I already knew that Chef Benjamin Sukle had talent and could cook a delicious dinner. A couple of meals at his former restaurant of employment, The Dorrance, had convinced me of that. Chef Sukle had done a stage at noma and the influence of Rene Redzepi and the New Nordic movement he inspired was clearly evident back then, albeit with a New England slant. Based upon this meal at Sukle’s brand new restaurant, Birch, that influence is still present, but Sukle’s own voice has matured and steadied as he has pared down his cooking and found a style that is truly his own.
Sukle’s style is manifest in his new space. He runs the restaurant along with his wife, Heidi, who manages the front of the house. She was instrumental in designing the small, intimate space and managed to do so in a way that enhances Sukle’s contemporary cooking style. The Dorrance is a beautiful space, but it is large and ornate. Sukle’s food managed to work within that space, but it wasn’t an ideal match. With Sukle in the kitchen and a fabulous bar program it had potential for greatness, but it was going to be difficult to fill the dining room and maintain the requisite vibe as well as the quality Sukle’s cooking demands.
At Birch, that problem doesn’t exist. It’s compact nature and intimate setting allow Sukle and his crew to create food on an appropriate scale, remaining as creative as he and his customers want him to be. Like a number of other new American restaurants like The Catbird Seat and Atera amongst others, the main dining area of Birch is perched around a u-shaped bar, however, unlike the examples mentioned, Birch does not place an open kitchen in the space. All of the cooking occurs in a compact, efficiently designed kitchen space behind closed doors. The bar area is used as both a bar and a serving space. My son and I sat at the head of the bar with our backs to the street and the door, the antithesis of preferred seating for mob bosses and Wild Bill Hickok, but I liked the light and the view of the room.
Sukle had the luxury of a superb bar program at The Dorrance. I was curious to see how that would translate at Birch, but since both Sukles are cocktilians at heart, I need not have worried about this. Both my son and I started with a cocktail, mine with alcohol and his without. Since we were staying within walking distance at the grand old Providence Biltmore Hotel, I didn’t have to worry about limiting my intake due to driving concerns. Seeing a Seelbach on the menu with Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, I couldn’t resist it. I take credit for turning the Sukles on to Solerno during a prior visit. The cocktail did it justice – delicious, balanced and refreshing.
My son had fond memories of the mocktails at The Dorrance and he was hoping for a similar experience here. He wasn’t disappointed with the well balanced mocktail crafted for him by Birch’s other barkeep, Mike Birkenheir, who poured him a combination of fresh strawberry juice with sorrel and club soda.
While Sukle took a lot away from his brief time at noma, his other main culinary muse comes from having grown up in central Pennsylvania with both southern US and German influences. While he uses a lot of local Rhode Island and New England product, he is not afraid to supplement it with good product from his birthplace. He also gets inspiration from the culinary traditions of his family and home region. Our first course used local corn meal from Kenyon’s Grist Mill to make hush puppies served with basil leaves and a ranch dressing lightly laced with honey and dill. The hush puppies were delicately fried and full of flavor in their own right. The dressing added just the right notes to fill out this simple, but satisfying opener.
The hush puppies were nice, but it was the next dish that was the first real indicator of Sukle’s continued culinary maturity. Restrained and devoid of excess, shaved scallops were served raw and cold with avocado, radish and bronze fennel with a light layering of toasted sesame. This dish is a masterpiece that should become a fixture on the menu as a signature dish. It was delicious with both its upfront flavors and textures, as well as providing undercurrents of complexity. The play of textures between the silky scallop, creamy avocado and crisp radishes was deft and utterly delightful. This stands a great chance of making my top ten dishes of the year once 2013 comes to a close. It certainly stands there as of now.
The next dish, new to the menu, was close to brilliance, but fell a bit short due to a slight imbalance of flavor. Fresh squid from Point Judith, R.I. had been perfectly grilled with just enough char to add a welcome touch of bitterness to the sweet sea creature and vegetal favas. Pickled Tokyo turnips added complexity along with Castelvetrano olives, but in trying to add Mediterranean components, the chef’s hand was a bit heavy with fresh oregano, whose strong flavor turned out to dominate the dish. The concept was good and the execution near flawless, but it didn’t take much to make the dish wobble.
My son had never had birch beer before. The Sukles had some available from their native region and given that the restaurant bore the name that it did, he tried it. He enjoyed it, but made the astute observation that the “old family recipe” alluded to on the can most likely did not include the high fructose corn syrup listed amongst the ingredients.
Though the previous dish was not quite as wonderful to our taste as it might have been, the one that followed put us fully back on track. Gator spinach resembles a true spinach, but it is actually a chard. Here it was served surrounding a mound of fresh clams and beans with a broth made from sea robin bones and roe and a bit of lovage oil that was poured atop and around the mound. The result resembled a delicious, refreshingly light chowder.
The warm jonah crab proved to be another favorite, though the crab acted more of a role player than the true star of the dish. This is not a criticism, however, as the crab was still a noticeable and enjoyable part of the dish. The reality for my son and I was that the most noteworthy contributors were the spicy quinoa and amaranth that really made the dish pop. Truth is every element, which also included heirloom potatoes cooked in chicken fat, green tomato and an egg, contributed something positive to the dish, which is as it should have been, but so often is not the case.
I was poured a cocktail to go with the crab dish. It was a Carpano Daiquiri. Relatively simple and light in alcohol, it was totally refreshing and a surprisingly good accompaniment to this dish and the one that followed.
