GEORGETOWN — On March 13, Rodney Jones had been Circa 1840's chef for only a few days.
This restaurant, a beautifully refurbished house, is a new sort of space for Jones, who has worked in environments ranging from grill shacks to modern minimalism. Here, all the rooms, some with 19th-century mantelpieces and dripping chandeliers, make a color statement, from cool greens to warm tans. The overall effect suggests several separate mini- restaurants, each with distinct visual interest.
Unifying these myriad moods is the signature hand of Jones, who is among the Bluegrass's most consistent chefs and grillmeisters.
Here at Circa, warm bread, the wine list (without vintages) and menus arrive promptly.
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Appetizers include Jones' "rockin rock shrimp" ($9), light, flash-fried little morsels that melt in your mouth with briny deliciousness. Equally rocking was the accompanying hot-sweet mayonnaise with an Asian influence. Its gratuitous garnish of wilted mixed greens, however, should either freshen up or go.
"Soufflé" is mysteriously code for "dip," but this misnomer doesn't detract from the enjoyment of steaming-hot artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and capers in a thick cheese sauce ($9). I would have preferred toast points with this Mediterranean-style starter rather than the distinctly Southwestern blue corn tortilla chips.
Yet the best is to come with an entrée from the grill.
Circa's pork tenderloin ($16), for instance, was treated with an ancho and chipotle rub for smoky heat, then accentuated with a creamy chipotle-cumin sauce, a handful of scallion rings and some tomato slices. Now that makes me think Southwestern.
But steak is what to order here.
Try the butcher's cut rib-eye ($28), superior beef, seared and ever so slightly charred, but rosy and soft as butter inside. Its sauce — a silky, light demi-glace — lacked expected sherry flavor or notes of roasted garlic. The result was merely salty — if rich — gravy. And, with great producers like Sheltowee Farms nearby, I await a more interesting variety of the "wild" mushrooms in this dish.
All main courses include two sides, or a side and salad.
The goat cheese salad is $8 a la carte, or $2 extra with the entrée. This is a fabulous option for vegetarians: a generous plate of fresh salad greens, with a whole disc of chevre, breaded and deep fried, creating a crunchy crust around a creamy interior.
It comes with a berry vinaigrette, which is ordinarily too sweet for my tastes, but this one had a concentrated raspberry essence without the syrupy quality. Any sugar was saved for a scattering of candied walnuts — delicate little sweetmeats — on top.
Speaking of salads, the house slaw — a triple julienne of al dente sweet potatoes, red onions and tomato — had a pleasant subtle crunch without crass raw flavor. It was original and refreshing.
Circa's corn pudding was almost like a crème brûlée: little yellow kernels in fluffy custard with a top suggesting crystallized sugar. Forget about the baked potato, though; aluminum foil might look fancy, but it ruins the skin by making it soggy.
Predictably, the menu's sweetest item was dessert, in this case a moist and dense red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting ($7). Raspberry coulis gave a tart counterpoint, and fresh blueberries were bright with ripeness.
Although Lexingtonians must now travel farther to sample Jones' talents, the experience rewards the drive. Plus, I hear that Circa has plans for outdoor dining.
Now tell me, what is better on a balmy summer night than dining alfresco to the tempting aroma of great grilled food?
A four-course meal with two glasses of wine, including tax but not tip, was about $90.