Circa in postcard-pretty Cazenovia, near Syracuse, NY

Cazenovia, a picturesque village in upstate New York with a well-preserved downtown district, has a long-standing tradition of being a hotbed of reform movements going back to the mid-nineteenth century when it played a key role in the abolition movement, including hosting the famous 1850 abolitionist meeting known as the Fugitive Slave Law Convention.  Today, several upscale restaurants and inns call the village home along with a well-attended farmers market on Saturdays on the village green.  With this local culture, it is fitting that Chef Alicyn Hart blends Cazenovia’s famous activism, now channeled into the local foods movement, and a longstanding tradition of fine dining in the village, once a popular resort town with its four mile long Cazenovia Lake.

Chef Hart and her husband Eric Woodworth opened Circa in 2006, and as the name suggests, the restaurant strives to offer the freshest local ingredients from the region “round about.”  The seasonal menu changes weekly and highlights the best products available from local farmers, including the chef’s husband and co-owner Eric Woodworth, who contributes directly to the dishes served at Circa by raising chickens and pigs and managing a half-acre garden of vegetables. Circa’s guiding philosophy of fresh, local, and artfully prepared cuisine makes full use of the regional bounty of produce, meats and local cheeses and dairy, with most of the local purveyors within a twenty-mile radius of the restaurant, including elk raised by the Back-Forty Elk Farm in nearby Deruyter, NY.

Situated in a corner storefront in a historic building on Albany Street (also known as Route 20 which cuts across upstate New York from Buffalo to Albany), Circa offers a warm and inviting atmosphere with relaxed, but finely detailed surroundings.  Pressed tin panels line the walls and recall the building’s nineteenth century roots while the tables and bar are made from reclaimed wood from a local barn.  Several cozy window tables offer diners a view onto the bustling downtown while local artwork on the walls and a cozy bar nestled in the corner provide warmth and a refuge for regular customers.  True to its mission, Circa even has a small market with many local products from cheeses and cured meats to house-baked breads, meatloaf, and roasted chicken available for those who want a quick take-out meal.  The small, but reasonably priced wine and beer list offers a nice complement to the food although no New York wines currently make an appearance, which was surprising since there are many fine vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York not too distant from Cazenovia.  The Ommegang (Belgian-style) and Cooperstown (English-style Ales) breweries feature prominently on the beer list and with good reason as these local favorites are brewed in Cooperstown, the home of the Baseball Home of Fame, which is only an hour’s drive east of Cazenovia.

A recent visit to Circa on a Wednesday evening was an agreeable outing.  We arrived in town a few minutes early for our reservation and took the opportunity to window shop the several galleries and shops along Albany Street.  Upon our arrival at the restaurant, our cheerful waiter greeted us and offered us our choice of seats as the dining room was only about a third full.  Prompt and efficient service informed us that the fresh local asparagus was not available, and a further inquiry revealed that the elk was also unavailable which was a disappointment to this diner, who was intrigued by the inclusion of the largest living deer on Circa’s menu.  A bottle of Cooperstown Backyard IPA ($5), served at the more traditional room temperature was an excellent way to start as the aroma of hops and flavors of the beer weren’t suppressed by chilling.  A large basket for bread proved to be misleading however as three small, cold pieces accompanied by a small, but delicious pat of butter, were all it contained.  The sight of fresh, large loaves in the kitchen made this even more disappointing.  While delicious, a little more warm bread would have been a nice way to start the meal, especially since the organic butter was the richest and creamiest I’ve ever had.  Efficient service regularly refilled our water and cleared our plates.

Several dishes passed by while we were waiting, including what looked to be very delicious and popular beef short ribs.  We started with the French lentil samosas served over pea sprouts with a curried lemon yogurt ($6).  Two samosas offered an intriguing palate teaser.  The yogurt offered strong notes of cumin and a subtle, but distinct tang that went well with the more subdued taste of the lentils.  The samosas themselves sounded promising, but the very thin wonton dough was overcooked making them very tough to cut and slightly burnt at the edges.  A thicker dough or less cooking time would have greatly improved a dish that sounded delicious.  Our main courses were much better.  I ordered the grilled chicken quarter, which was billed as the first of the season free-range after a snowy winter, and of course local, with a side of Moroccan couscous, kalamata olives, mint, and feta ($16).  My companion decided on the red Thai curry shrimp which featured six wild caught large shrimp in a coconut milk, red curry, jasmine, cilantro, basil sauce with finely sliced red peppers and shallots over rice ($17).

The chicken breast was beautifully de-boned and perfectly roasted with a nice golden color.  Hints of mint and rosemary added nice flavor to a moist and tender bird.  The couscous side was light and flavorful and matched the chicken nicely.  While the chicken was delicious, the curry shrimp was the star dish of the meal.  Each shrimp was perfectly cooked and remained tender.  The added flavor of wild caught shrimp provided just enough natural saltiness to remind us of their ocean origins.  Razor thin slices of shallots and red peppers provided a nice crunchiness to balance the tenderness of the shrimp.  The steamed rice was similarly revelatory of the kitchen’s technical skill as it was soft with an almost creamy texture at the peak of being cooked without being overdone.  Each flavor of the herbs, shrimp, and spices was discernible without being overpowering.  It was the single best curry dish I’ve sampled in quite some time.

With tax and tip, the total for our very pleasant meal that included two drinks, appetizer, and two mains was $64.   Chef Hart and her staff demonstrated that there is a strong core of talent at Circa that can blend the philosophy of local food with the abilities of skilled culinary technicians (Ethan Bennett, 6/3/11). [Circa Restaurant, 76 Albany Street (Rt 20), 315.655.8768, Lunch and Dinner: Tues-Sun 11:00AM-10:00PM, www.circarestaurant.net ]

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