at that marble-top bar either for dinner (from 5pm, Wednesday through Saturday) or for what is being dubbed a ‘hip-hop brunch’.
The bottom line: €143 for two people, including a spritz aperitif, a bottle of wine, four small plates, a large plate, two desserts and a coffee.
90 Terenure Road North, Terenure, Dublin 6W
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.