I used to hate eggplant as a child, going so far as to tell people that I was allergic to it. While it is not typically one of my favorite things to eat, every once in a while I will encounter a preparation that I truly enjoy. Such was the case at Birch, where the eggplant was not just a great dish for eggplant, it was a great dish, period. A totally vegan dish, it had been braised with mushrooms in Chinese five spices to achieve a marvelous, soft texture and a deep, rich flavor. Served alongside the eggplant was quinoa covered with shaved kohlrabi. To accompany that, Sukle included a roasted garlic purée. The dish was billed as a “meat and potatoes” dish with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The combination, however, did serve that purpose from a vegan point of view. The eggplant was hearty and savory, while the other components acted as tasty filler in lieu of potatoes. As good as it was, this was perhaps, the one dish of the evening that could have been pared down. It worked because all of the components were good, but not because the different elements made a single integrated whole. Each half of the dish, though harmonious with the other half, would have been quite nice and perhaps even better as solo acts, especially the eggplant. This arrangement likely exists, however, because, as of now, Sukle doesn’t yet offer a true tasting menu option and the dishes are constructed for a la carte service. He did, however, per my request, prepare our meal as a tasting menu. A full tasting menu option as well as a more modest prix fixe option are likely coming in the near future as the kitchen becomes more comfortable and the restaurant becomes more established. Until then, the combination makes sense in as an a la carte choice.
It’s highly unusual to find sea robin on a restaurant menu. It is a bony fish most often used in fish soups such as a bouillabaisse to provide depth and flavor to the soup. To do more with it is quite labor intensive. Sukle did not shy away from it. Our first taste was via the spinach dish, in which he used the roe and the bones to make the broth that was poured over the dish. Here, he served the deboned flesh as a dish that ultimately really centered on carrots. This, like the squid served earlier, also proved to be a dish that focused on a particular flavor profile. For the squid the featured profile was bitter, while for the sea robin/carrot it was sour. Perhaps, because I tend to enjoy sour dishes more than bitter, I found this one to be more successful than the squid, especially since the sour elements found good balancing partners with sweetness from the multiple ways that carrot had been employed as well as a strong brown butter umami richness from the roasted carrot element. Both dishes were challenging in their make-up, but the sea robin and carrots were ultimately more haunting and satisfying as it lacked a single dominant element such as the oregano with the squid.
Like eggplant, swordfish is not typically my favorite fish as it is often served overcooked and tough with a strong and often disagreeable flavor. While I never claimed to be allergic to it and do enjoy it occasionally, I generally prefer other species when left with a choice. It would have been unfortunate, though, to have missed Sukle’s lightly roasted, harpoon-caught, Block Island swordfish. Served with torpedo onions, mussels and summer squash, this superb dish was fresh, light and lemony and restored my faith in the culinary potential of the species. As the eggplant dish was a great dish and not just a great dish for eggplant, so was the swordfish a great dish, period, and not just a great dish for swordfish.
Cucumber and pork is not an intuitive combination to me, but I’m glad that it occurred to Chef Sukle. He braised Berkshire pork from Rhode Island and paired it with charred and raw cucumber, rhubarb purée, nasturtium leaves and chow-chow to produce another totally satisfying dish. The meat was flavorful and tender, while the other components rounded out the flavor and textural elements to create a dish of marvelous balance and depth.
Sukle surprised us with one more savory course and the surprise wasn’t just because there was another savory course. Quail had been soaked in a pickle brine and then coated and fried, a technique that Sukle picked up while cooking in Georgia. At this point of the meal, both my son and I were getting pretty full, but this was just the mouth-popping dish to regenerate our waning appetites. Served with sugar snap peas, shiitake and coriander, it was bright and delicious, unlike any fried fowl I have had prior. We had been rejuvenated!
To accompany the quail I had one more cocktail, a Goosefoot, but in lieu of the Vodka that Birch typically makes it with, I asked for it with Citadelle Gin. This was a nice sour mash as it also contained sorrel, lemon and lemon balm. As I had expected, the cocktail program, while not as extensive as that of The Dorrance, was excellent. The drinks were well conceived and well executed.
At this point, we could have easily passed on dessert, but that would have been a mistake as Sukle’s desserts showed the same imagination and finesse as his savories. The first dessert consisted of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, oat crisp and rhubarb sorbet. This was really an excellent dessert showing great balance, complex flavor and a light hand with sugar. While a top pastry chef may have enhanced the already good presentation, the complete product would have made many a very good pastry chef quite proud.
Our second dessert, centered around raspberries, both natural and jellied, was no less thrilling than our first, chocolate-based dessert. The dish was augmented by toasted marcona almond, both in nut form as well as a custard in the bottom of the bowl and elderflower three ways: as a granita, a meringue and the actual flowers. The addition of the almonds was a brilliant stroke as they provided both texture and a savory element to complete the dish. Any pastry chef would be happy to serve this excellent dessert.
Chef Benjamin Sukle, still well shy of his 30th birthday is a major talent who is getting better and better and finding a voice of his own, while still acknowledging his origins and influences that have carved the path he has taken to this point. Birch strikes me as being the perfect canvas for him to create in and to continue to grow even more with as he establishes his business and his style. I believe that after only a few short weeks of being open, his restaurant is already well on the road to greatness. Benjamin Sukle is one of the most exciting young chefs I know. I look forward to following his continued growth as a chef.
7/25/13 Edited to correct the identity of one of the barkeepers. Keith Corbett was the barkeeper in the photo and not Ian Single.