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Bites & Pieces: Circa 1875
The reasonably priced "French bistro" menu offers a wonderful range of casual fare and more upscale dishes

I don’t like to rush into a new restaurant to review. First, there are newbie bugs still being worked out. Second, the resulting review often causes a crush on the novice operator. I’ve seen this nearly close an unprepared restauranteur.

So, we’re a couple of months down the road from the opening of Circa 1875 Gastro Pub, the anticipated dining companion to the popular Circa 1875 pub next door. What immediately struck me was the comfort and “completeness” of the space. This little bistro, with seating on the main level and in a cozy basement dining room, feels as if it’s been in business for years. The lighting, the furnishings and the atmosphere are far more mature than the calendar would suggest.

But what about the food? The reasonably priced “French bistro” menu offers a wonderful range of casual fare and more upscale dishes. And while it’s an impressive menu — it’s not an overblown menu — and it’s certainly a range of choices you’ll find nowhere else in the city.

Ms. TJ’s onion soup was a classic in its piping hot little ceramic pot. Rich, flavorful broth was thick with slow cooked onions and comforting crouton. The melted cheese atop the entire dish was thick and gooey — what a heart–warming starter.

I began with sauteed chicken livers on top of brioche, caramelized Vidalia onions, quince preserves and a finish of natural pan sauce. Savory, rich and a bit earthy, the dish was perfect on every count, with a beautiful variety of textures and complex flavors. The dish hinted of solid country style with an elegant haute cuisine touch.

For its lamb dish, Circa 1875 went decidedly back–country French in choosing a lamb shoulder chop. This more rustic cut, with new potatoes, haricots verts and rosemary pan reduction would perfectly at home on a French farmer’s table, and plays pretty darned well on Whitaker Street. The lamb was richly flavored on its own, and plenty of fat, typical to a shoulder cut, added elements you won’t find in pristine little lamb lollipops.

For me the piece de resistance was my cassoulet. At its purest, this dish is slow simmered white beans that are seasoned perfectly and dressed with any variety of meats.

It’s a classic south of France peasant dish — and Circa 1875’s version is a foodie’s dream plate. The trinity of onion, carrot and celery season the beans, and the beautiful stew is topped with a fresh sausage link and confit duck leg. This dish is one built around complex flavors tendered by proper seasoning, natural fat and a chef’s patience.

It is rare to find on any menu, much less one in the Lowcountry.

Desserts are homemade. We were nearly full, but topped off our tanks with a couple of freshly made fruit pies ala mode.

For a quick, casual supper, try the Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in white wine, fennel, shallots, garlic and parsley butter. It’s simple, quick and the plump PEI mussels are brimming with flavor.

I could drone on and on, but let’s just go bottom line: The cassoulet is among the top five dishes I’ve ever eaten — anywhere, from any chef. The cassoulet alone could forge the reputation of this little bistro.

Service is as mature and polished as the atmosphere and food. The wine list offers several interesting choices and superb by–the–glass options.

48 Whitaker St./443–1875/