The gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that greeted the news that Julian Gerner's Melbourne Pub Group (Newmarket, Albert Park, Middle Park Hotels) had bought St Kilda's Prince of Wales Hotel was more about the fate of the Prince's Bandroom than its long-time flagship restaurant Circa. But though restaurant-goers might be less likely to take to the streets over a perceived threat to a beloved venue than music fans, there was never any doubt that Circa post-John van Haandel would also be closely watched. That Paul Wilson, now executive chef of the group casting a long shadow over the Melbourne dining scene, was setting the agenda at yet another restaurant made things all the more intriguing. In which direction was he going to move?
The first and most obvious difference to this incarnation of the restaurant - and one that should have even the most change-averse Circa-philes throwing their hands up in hosannas of praise - is that the dining room has been moved back to the front of the building, and the courtyard now plays the role of bar. The excellent balconies overlooking Fitzroy Street are set for lunch and dinner now, which is bringing an outdoorsy, seaside breeziness to the place and helping to reinstate Circa's sense of connection to the neighbourhood.
The gauzy curtains in the dining room have gone, giving the beautiful, original etched-glass windows status in the pared-back room. Oak tables of various shapes and sizes are left bare and seating is a combination of moulded, metal-legged chairs and charcoal upholstered couches. Walls are white and scattered with the black-and-white work of artist Thomas Jeppe, while the floor - a lovely honey-coloured worn timber - brings an attractive, relaxed yet luxurious feel to the room.
It's still an elegant space but there's no doubt that this version of Circa feels more flexible and accessible than its multi-starred predecessors. And this accessibility carries through to other parts of the business too, particularly when it comes to the menu's structure and prices.
As with the other dining rooms under his Pub Group watch, Paul Wilson has based the menu at Circa on a particular theme, sometimes presenting it in a literal fashion and other times riffing on it through the use of side dishes and condiments. This time the dial is set to Pacific Rim, a style that includes a whole grab-bag of big-flavoured influences from LA to Vietnam to Japan to indigenous Australia and also gives Wilson the opportunity to include some of the most trend-driven food from around the traps all in one place. True, at times the menu feels a little too carefully constructed, like it's been put together with the help of a focus group, but because Wilson is such a skilled and committed chef with an understanding of what makes these dishes tick beyond their fashionability, the food sidesteps most of that cynicism.
The first section of the menu is where all this is played out most vividly. Here an impressive number of dishes are divided into four sections - Raw and Preserved Foods; Global Street Food; Hot, Cold and Spicy; and Circa Yakitori - with most of the dishes available in three sizes, starting at a bargain $10 for the smallest yet still generous portion.
One of the best of these dishes is a cold soba noodle salad, a gorgeous twist of slippery noodles tossed with warm sea urchin roe and unpasteurised Yarra Valley salmon roe, topped with shaved bottarga and held together by a mullet and dashi stock thickened with a little Japanese mayo, dried seaweed and sea urchin. It's a powerful dish, fishy and sensuous with just the right amount of sweetness to keep it friendly.
Wilson tosses big flavours about with abandon in the tempura soft shell crab sitting on top of some blini-like kimchi pancakes. The house-made kimchi is overly polite but its texture and that of the tiny pieces of slightly chewy smoked pork in the pancake keep things humming along, as does the accompanying spicy carrot sauce. And the crunchy flurry of nashi pear and green mango perched on top adds refreshing sweet and sour elements to the conversation. Punchy flavours also abound in the ma po-style prawn and clam stew. Served in the clam shells (they're big ones from New Zealand's Cloudy Bay), the thick stew is filled with chopped prawn and clam meat, silken tofu and salty black beans and is wonderfully fortifying with a decent amount of Sichuan-style heat.
With all that salt and spice flying around, a Thai-Vietnamese-inspired fragrant melon salad comes as refreshing relief, a simple pretty pastel dish of cubes of melon tossed with green mango shreds, peanuts and lime leaves dressed with a reasonably gentle nam prik-style sauce.
Many of the most on-trend flavours on the Circa menu come courtesy of the woodfired robata grill that Wilson's had installed in the kitchen and is training the team, led by Jake Nicolson (head chef in Circa's previous incarnation), to use. The grill is perhaps at its finest applied to the Roy Choi-inspired Korean taco, which, as box-ticking as it may appear to be, is one of the not-to-miss items on the list. It's an interactive, assemble-it-yourself dish. The short ribs are cut osso buco-like across the bone, and the meat - smoky, tender and easy to chop into bite-sized chunks for the taco - glistens with a caramelised marinade of soy, ginger, garlic and nashi pear. This is teamed with a house-made soft taco, a carefully shaped iceberg lettuce cup, a shiso leaf and a couple of condiments - kimchi, a traditional Korean ginger and shallot relish, and a nicely spicy "Mexican harissa" made from charred tomatoes and capsicums that give it a beautiful smoky roundness of flavour.
The robata also gets a work-out on the yakitori section of the menu (the skewers of log-grown shiitake mushrooms are a highlight) and in main courses such as tasting portions of wagyu (including Blackmore's full-blood beef cooked over mesquite wood) and fish of the day cooked over apple wood and served with seaweed butter.
Wilson also dabbles with indigenous Australian ingredients to pretty good effect. Excellent loin of Gippsland lamb is grilled and coated with a pesto-like crust of native thyme, breadcrumbs, butter, garlic and anchovies and then served with a vibrant green purée of warrigal greens and wood-barbecued vegetables. Yakitori duck is spiced with wattle seeds. And, perhaps most successfully, a complex bavarois flavoured with lemon aspen is teamed with lemon curd, hibiscus ice-cream, fresh raspberries and shards of meringue and served in a stemmed glass. Not all of Wilson's desserts are so fey. His excellent salted-caramel ice-cream served with chocolate sauce and caramel popcorn is one for those who like to finish things with a big sugary bang.
Self-assembly, eating with fingers, rolling up of sleeves and chest-thumping flavours take more prominence here than at previous Circas, and for those who remember the room in its less robust forms, this more inclusive, flexible path might seem a little confronting. Fortunately this is no baby-and-bathwater scenario and the things that have always been strengths at Circa - the service and the wine list - remain as enduring as the beauty of the room.
There are some vague drink-match suggestions on the menu ("Global Street Food with Artisan Beers and Cocktails") that seem more in debt to that slightly irritating focus group again than anything particularly useful. What is useful is that the lengthy benchmark-studded list (there are four pages of grand cru Burgundies) also includes a two-page sommelier's selection that not only cuts down on the reading time but also directs you to wine that's particularly friendly with the flavours here. If even two pages seems like too much trouble, the wine service, like the service in general, is charming, helpful and witty. It's a style that fits well with the whole Circa approach.
Just by being part of a stable of upmarket pubs and sharing an executive chef with all of them, it seems inevitable that Circa will show signs of belonging to a chain. Certainly there are Wilson trademarks on the menu, and the casual but precise approach in the dining room is becoming a Julian Gerner trope, but this incarnation feels like the right one at the right time. Just as when it first arrived and there was not much else like it in St Kilda, now there's not much else of this quality at these prices. It seems Circa may have come full circle.