Simple Perfections At A Corner Bar And Restaurant
A neighborhood joint with an ardent following, Birches Restaurant does so many things right—menu management, meal execution, ambiance control—that it makes you feel better about criticizing restaurants that don’t. Few other places offer such a mix of tempting high-end and appealing moderately priced menu items, and most admirable is that Birches appears to lavish as much attention on the middle as the top.
The setting, a spiffed-up but still homey side-street corner bar, is at once refined enough to honor a culinary splurge and casual enough to facilitate a weeknight drop-in. Smokers and regulars dine in the red-oak cocktail lounge, where the walls, floors, and fixtures have a comforting, well-seasoned duskiness. Others take their meals in the square dining room, where such accents as woven rugs and birch branches help create a somberly pretty New England mood. The servers, who double as bartenders, wear their own comfortable clothes and exude neighborly sweetness.
Birches prides itself of the kitchen’s mastery of its seasoned hardwood grill, which turns out beautiful, if not exactly cheap, steaks and seafood. But neighbors and regulars know to show up on weeknights, when the restaurant offers a separate menu of wood-grilled burgers and pizzas, outfitted with the most thoughtfully considered selection of toppings—Gruyère, roasted shallots, smoked kielbasa, port-marinated horseradish—you’re likely to find anywhere in town. Even on a Saturday night, though, thrifty diners can make a meal from entrée salads, steak sandwiches, or quesadillas. And, still, if a house special proves irresistible—a crab pasta, a shrimp-and-scallop risotto—it’s available in a half-order. None of this is rocket science, but it’s a good way to run a business.
Through the winter months Birches runs a comfort-food contest, in which customers’ suggestions appear on the weekly changing menu. It makes for great everyday comfort food without getting all funny about it. The macaroni and cheese ($14) tosses elbow noodles with sharp Vermont cheddar and panko bread crumbs. It then gets baked off to the perfect point of warm crustiness. We chose to add in shallots and roma tomatoes—a good idea, as they helped mellow out and offset the sharp flavors. Wood-grilled shrimp and kielbasa are other toss-in options.
I could eat Birches’ steak sandwich every day; it’s the best one I’ve had in years. It begins with a sensibly sized, well-seasoned, and tender fillet, precisely cooked to a ruby rareness. (This almost never happens.) The steak is positioned on a toasted muffin and topped with Danish blue cheese and velvety roasted shallots, and complemented with an arousing port-marinated horseradish sauce and garlic-grilled asparagus spears.
Birches’ New England cobb salad ($15) is actually a cobb salad. This also almost never happens—the ingredients on a cobb salad should be separately arranged in adjacent rows; they’re often thrown together. And the ingredients in Birches’ version are stellar—maple dry-rubbed chicken breast, applewood-smoked bacon, fresh avocado, oven-roasted tomatoes. A beauty. I liked less Birches’ take on the Caesar salad ($6), which has thoughtful touches such as grilled onions but brings in the unnecessary and ultimately unrewarding innovation of a balsamic dressing.
We loved our appetizers: heavy-duty and beefy French onion soup ($7), topped with Gruyère; light and tender sweet-potato gnocchi ($9), glistening with sage browned butter; an exemplary crab dip ($13), warm and luscious, an ideal balance of spinach, artichoke, backfin, and spices; and thick slices of wood-smoked kielbasa ($10), served with maple-roasted garlic. All of these were as handsomely presented as they were toothsome. All of them showcased prime ingredients and expert technique.
Our server tipped us off to a dessert doozy, the “all-fired-up” chocolate cake ($9), which requires a 20-minute advance notice. I’ve had versions around town of the chocolate molten cake but none topped with a bourbon caramel sauce and none that made me go all goofy like this one.
Birches does possess one serious liability. Sitting at the bar is an ergonomic nightmare. The base of the bar itself curves out at the floor a good two feet, and the backless bar stools are too short, so that your torso has to remain in a perpetual curve to read a magazine or eat a bowl of soup. It’s really murder and it’s the only bad thing I can find to say about this great little place. Just remember to eat at a table.