I’m starting to think that tasting menus are a bit like buses. I spent the best part of a year in lockdown without a single night out and suddenly I had three of them booked in a row! Not that I’m complaining, of course. Good food and good wine were certainly high up on my agenda, as I was keen to brush off the Covid blues.
Our third post-lockdown tasting menu – now it just feels like bragging – was kindly gifted to us by CIRCA restaurant in Exeter. In exchange for our honest feedback, we were asked if we would like to sit down and enjoy their seven course, spring menu. Naturally, the answer was yes!
Cira occupies an extremely central location at 6 Northernhay Place. It means it’s perfect for parking in any of the major Exeter car parks and it’s also within easy, walking distance of the train station. The restaurant has undergone a significant renovation in recent years, with a dining room downstairs, and the introduction of a farm shop on the second level. The result is a cosy restaurant space that treads a careful line between relaxed and formal. Looking around, we spied a good deal of date nights and the occasional adult family.
Aside from the interior shuffle, the ethos of CIRCA remains much the same as it always has. Their menu is designed to showcase the abundance of quality produce on their doorstep, both farmed and foraged – with an emphasis on keeping food miles to a minimum. Their tasting menu changes every 6-8 weeks, and they also operate a nose to tail philosophy (procuring whole animals and then making the most of every part to avoid waste).
Our evening began at 7pm, when we were shown to our table and given a house aperitif, which was their own specially infused vermouth. A quick browse of the tasting menu for the night ahead confirmed that the chef was certainly ambitious, with several unusual flavour combinations and fermentations. For £60pp and an additional £35 for the wine flight, it was a touch more affordable than the other two tasting menus we had tried so far in 2021 but would still have to be quite something to make it worth recommending to you, the reader.
First up were some homemade sourdough and canapés. Usually, I think it’s a copout to list bread as a course of its own. However, thankfully CIRCA knows how to make a cracking sourdough, and the canapés were also a worthy start to the meal. Then, we were treated to a curious sounding course of ‘asparagus, dashi, cultured buttermilk, nettle, and seaweed salt’. If big portions are your thing, then you’ll be begging for more of this very nicely executed dish – as it was quite literally one piece of asparagus cut into segments and served in a seriously delicious butter sauce. Of course, I’d also question why you would book a tasting menu if you weren’t expecting tiny plates of food – it’s pretty much par for the course. Paired with this course was a sharp yet fruity white wine (a handcrafted Gruner Veltiner from Austria). This was an excellent match, as it perfectly cut through all that buttery goodness.
Next on the menu was ‘cured sea bream, elderflower, radish, and fermented gooseberry’. Again, this was a delicate portion, but it was also a very accomplished plate of food. I was starting to wonder who was behind these dishes, because it was already knocking the socks off one of the other tasting menus we had recently enjoyed (I won’t say where that was, but it was falling short of its fine dining credentials in comparison). For this dish, the wine pairing was a Dart Valley Reserve from Sharpham Estate. It was great that the sommelier included a local wine and it complimented the sea bream well.
The ‘chicken & hen’s egg raviolo, roasted chicken broth, lovage and wild garlic’ was by far the standout dish of the evening. I loved cutting into my raviolo to reveal the sunshine yellow of the still runny egg yolk. The flavour was intense and the whole dish was extremely moreish. It certainly gets top marks from me. This was also the course with the most unusual wine pairing, but curiously it was also our favourite wine of the night! For this chicken heavy dish, we were presented with COS Frappato. This was a gorgeous red with a really light and fruity flavour. According to my partner, it’s a classic Sicilian wine (I don’t know what that means, but I wanted more of it). I’m not convinced it paired all that well with the dish, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and both the food and the wine were delicious.
I suppose the next course is what you’d probably refer to as the ‘main course’. My partner and I opted for two different dishes here. I had the ‘hogget, sheep’s curd, black garlic, broad beans, pea tartare and honey’, whereas he had ‘lemon sole, pickled cider foam, cider poached mussels, sea beet oil, buttered jersey royals, and sea vegetables’. Honestly, both dishes were perfectly enjoyable, but not as strong as the start of the meal. They felt like a bit of a departure from the rest of the tasting menu, as the dishes which focussed on one ingredient really stood out. It’s a classic case of less is more. That being said, the hogget was really nicely cooked and the fish being cloaked in that pickled cider foam was a nice theatrical touch.
Finally, our dessert course was ‘spruce parfait, gorse flower sorbet, candied pine nuts, and spruce kombucha’. If that description leaves you feeling a little confused, you should try eating it. Frankly, it was a lot of flavours on one plate, and it felt a little overly ambitious. I liked almost all the elements separately (and chef clearly has the technical bits down) but I’m not convinced they came together as one cohesive dish. That being said, the Dr Loosen Late Harvest Riesling that was paired with this course was a great choice.
I hope I don’t sound too critical about these final two courses, because they were objectively well made. We just felt that the first few courses were much stronger. Overall, we had a very enjoyable evening at CIRCA and we will be returning. After a long time spent locked up indoors, an evening of adult conversation and quality dining was exactly what the doctor ordered and CIRCA certainly delivered on all of the above. It’s the perfect spot for dates nights and the atmosphere is exactly what we look for in a restaurant – nice enough to don your heels or jacket, but laidback enough to relax and enjoy yourselves. Couple all of this with friendly service and an ambitious kitchen team and I think you’re onto a winner. Keep up the good work CIRCA!
Book your own meal at circadevon.co.uk