Over the last five years, there has been a lot of talk about the death of fine dining, but in a city like Charleston, where restaurants are housed in 19-century mansions, and chivalry is as deeply rooted in a man’s affectation, as the benne seed is to Southern cooking, fine dining feels inherently, effortlessly Southern. This is not to say that lowcountry’s culinary landscape isn’t evolving—look to Josh Keeler’s Two Boroughs Larder, where he approaches “seasonal American cuisine” with local ingredients, resulting in a menu that lists fried quail and cornbread next to wagyu tartare—but it is in the South, where fine dining feels right at home.
Circa 1886 is tucked away in downtown Charleston’s Wentworth mansion, where on a particularly balmy spring evening, we escape a shower of warm rain by racing into the folds of the restaurant’s charming foyer. We dry off with flutes of Veuve Clicquot at the entrance bar, which feels much like toasting in someone’s home at the beginning of a private soiree.
The main dining room is simplistic and tasteful, bathed in a hum of conversation, neither too raucous nor uncomfortably hushed. There are families in booth enclaves, and elegant couples lined against a wall of French doors. As we slide into our seats, I glance back at the couples, half expecting a gentleman to bow down on a knee, tableside. In its understated elegance, this is the sort of place where romance would be celebrated, where professions would be made, then become a vestige to return to on anniversaries. The chef, Marc Collins, has been behind the restaurant’s modern lowcountry cooking since 2001, and he shows a deft hand at plating kaleidoscopic dishes, struck with vibrant sauces—a painter and his succulent paintbrush.
In fine dining tradition, dinner opens with an amuse bouche, and on this warm spring night it’s presented in a saucer of tomato puree—its headiness awakening the palate, but finishing with a creamy finish. You can follow that with a lighter appetizer, including a heap of baby arugula, topped with julienned beats and thinly sliced fennel, and if you’re looking for a richer option, the 62.5° farm egg, a silky golden sunset over a puck of soy-lacquered farro, is a lesson in perfection. Unexpectedly, the foie gras is served seared, although pleasantly, on a bed of sliced bananas, and accompanied by a dollop of peppercorn meringue.
Entrées are just as intricate in flavor and composition. Vegetarians will be pleased to find a picturesque tower of heart of palm, which is built on a path of beluga lentils and spinach, and is dressed with a twirl of fried onions. Your waiter may tell you that the antelope is the chef’s signature dish, which pairs lean cuts of game with chunky cheddar grits, and is enriched with a trail of big bordelaise sauce. My table’s most celebrated entrée, though, is the sea scallops—four discs poached in garlic butter, doused in a tomato fondue, served with breaded and fried ricotta polpette, and then garnished with a squiggle of syrup made from pinot noir. It is delightful, and I marvel at the endless combinations of texture and flavor offered in each bite. The fish option should not be overlooked, either. On the night we dined, bass arrived over Southern Hoppin’ Johns, black eyed peas and diced corned beef spiked with a paprika broth, and served with a fried green tomato. This is Southern cooking, refined. Engaging.
Like the dishes that came before it, the desserts also have Southern roots. The butter pecan crème brulee is tailored with regional Firefly bourbon from a local distillery that’s a short drive away, and the delicate banana soufflé is draped in sorghum cane syrup, a molasses-like sweetener grown mostly in the South. If you’ve ordered the wine pairings, which you should, there’s nothing quite like finishing the meal with a sweet glass of sauternes and a swipe of something bleu off of the gorgeous cheese plate.
Service is impeccable, but void of any smugness. The sommelier, whose selections have a remarkable way of enhancing each dish, is knowledgeable and relaxed. It is an evening like this one that will remind you why fine dining matters. It’s not about the white linens, or the tie-clad waiters. It’s the feeling, as you make your way into the temperate lowcountry night, that you’ve just experienced something timeless. Something special.
Circa 1886, 149 Wentworth St Charleston, SC 29401. (843) 853-7828.