Monday, November 23, 2015

This Birch Leaves You Hungry For More

Providence’s Birch has garnered much acclaim since its opening two years ago, right next door to the city’s other revered fine dining restaurant, Gracie’s. Whereas the latter treats its customers like royalty in a more grandiose setting (i.e. tables sparkling with confetti, complimentary amuse bouches throughout the meal, free valet parking, complimentary house baked chocolate chip cookies left in one’s vehicle), the former aims for delivering serious Modern American cuisine, albeit in a minimalist setting and with smaller portions at a similar price point (4 course prix fixe at $49). Is Birch worth the price of admission?

               Chef Benjamin Sukle is considered a big deal in these parts, having previously worked at the Dorrance and apprenticed at one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurant’s, Copenhagen’s Noma. Therefore, one expects big, bold flavors, unique ingredients, and beautiful presentations. Sukle’s wife, co-owner and GM Heidi, happily greets customers at the bar.

               The restaurant’s vibe is casually chic, resembling a sushi bar with a U-shaped, illuminated counter that tightly seats 20 customers (the squeaking sound of seats moving in and out evokes nails on a chalkboard). A friendly, knowledgeable bartender mixes a small list of well-balanced, potent cocktails. Notable options ably blend drier spirits with citrus flavors, from the Royal ($10), consisting of rye, chamomile, sherry and lemon to the Scarborough ($12), which has bourbon, chartreuse, and lemon. Back to that sushi bar theme, Ginjo sake ($12) has a nice clean finish and makes for a refreshing beverage when mixed with dolin blanc and lime.

               Terrific flavors, however, are often overshadowed by petty portion sizes. Sukle himself brings out a chip (yes, one chip) as an amuse bouche. While the preparation and flavors of this chip are intriguing (made of mushroom, filled with apple butter and black garlic), it can only be enjoyed in one small bite. When Sukle states that it is okay to use one’s hands to eat the chip, I almost burst out laughing, thinking to myself, “As opposed to the tweezers I’d need to pick this up?” There is no starch provided at the meal (bread, breadsticks, crackers, anything!), and most courses offer only 3-4 bites apiece. Rhode Island mushrooms with teeny-tiny chicken hearts (and maybe a miniature hazelnut or two) are delicious, but as the elderly Wendy’s spokeswoman once said, “Where’s the beef?” My favorite course is a lovely, tender Rhode Island fluke grilled on the bone with broccoli and potato, but it is gone in 4 bites. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My wife enjoys a nicely cooked suckling pork, but it is a very small, nondescript piece that sits rather limply on the dish and to me, tastes overseasoned with salt.

               Desserts are also whimsical in execution but restrained in portion size, including the Apple, which is a smashed version of the fruit laced with raspberry sauce.

               If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, Birch has the potential to be that dining destination. But with portions bordering on pretentious, it’s difficult to recommend. Birch is Providence’s version of Clio, which boasts fascinating flavors and culinary techniques, but portions at unsustainable price points that literally leave you hungry for more. Clio is sadly closing its doors at the end of this year, and I am hopeful that the Sukle’s will take their cue from the public’s disdain for overpriced cuisine. While in life, sometimes less is more, at Birch, more is desperately needed.