Monday, June 22, 2015

2015 High, So Far

Day 6 of a summer cold, so I'm camped out on my couch, cranky, binging True Detective, and remembering just how delicious birch was last Friday.  (Day 3, back when I had an appetite and barely any symptoms.)  After a disappointing meal at Community Table the night before, we had hopes for better, but birch blew past our expectations to become our favorite dining experience of the year so far.  Ten dishes, no misses.

Adam posed his usual "anything different, interesting, weird?" wine question, eliciting a great rec for the surprisingly smokey 2011 Guido Marsella Fiano di Avellino.  (Almost meaty, particularly surprising for a white.)  Meanwhile, I'd started with the Royal (rye, chamomile, amontillado sherry, lemon and Angostura bitters), very nice.

Adam thought the tempura frying was unnecessary on the asparagus that in turn overpowered the delicate rhubarb-sunflower foam.  I disagreed; I loved the crisp texture, and thought the foam was a nice, bright secondary element to the asparagus that was great scooped up on its own after.  (I defended the bowl from being cleared after we'd eaten the asparagus while Adam tasted the wine so that we could eat it all.)  
Crispy Asparagus
Rhubarb-Sunflower Foam and Chive Blossoms

I loved the deceptively simple salad; honey sweetness balanced the lettuce's slight bitterness.  Lettuce pesto.  (Adam and I debated which dish in each of the first two courses we preferred -- I voted lettuce and spinach, he voted asparagus and peas -- a testament to the strength of the menu.)  The dish that most exceeded my expectations from the menu description, which is why I gave it the edge over the asparagus.  
Brushed with Honey, Kombu, Celtuce and Toasted Almond

We were instructed to mix the rice -- which was pleasantly stuck-to-the-pot crunchy, dusted with scallion-lemon verbena powder -- into the delicious asparagus-nasturtium flower broth.
Grilled Asparagus
Hop Shoots, Nasturtium, Sugar Kelp and Heirloom Rice

The second course was even stronger than the first.  The peas has been an obvious choice, but we'd settled on the spinach over the radishes on a server's (correct) recommendation.  (We were helped throughout the course of the meal by two lovely women, one of whom seemed to be more of a server and one who seemed to be in more of a somm/bartender role.  The U-bar jewel box of a space lent itself to staff interaction, which was casual, friendly, and informative in exactly the way we most enjoy.)  The broth -- potato skin, clam, onion -- was awesome.  The citrus sedum -- a succulent! -- added a novel hit of brightness.
Lightly Warmed Spring Spinach
Grilled Quahog Clam, Sea Rocket Capers, Potato and Yogurt

Sadly, it turned out that the peas' broth contained chicken stock -- we were informed after we'd ordered but before it was served, but Adam voted to turn a blind eye, as he often does with stocks -- which I can't imagine was necessary given the strong brininess imparted by the caramelized crab and pureed scallop.  A great contrast of springy pea sweetness and seafood savoriness, but I found it less subtle than the spinach.
Sweet Peas
Preserved Shellfish, Cherry Blossoms, Spruce and Brown Butter

Although we were initially disappointed that the scup contained meat, leaving us with only one option for the third course, I am so glad that I didn't have to share the cabbage.  (Let's ignore the possibility that the fish was as good or better.)  "This is the best cabbage dish you've ever had," we were told when it was set down in front of us.  And it was.  The classic rustic combination of cabbage and apple rendered into a perfect, complex balance of caramelized sweetness, pickled sourness, grilled and toasted notes -- Adam picked out cumin seeds -- richness without heaviness.  (It was also unexpectedly good with the wine.)
Lightly Grilled Cabbage
Caramelized Sauerkraut, Rutabaga, Toasted Seeds and a Broth of Dried Apples

I was legitimately sad as I finished my cabbage, both because it was so good and the meal was winding down, but Adam then asked the excellent question of whether we could, for a supplement, add the two dishes that we hadn't ordered.  (A very enthusiastic yes; service was really excellent.)  Huzzah.

I agreed with Adam that the radishes got the three of the second course options, but I think they exceeded expectations more than the peas did (which got my two).  (I realize that I keep talking about expectations, but birch just kept outperforming them.)  Radish stems and buttermilk sauce over grilled radishes and pickled slivers.
Grilled Radishes
Cured Cucumber Radish, Dill and our Cultured Butter

The melty cheese was triple creme-like in texture (I didn't catch the name); sweet caramelized quince and crispy turnip chips balanced its richness well.  A great plated cheese.
Cato Corner's Cheese
Lightly Warmed with Crispy Turnips and Quince

We asked for dessert wine suggestions; the recommended Dolin Blanc for the strawberries and the Westport Rivers "Grace" (a dessert Chardonnay) for the whey paired so well that we're definitely curious to do a full pairing on a future visit.  (I love Dolin Blanc; there's a half-finished bottle of it in my fridge right now, but I don't usually drink it straight.  Surprisingly versatile and lovely with the strawberries, which I'll remember.)  A wallop of spring fruitiness -- strawberries, strawberry-cherry blossom puree.  I love corn in desserts; corn nuts and a nicely crisp Johnnycake added a savory note.
Dried Corn and Cherry Wood Ice Cream

Ever since Kadeau, any mention of whey immediately entices me, but I didn't know what to expect from the description.  Light rhubarb foam enveloped a block of frozen caramelized whey -- like a rich, dense ice cream.  A bed of tiny, crunchy grains added a third textual element.  Excellent.
Caramelized Whey
Rhubarb, Crispy Grains and Dried Herbs and Flowers

My one complaint: the whoopie pies were totally fine, but not more than that.  I'm confident that the kitchen is capable of a more exciting end.  (Even something as simple as a flavored cream in the middle -- whipped coconut cream, perhaps?)
Whoopie Pies

At $49 for four courses (plus a very reasonable supplement for our two additional dishes), birch is a great value.  Midway through dinner, we were already trying to figure out excuses to visit Providence again (a visit to Dan and Danielle in Boston? tack it on to a weekend in Portland?).  We asked if they served lunch (no); we'd have actually driven back from Newport before the wedding had it been an option.  Just a fantastic experience.  


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