During my final year at Brown (mid-2013 to mid-2014), I dined at the newly opened Birch 18 times, a rate of about once every 2-3 weeks. The reasons I dined there so often were because it was head-and-shoulders the best restaurant in Providence, RI, and also it was relatively affordable at ~US$60-$70 after tax and tip for an excellent 4 course menu. Chef Ben Sukle would generally change the menu every 3-4 weeks and never repeat a dish, giving it a novelty that other restaurants in the Providence area lacked.
Some local talk: New Rivers was a very good bistro with excellent $1 oysters nights, but chef Beau Vestal’s ambitions were limited to more casual food. Matt Jenning’s Farmstead (before he moved to open Townhouse in Boston) I never really rated, having had my fair share of being his guinea pig for weird experiments (snail whole wheat pasta that had the consistency of sawdust, steak with burnt rice, kimchi something or other). Champe Speidel’s Persimmon in Bristol, RI was an excellent restaurant influenced intelligently by modern trends (a faux-mussel shell a la Noma sticks in my mind) and created an excellent rendition of Michel Bras’s famous gargouillou salad, which I discovered late in April 2015. But it was a 45 minute drive away from Providence, and an eternity away by bus, which was why I only made it down there twice.
I came back to the US for a two-week period in December, and decided to make my way up to Providence to see old friends and sample Ben’s cooking again (for a 19th and 20th time). The US flight ticket was originally planned for May in time for Brown’s 2015 graduation ceremony, but work had other ideas and I ended up in Vietnam during that time.
The cooking at Birch is quite unique, and doesn’t fall in any particular style. In the first half of 2014, I had Japanese influenced dishes (black bass sashimi, sweet potato tempura, raw scallops), French-influenced dishes (opera cake, a roasted quail salmis from a collaboration dinner with Justin Yu of Oxheart), as well as Asian-fusion touches (fermented vegetables served with baked rutabaga, and in this couple of meals, my 19th and 20th, I had crisped rice [soccarat]). In fact, that’s what makes dining at Birch exciting – the sense that anything is possible.
But I think Ben’s good taste allows the cooking to avoid a couple of pit-falls, like excessive Asian saucing with kimchi. Asian-fusion cuisine is rarely good, and as far as I know has never comes together to form a cohesive and enjoyable series of dishes. (Examples: Benu, Bo Innovation, etc etc.) The accompanying sauces at Birch are usually French, or some distilled broth that brings to mind consomme. This is intelligent. Also, at ~$65, the one never feels too down for dishes that are merely good, rather than thought-provoking and excellent. (I don’t recall having a dish that was anything less than good).
Birch, as Ben told me, is the opposite of a Saison, where being funded by unending spouts of successful VC money allows them to cook the best ingredients in the best way at any price. Of necessity. Rhode Island’s economy is respectable but not as frothy as San Francisco’s (but then again, where is?). In such an environment, prices have to be reasonable. While I feel the price at Birch is a bit low, the chef’s relationships with local fishermen and farmers, allow Birch to offer these dishes at highly competitive prices. And so it preserves a bit of the neighborhood vibe, which makes Birch a bit of a Rhode Island Chez Panisse.
The two types of dishes I previously enjoyed the most at Birch were the vegetable-dishes (e.g. roasted carrot with clams in autumn, beetroot with shaved walnut in summer, spaghetti squash with marjoram in winter, rolled beef carpaccio with turnip in winter) and the desserts (the sweet grain cereal was insanely delicious, a riff off peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich very enjoyable). The comparative weakness of the 4-course menu would be the Course 3 mains, which tended not to be as creative as Courses 1 & 2. Scup, squid, and other Rhode Island fish; pork, would be cooked simply with a simple vegetable accompaniment and a broth-based sauce. I tend to enjoy Ben’s more offbeat takes, and so preferred the first and second courses.
On this visit though, I found myself really enjoying the main of Rhode Island monkfish, which was really fresh, 6 hours off the boat, and roasted on the bone. Judging by the bone-line, it looked like a small monkfish, but had supreme texture, possessing the gelatinous chew of good turbot. The ingredient itself was good enough to make the simple arrangement highlymemorable.
Starting in January 2016, downtown Providence will have the Sukles’ second restaurant, a casual restaurant called Oberlin, which will be headed up by ex-Birch-chef Ed Davis. I wasn’t able to catch it this time around, but will definitely do next time. (especially since they have the dearly-departed Sweet Grain Cereal).
