In a blur of an afternoon in the kitchen at Circa, chef/owner John Bragg is coming across as pleasantly agitated. He's agreed to take my husband and me on a journey into his culinary past, putting together recipes inspired by the dishes he cooked at the very beginning of his career at the much-missed vegetarian joints Babylon Café and La Montagne.
This circling back has a purpose: Bragg will be hosting a five-course wine dinner featuring tasting portions of fine vegetarian dishes on Wednesday, September 3rd, at Circa. In addition, he's offering a vegetarian tasting menu on Sunday evenings now through September 7th.
Beginning his career cooking strictly French cuisine at La Tourelle starting in the late 1980s, Bragg often escaped to Babylon Café, which was located on Union behind what was then Seessels and closed in the early 1990s.
"I was just passing through," Bragg says. "No one ever hired me there. There was no office at Babylon. It was like, 'This dude will show up and do something, and we'll let him.'
"It was trial-and-error cooking," he continues. "There would be no recipe and no guarantee that you'd be able to reproduce what you had cooked if you wanted to."
For a guy who has never, ever identified himself as a vegetarian, it seems that this particular style of cooking always seemed to find him. Bragg's next gig, running La Montagne on Park Avenue from 2003 to 2005, extended his involvement in cooking vegetarian (meat dishes were offered as well). Oatbugers, "Spinach Fantasy," and pesto pasta primavera were standouts at La Montagne, and ordering the restaurant's tofu fajitas was always a sure bet.
In fact, the re-creation of those dreamy La Montagne fajitas is our first request that afternoon in Circa's kitchen, and they make our faded memories of the dish come to life. Other dishes appear: an ancho chile pastry dough cradling a rich filling of greens, mushrooms, and red peppers for an eggless spin on traditional quiche; a hummus appetizer revitalized by the addition of black beans and sambal; and lastly, a red curry-coconut soup, offering layers of creamy flavor with galanga, a more insistent, slow-burning cousin of ginger root that acts as a spicy, earthy complement.
This is the kind of fine vegetarian food that could convert even the most carnivorous.
The September 3rd dinner will feature the red curry-coconut soup and a wheat gluten "duck" cassoulet, which is certain to be a dish most of us will be tasting for the very first time. Unique takes on savory flan, spring rolls, and crepes are on the menu as well.
While we watch Bragg work out his last inventive touches — placing a delicate fried basil leaf on top of the red curry-coconut soup, swirling a half-moon of pico de gallo beside the fajita filling — it's clear that this open-to-anything chef marries his training in fine cuisine with techniques from his days making hearty vegetarian food.
Why does he continue to be interested in smudging the line that divides the two sides?
"What's good is good," Bragg replies. "It's okay to have fun with this stuff."
The September 3rd dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. and is $75 with wine, $55 without (plus tax and gratuity). For reservations, call 522-1488.
Circa, 119 S. Main (522-1488)