Creating a menu is no light matter for Brian Bruso, the chef and co-owner of Birches Restaurant. Every word, every syllable, is important. This is, after all, a man who named his restaurant near Patterson Park after a Robert Frost poem about a farm boy who climbs birch trees, then bends them to the last possible point before he jumps down to the ground. Poetry, it seems, is a muse for Bruso.
"It's kind of a metaphor for owning a restaurant. It's about reaching as far as we could, not dreaming too big, and putting our feet on the ground gently," he says.
Bruso opened Birches in 2000, serving New England cuisine with European touches. After a brief period of novelty and popularity, the restaurant's business slowed in the economic downturn that followed Sept. 11. Now it has become a sort of neighborhood joint. Bruso says that on a weeknight, he generally knows about 95 percent of his customers by name. He feeds them from a menu heavy with small plates, which he calls "kickshaws"--a British slang corruption of the French term for small dishes: quelque chose. "The word really captures the way the food tastes," he says. "When I write the menu, I always look at it as a poetic creation, a creative writing exercise."
He opens the menu to "wood grill petite fillet over Idaho chips tossed with crumbled blue cheese and chives" to illustrate a point about language. "That felt flat to me, verbally, but on the plate, people loved it," he says. "But I just needed something else, both visually and verbally." So he added "topped with Buffalo compound butter," to improve not only the rhythm of the dish on the menu, but to give it some flair on the plates and palates of diner--filet mignon topped with butter is a delicacy in France.
A few months ago, the menu's "macaroni noodles tossed with Birches creamy cheese sauce" suddenly became "creamy Grafton Vermont cheddar cheese tossed with elbow pasta." The dish hadn't changed, but Bruso says he felt the new wording would "soften the imagery of the dish [and] loosen people up."
While Bruso, a reformed English major, has a real love of poetry both as literature and in the creation of a dish, he also has a practical reason for his attention to detail when it comes to the wording of the menu: "When things sound plain and boring, they don't sell very well."