Birch (Providence, RI)
We went to Birch for dinner this weekend, and I thought folks might be interested in a report.
By way of background, Birch is located in the space formerly occupied by Tini on Westminster Street in downcity. Unsurprisingly, the seating format survived the transition--the tiny space is dominated by a single, u-shaped bar which seats approximately 18. Bartenders/servers work inside the U, diners sit cheek-by-jowl around the outside. Needless to say, this is not a good space for those with mobility challenges or those who, say, feel cramped flying coach. The closeness of the space is mitigated somewhat by the high ceiling, modern bar design, and neutral walls. Overall, the presentation is clean, urban, and chic.
Chef Ben Sukle is somewhat of a local culinary celebrity. A graduate of J&W, he's put out good food and creative menus at La Laiterie and The Dorrance, and he even staged (briefly) at Noma in Copenhagen. All of which is to say, he's got chops. Birch is a joint venture with his wife, Heidi, who is a lovely presence in the front of the house.
Moving on to the actual dining experience...We were warmly greeted by Heidi upon arrival and seated at the end of the bar. We were very happy with our seats, particularly my husband, who doesn't like sharing elbow space with other diners. Incidentally, Birch accepts reservations. It was busy Saturday night, even when the rest of downcity was a ghost town after scorching weekend.
They offer a few seasonal cocktails, a small but thoughtful craft beer selection, and a (surprise!) short wine list. I started with a Beach Plum, a delcious concotion of gin, lemon juice, beach plum petal syrup, and anise hyssop. It tasted like summer in a glass. My huspand enjoyed a craft IPA from a Utah producer. After that we moved on to a crisp, and reasonably priced, rose. All in all, we were completely satisfied on the beverage-front.
The menu is divided into starters and mains with about six options under each heading. My husband ordered pierogies, and I went for the Pt. Judith grilled squid. The pierogies were a hit--three to a serving, with bbq scallions, spicy mustard, and cheese. The flavors were big and bold and very satisfying. My squid was a good, solid dish, but somewhat less than overwhelming. The dish was served on a bed of fresh chopped fava beans, topped with 1 grilled squid cut into about 6 rings, paper-thin turnip rounds, and fresh oregano. According to the menu, it was also dressed with olives, though I had difficulty discerning any of their salty goodness (and to be honest, the dish really missed that extra bit of seasoning.) Based on the menu description, I expected this dish to pack a bigger flavor punch; between the olives and oregano and fava, I was expecting a refined spin on the type of seafood dish one might enjoy in southern europe at this time of year--in intensity of flavor, if not in presentation. Instead, I got a light, delicate dish, with respectfully handled ingredients. It was pleasant and (overly?) restrained, but it just wasn't what I was craving.
For entree, I ordered the vegetarian option on the menu: braised baby eggplant (wrapped in nori, I believe,) with sliced kohlrabi, quinoa, and roasted garlic sauce. Here were the flavors I was missing in the previous course! The (single, exceedingly petit,) eggplant was fork-tender and incredibly tasty, having been braised in a thick chinese-five-spice sauce. The quinoa was made in mushroom broth, also tasty, but the star of the plate was the roasted garlic sauce--thick and creamy and seriously flavorful. I could easily have eaten twice as much, but I'll get back to that later...
My husband ordered the quail, which had been brined in pickling liquid and perfectly fried. It was one of the best pieces of fried poultry we've ever tasted, in all its tiny perfection. It was served on a small bed of fresh vegetables, including sugar snaps and shitakes. My husband was pleased with his selection and ravenous for more.
And there's the rub. Neither of us are "big eaters," and we prefer modest portion sizes both at home and out to eat. Yet the fact remains that neither of us felt remotely satiated after our meal at Birch. I think a large part of the problem has to do with management of diner expectations. By splitting the menu into starters and mains, they created an expectation that the starters would be smaller and the mains larger. This is further underlined by the fact that starters cost $10 and entrees are around $18. Now, for food of this caliber at these prices, we obviously didn't expect TGIF portion sizes. However, I would hazard to guess that my husband's three pierogies, not including garnishes, were more substantial than his entire entree plate. My appetizer comprised about two tablespoonfuls of chopped fava beans, one sliced squid head, a quarter of a turnip, and seven oregano leaves, and my entree was about a teaspoonful of quinoa and a single baby eggplant (about one inch in diameter and 4 inches long.) All our plates were works of art, but it still feels a bit "off" when the appetizers are significantly larger than the entrees.