Birch – worth a special trip to Providence? Definitely.
- Black garlic and mushroom chips, with apple butter and sorrel (4.25/5)
- The combination of black garlic and mushrooms had a rounded mushroomy savoriness. An excellent bite
- Sunchoke: marinated with cherry blossoms and seaweeds with autumun olive and almond (4/5)
- Cold slices of sunchoke, with savory almond milk and floral sakura. Very
- Warm broth of pork and sourdough: grilled onions, coriander and kombu (4.25/5)
- Charred onions, with day old sourdough bread and pork bone broth. A hearty and delicious broth made from day-old sourdough bread and pork bone broth. A micro-soup
- Raw Rhode Island Fluke: parsley, pickled broccoli stem and preserved tomato (4/5)
- Usually tasteless fluke was cured, to give it a savory taste. As far as a white fish could be, it was a facsimile of ham, with parsley creme and pickled stems. It reminded me of the traditional Japanese progression in Tokyo, where the first raw fish is often a whitefish.
- Grilled radishes: Barbecued chicken hearts, hazelnuts and nasturtium (3.75/5)
- Grilled radishes in chicken fat. Not bad.
- Kabocha squash: clams, whelk and preserved peppers (4.75/5)
- Kabocha squash was roasted, along with clams and whelks. The sauce was excellent (made from red peppers?) It was buttery and tasted like a Grand French sauce, which brought it together. The char on the sweet squash added the necessary complexity. This riffs off the successful carrot and clams dish Ben had in 2013.
- Baby beet: Wild mustard, husk cherries, rice and goat’s milk (4/5)
- Rice crispies, sweet beet, mustard flowers, and sugar kelp. A similar butter sauce was with the kabocha squash. Towards the end the beet made the sauce purple with a strong sweetness. The texture of crisped rice (soccarat) was interesting, but didn’t really harmonize with the dish. This brought to my mind mind the beet with shaved walnut in late 2013, but I felt that dish was stronger because the texture of shaved walnut was more delicate than the very crisp soccarat, which had a clashing texture.
- Rhode Island Monkfish: Roasted on the bone with celeriac, broccoli and potato (5/5)
- This monkfish was served barely 6 hours after it had been landed. The texture was gelatinous, probably the best I’ve had, and similar to the white meat at the core of the best turbot. Monkfish flesh is densely packed, and can be unpleasantly chewy if overcooked..
- Of my meals in 2014 (about 10-12 in total), I used to find Ben’s seafood dishes (e.g. Pt. Judith Scup or Squid) some of the less convincing dishes compared to his vegetable conceptions. This tends to because they were based around a simple conception of protein, vegetable, and a sauce. It was completely different with this dish – the monkfish excellent enough on its own to distinguish the dish; the celeriac topped with roasted broccoli and potato bits was pleasing. A potato/brown butter broth brought together the dish.
- Lightly grilled cabbage: winter squash, caramelized sauerkraut, toasted seeds and a broth of dried apples (4/5)
- Cabbage, with apple core oil, toasted seeds (cumin, anise, poppy, sunflower, fennel). I could see the thought process at work. For a vegan dish, the core was layers of cabbage and squash, sour and sweet. Complexity came from the mix of grains (one of Ben’s strengths is creating an optimal mix of grains), and the char on the cabbage. This dish was purely vegan – it was good for a vegan dish.
- Rhode Island pork: Field peas, spinach, green tomato and mitsuba (4/5)
- Suckling pig, fatty and tasting heavily of bacon. This was a showcase of good ingredients, but little beyond that, perhaps the least accomplished main – though still very good.
- Cato’s Corner Balck Ledge Bleu cheese: walnut, dried corn and sorrel (4/5)
- Celery oil, sweet corn crisp, shaved cheese, walnut milks. Very sharp cheese, and probably the most intense dish of the meal, a dessert that wasn’t sweet in the slightest except for some sugar crisps. I found this dish a bit dry for my tastes, but appreciated the attempt at a savory dessert.
- Apple: Apple blossoms, oats and raspberry (4.25/5)
- Really good cooked apples, with raw apple, apple blossom and raspberries. A good fruit dessert end, highlighting the stewed apple texture from apple pie.
- Quince Sherbet: Caramelized whey, toasted grains and rose. (4.5/5)
- Caramelized whey ice cream with quince sugar and rose cream. Delicious, the rose cream perfuming the dessert with floral flavor.
- Whoopie pie