I was looking forward to making another visit to Birch, the new Providence restaurant that may be tiny but has already created a large buzz. In Rhode Island vernacular, Birch is where Tini’s used to be (and before that, a New York System). Chef Benjamin Sukle most recently wowed diners as executive chef of The Dorrance, garnering praise from high-profile admirers such as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and the James Beard foundation. Ben left The Dorrance to open Birch with his wife, Heidi, in mid-June. Birch describes itself as “modern American cuisine rooted in classical technique, with dishes made from the best of our region’s seasonal environment.”
We began our visit with the cocktail list, which is creative and tempting. I sipped a Buho & Berry ($10), made with mezcal, gooseberry, agave and lime. The mezcal and gooseberry combination offered a smoky depth without getting too heavy for summer. My husband ordered the Goosefoot ($8), a vodka-based cocktail flavored with sorrel and lemon balm. I’ve been a fan of sorrel since plucking it from my mom’s garden as a toddler, and the drink accurately captures the leaf’s green brightness.
Birch’s menu is updated often to showcase seasonal ingredients. It’s divided into first, second, third and fourth (dessert) courses, with the option of doing a fixed price $46 four-course dinner or ordering a la carte. On this visit, we each had two savory courses and a dessert, plus the hush puppy treat that arrived before our meal.
My husband started with the Early Summer Tomatoes ($10), a mixture of sungolds and red cherry tomatoes over a crouton puree, bathed in a Parmigiano and whey dressing. The dressing was so addictive; it was fortunate we had a spoon. I chose the Shaved Scallop ($10), which ended up being my favorite dish of all that I’ve tried at Birch. Tender strips of scallop were combined with creamy avocado pieces and thin radish slices, all sprinkled with black sesame seeds and served beautifully in a large scallop shell. It was as attractive as it was delicious.
For my second course, I had the Young Eggplant ($18), braised in Chinese spices and served alongside a dollop of roasted garlic puree and quinoa topped with thin, tenderly cooked slices of kohlrabi. It appeared small but turned out to be just the right amount. My husband tried the Crispy Vermont Quail (also $18), fried and paired with sugar snap peas and shiitake caps. We learned the quail had been in a brine similar to dill pickle juice, giving it a slight tangy bite that complemented the fried coating. By staff recommendation, we paired these with a glass of Gandia El Miracle Grenache and a Goose Island Summertime Kölsch, respectively.
For dessert, we ordered the Japanese Cheesecake ($10) and Triple Chocolate Pudding ($10). I’m not much of a cheesecake fan, but Japanese cheesecake is fluffy and more soufflé than gooey, creating a pleasant foundation for tart raspberries. The trio of puddings – toasted white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate – was served with rhubarb sorbet, peanuts and oat crisps. I expected the sorbet to be distracting, but it paired well.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people about Birch since its opening; some people don’t know what to make of high-end cuisine housed in such a small space. After some consideration, I think it’s brilliant, and here’s why: Birch’s size creates a focused, deliberate environment in which diners can be immersed in the dining experience. You’re not being brushed by a large group as they are ushered to table 42. Nobody is shouting panicked orders across the restaurant and you won’t be neglected in a dark corner. You are always an arm’s reach from someone who knows the menu inside and out, and the front of the house staff operates in a calm, intentional way that sets diners at ease.
Many other aspects of Birch are intentional as well, such as the dishes, which were created for the restaurant by a Rhode Island School of Design potter. On my visits I’ve felt that each dish is an invitation to engage the senses – very consciously conceptualized, composed and presented. The decor, natural and almost austere, allows food be the focus.
A few tips: Diners should be comfortable with bar seating. The U-shaped bar seats 20 and groups can be seated around a corner for easier interaction. Birch takes reservations on their website and I’d recommend it, since seating is limited. These days you can often sneak in early without a reservation, but that probably won’t last.
Since their menu is constantly evolving, I look forward to returning to Birch because who knows what their food future holds. There is only one way to find out.
On September 3, Birch will be heading to Sweet Berry Farm for Outstanding in the Field, a traveling event which pairs chefs with farms for a farm tour, cocktails, and dinner. Tickets can be purchased online.