Birch would be much better served presenting all of the dishes under one heading as "small plates." Then, we could have ordered four or five (or even six!) plates to share. It wouldn't have been a hardship to taste more of the tantalizing options, and we might have actually left with satisfied appetites. As it was, I found my husband "grazing" in the kitchen a few minutes after we got home, and I was sorely tempted to join him! Unless me missed out on the massive dessert course, I think we would have needed to order at least one more savory course to feel somewhat satisfied, but it was too late to backtrack.
I will say, the level of service was exceptional. Our bartender/server was friendly, yet unobtrusive. Water was refilled promptly. Drinks were slow-coming, but lovingly crafted. Chef Sukle presented our entrees personally and inquired as to whether we were enjoying our meal, which was a nice touch. A woman in a party seated next to us mentioned, when asked, that she had not enjoyed the pierogies as much as had hoped, and they were removed from her tab with sincere apologies at the end of the meal. Incidentally, I overheard her mention that her swordfish entree "was the best thing ever."
Overall, I'm afraid my husband won't be returning to Birch with me in the near future, but I'll gladly go back for drinks and a sampling of dishes (both starters and mains) with friends. This is a lovely addition to the downcity dining scene, and with realistic expectations and clearer communication on the menu, I think diners will find a lot to love.
Update--Mr. Rhody (though he does not approve this moniker, being a proud son of CT...) and I returned to Birch this weekend, and we were hopeful that the good folks behind this restaurant would have worked-out their opening-month jitters. They did indeed.
In fact, they specifically addressed all of the niggling issues that made our first visit less than perfect. The result--an absolutely tremendous meal, and some of the most exciting food we've eaten this year.
We both felt that Birch corrected the problems of menu organization and serving size. Now, instead of dividing the menu into "appetizers" and "entrees," it's organized into four courses, a "salad" course, an appetizer course, an entree course, and dessert. The four-course meal is $46 (an incredible value, all things considered,) or you can order any item a la carte. They also provided a lovely amuse bouche of hushpuppies with a kale chip over homemade ranch--hot, crispy, and delicious.
We next noticed that the portion sizes for all four courses were notably larger (in some instances, double or even triple portions.) It was an ideal amount of food. We left perfectly satiated but not stuffed.
Every one of the eight dishes we sampled packed a serious flavor punch. There was no wishy-washy shaved squid this time around! Particular highlights included a roasted carrot "stuffed" with quohog in a decadent almond butter sauce; fork-tender suckling pig served in savory jus; perfectly crisped scup with tomatillo, corn, cabbage and miso sauce; and three presentations of chocolate pudding including dark, milk, and white-caramel. More intriguingly, many dishes skated right along the edge of the bizarre. For example my dessert (toasted cereal grains over a johnny cake, apple butter, cream, and meringues) was garnished quite liberally with lemon verbena and reminded me powerfully of our countertop cleaner--strangely delicious nonetheless. All this food was fun to eat and to think about!
The cocktails were just as lovely as the last time, and I particularly appreciated that they highlighted seasonal flavors and ingredients. The beer and wine were still great, and my husband was pleased to find his coveted IPA still available.
Service is still excellent. The folks behind the bar are attentive, but unobtrusive, which is important since they're essentially looming over you for the entire meal due to the restaurant's layout. Someone came out from the kitchen to present each plate and explain its components.
Birch deserves one thumb up for excellence and a second for being able to identify issues and implement improvements. It just didn't seem fair to let my earlier criticisms stand without acknowledging their efforts, hence this update. We're already looking forward to our next visit.
We had the same reaction from the Grange - hungry when we got home. I'm hoping restaurants find some middle ground as I am no fan of really big portions either. Speaking of the Grange - I got the mushroom po boy and the one thing I did not like about it and just couldn't get over was that the bun was cold. A grilled buttered bun really would've helped make the dish more substantial.
For me, the two most notorious small-portion offenders are Birch and the Dorrance, and they share a common denominator--namely, Chef Sukle. So I'm not sure if small portion sizes are a trend, but they are certainly his preference. Either way, it's always struck me as a bigger problem at the Dorrance. Maybe it's because the Dorrance is a more traditional restaurant; I just expect to get a square meal in that kind of sit-down, formal atmosphere. Birch is less problematic, to me, because it already looks like a trendy small-plates food bar, regardless of how they choose to organize their menu. They should just call a spade a spade, and leave it at that.
As for the Grange, we've never left hungry, but we usually order three small-to-medium plates to share and then two larger "entrees." We were steered in this direction by our server upon our first visit, and we've stuck to it for subsequent meals. So far, it's worked out well, and it certainly costs less than Birch.
@Jenkins--I actually really enjoy the Grange po'boy, but your suggestion for improving it by toasting/buttering the pretzel roll is a winner; my mouth is watering just thinking about it!
@Garris--Thank you for your kind comment!