Exactly a year ago, my wife and I were eating our way across Provence and the Luberon Valley, savoring every mouthful of "Notre 25th Anniversary Blowout de France," split into stays in Avignon and Apt.
À propos, we flew into Paris on Bastille Day 2019, which made July 14, 2020, more than a bit bittersweet. After all, "le 14 juillet" is effectively France’s independence day, a celebration of freedom from oppression, a seemingly precious commodity in our pandemic existence.
For Executive Chef David Landrigan and co-owners Jeffrey Downey and Donald Lubowicki, continued COVID-19 caution meant that Circa 1875 was closed for France’s National Day last week, which was also the tenth anniversary of the bona fide bistro’s dining room.
So unfortunate not to be able to celebrate properly and in place with patrons and loyal customers. Alas and alors.
"It’s disappointing," Chef Landrigan said in a phone interview this past Sunday. "But there’s a lot of that going on. Kids are having their birthday parties without their friends with them, so you take it in stride and just do the best you can."
"It was pretty sad for our regular customers," Downey added in a separate conversation, "but it would have been impossible to open because it’s inside."
Back on March 20, the prudent and pragmatic decision was made by Downey, Lubowicki, and the leadership teams at Circa and La Scala to stop service at both restaurants, and all stayed quiet on the European fine-dining fronts until about four weeks ago now.
At that point, no conflict was needed to bring these two countries’ cuisines together in our own backyard - just a global pandemic, of course - and the reopening of La Scala saw an aliment alliance, if you will, a hybrid menu that offers the best of both restaurants respective cartes available at the East 37th Street restaurant.
Fantasticò and formidable!
A MOVEABLE FEAST
When the decision was made to reopen La Scala for on-site service on June 17, Downey and Lubowicki posited the idea of bringing France to Italy.
"Towards the end of May," McLain recalled in a phone interview last Friday. "We started meeting once a week to game plan: what are we doing? When are we going to reopen? What’s that going to look like?"
Initially, there were hopes that Circa could reopen, too, but the strict social-distancing guidelines cut its capacity too drastically to cover costs with such limited revenue. Being a proper bistro, Circa is cozy, a charming quality not conducive to any sort of social-distancing set-up. Whitaker Street was not cleared to be part of the city’s outdoor dining program, and West Congress Lane lacks all semblance of ambiance.
"The more we thought about it and everybody got their heads together, then it just took on a life of its own," McLain said of ‘combining’ the two restaurants on La Scala’s property.
"At La Scala, we’ve got the space, so we can social distance, and it’s been pretty good for us," Downey said of this past month’s experience, adding that condensing operations to Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. has made sense.
From the outset, the plan the two chefs had for La Scala was to do seasonal menus using seasonal products, so what they are running with is a replication of what French and Italian summer folk would be supping on right now in Naples or Nice.
"It works out that a lot of those dishes have interchangeable ingredients," McLain said.
The menu changes weekly and is being updated on La Scala’s Facebook page, not the actual respective websites for the restaurants.
"It’s been great," said the La Scala Executive Chef of the four-plus weeks being back in service. "We’re really excited to have Circa staff here and doing a hybrid menu between the French side of things from Circa and what we normally do here with the Italian side.
"It gives the kitchen staff a great opportunity to learn things maybe they didn’t know, and front of the house as well, sharing what we do from both places."
"We’ve been [at Circa] thirteen years. We have a ton of regular customers," Downey said. "And that’s why we did this fusion menu, to try to offer some of Circa at La Scala.
"We’re doing okay, we’re surviving, which is good, but we’re also gaining customers who have not dined at La Scala, folks whose preconceived notions may have been that the restaurant was ‘too pricey’ or ’too fancy.’"
"It’s been good for us because we’ve been able to reinvent ourselves, so to speak, at La Scala," Downey explained. "And this also gives people [who] dine with us a taste of both restaurants."
"Most of all," McLain happily added, "the guests ultimately receive the greatest benefit because they get the best of both worlds."
Or countries, at least.
DEUX IS BETTER THAN UNO
Landrigan opened the kitchen and dining room at Circa 1875 ten years ago and has worn the top toque every day since.
"It’s not something you can get used to," he said of being closed these past four months. "Being a creature of habit, going into the restaurant every day for ten years, and then, all of the sudden, you’re not allowed to do it. It’s very surreal."
From 2016 to 2018, while the La Scala property was being fully renovated, reconfigured, and reconstructed into a restaurant, Landrigan helped design its kitchen but was too busy at Circa to spend much time in the new space.
For the time being, he is playing only "away games" as La Scala’s kitchen is being helmed by two truly incredible executive chefs, like having both Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes on the roster but being able to put them on the field at the same time.
Landrigan and McLean collaborate on the weekly menu that, unlike the customary menus overseas, comes with a half-dozen or more options for first and second courses.
"It’s not like you’re locked into just one or two things," McLain said of the fusion menu whose starters, entrées, and desserts comprise an even split between France and Italy.
In addition to the three courses for $32, the menu features some weekend specials and some additions, such as Circa’s recipe for moules-frites. Oh, those perfect frites.
"You can get that full bistro experience even though it’s here at La Scala," said McLain.
Landrigan explained his aim to produce parts of Circa’s carte that could be kept "in control, utilizing the farmers and what their products are" to create a prix fixe menu that "has had incredible response," according to Downey.
"David and I work really, really well together and enjoy working together. We’re very like-minded," McLain said of their combined efforts to put out menus that employ what is in season in Savannah but also is seasonable fare in France and Italy.
"I’m having a lot of fun working with David and the staff from Circa," added the chef who "literally helped build the walls and the tables" at La Scala and opened the kitchen in October 2018.
Traveling south with Landrigan is Sous Chef Ja’Derrick Reed, who holds that post at Circa and who had previously worked alongside McLain at Alligator Soul.
"When David really needed a good strong right arm, I said, ‘Ja’Derrick’s your guy’," said McLain. "I’m thrilled to have [him] back in my kitchen."
"We wanted to get people back to work the best that we could," Landrigan said of bringing some of his Circa crew down to La Scala. "It’s nice to be down there. We’ve got a great team. We’re all working toward the same goal, and we’re all in the same mind space."
He echoed McLain’s sentiments, saying that the collaborative process in the kitchen with his fellow executive chef has been fantastic, the two often coming up with the same ideas when they brainstorm the week’s game plan.
Of course, part and parcel of reopening has been the added attention to "above-board" sanitation and safety measures for crew and clientele alike.
"With all that kind of stress," Landrigan said, "it’s really nice not to be stressed out in the kitchen because we’re working together so fluidly."
FRANCE’S NEW HOME, FOR NOW
The two owners, the two executive chefs, and the two general managers had met regularly throughout the restaurants’ shutdown, keeping up with their staffs and even distributing food to employees, courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank, all the while planning as best they could for the days and weeks ahead.
"Two or three times, we thought we’d reopen Circa," Downey said, "and then the virus spiked. In our minds, we just can’t expose ourselves and our guests. To me, it’s just not a smart thing to do."
"People are watching what we post," he said of the interest in Circa’s physical resurrection.
"We’re looking forward to getting opened up and trying to get some normalcy back to our lives, but it’s an everyday thing," Landrigan added soberly. "We want things to get back to normal, but we’re making the best of it for what we have right now. That’s the most important thing."
"As a team, we’re trying to be mindful and trying to make the right decisions that are good for the whole," he said.
In the meantime, this field trip to another kitchen is allowing Landrigan to "refresh and restart food-wise."
"We get requests from people who want some other Circa dishes," he explained, "but we don’t want to lose the integrity of La Scala or Circa. Even though we’re sister restaurants, we want to keep their identities pretty much intact."
With a gentle laugh, he said that the trout and other dishes will "stay at Circa."
In the early days of closure, McLain and his La Scala team offered a 2, 4, 6, or 8-person family-style takeaway menu that just did not take off, and the Circa-La Scala hybrid is sticking with on-site service.
Fair enough: you do not really want Bouillabaisse Marseillaise or Cavatappi Pugliese to come to your house in a box, and these two special restaurants are about the entire experience, which means the setting sets the table.
Though it is hotter than Venus in Savannah right now, the outdoor spaces at La Scala are ample, tented, fanned, and comfortable for safe-distance dining, including two patios and a full-service bar on the Abercorn side.
Guests are also welcome in the downstairs dining rooms - socially distanced, of course - and in addition to the changing menu, Thirsty Thursdays offers specials on wine by the glass and the bottle.
For years, my wife has kept a journal to remember the little things. Over the last two weeks, as we have sat down to another home-cooked dinner, she has read her day’s entry from "Notre 25th Anniversary Blowout de France."
How wonderful it is to return there in her words.
How wonderful it will be to revisit Circa 1875 when the time is right for everyone. For now, we will always have La Scala, the continuation of a beautiful food friendship.