Ben Sukle is one of my favorite young chefs in the country and it has been a pleasure watching (and tasting) his continued progression as a chef from his early days at The Dorrance, where the influence of his stint at noma was quite evident to the opening early last summer of his own restaurant, Birch. The latter is an intimate space with counter seating around a bar. Sukle’s food retains the influence of New Naturalism, but his own voice has grown ever stronger and louder. A recent visit reinforced this sentiment.
Sukle has always had an eye for presentation. His aesthetic has continued to evolve, adding more vibrant color and construction that adds complexity without becoming overly elaborate or forced. This was readily apparent with the two dishes served as our openers after the amuse.
The first was one of the most stunning dishes that I have seen in some time. Looking more like a marshmallowy dessert than a savory course ,Raw fluke strips had been marinated in an aioli made with roasted fish bones, and arranged in the center of a round earthenware bowl atop a pistou of winter greens and under a flurry of bright yellow-red marigold petals. It was a dish of subtle but delicious and clean flavors and textures that emphatically delivered on its visual appeal.
The other starter, this one chosen by my son ws a novel presentation of beef “tartare.” Technically a beef tartare should be comprised of chopped beef with a variety of ingredients incorporated within the mixture. Sukle’s approach was more carpaccio-like with slices of raw beef rolled into cylinders, then wrapped with thinly sliced, crisp, cape white turnips. The chef’s explanation for calling it a “tartare” was that he felt that the accompanying flavors of crisp rye, chives, ramp-capers and a beef-bone vinaigrette were more well associated with tartare than carpaccio. Semantics aside, the dish was imaginatively constructed, fun to eat and delicious.
I passed over discussing the amuse to dive right into the opening courses, but it deserves mention. Crisp on the outside, fluffy inside and piping hot, this amuse begged to be photographed just to be able to eat it. No worries here about the dish getting cold thanks to a delay for photos. With crisp kale accompanying the potatoes, this was a very tasty and well balanced morsel. The batter of the potatoes included black tea, garlic and miso to achieve deep, complex flavors well beyond what one might expect from a fried sweet potato. Were there more, they would have been very inviting to the detriment of my appetite and carb count.
The cocktail culture in Providence is thriving and the program at Birch is one of quality more than quantity. The menu does not offer a wide variety of choices, but those present are well crafted and very tasty and others are available upon consultation with the bartender as the bar does keep a wide array of fine spirits. Having just arrived after a three hour drive from upstate NY, I was eager to dive in.
I started with a Scarborough cocktail, a combination of Four Roses Bourbon, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon and Angostura bitters. It was nicely balanced and satisfying. For the rest of the meal I opted for the wine pairings. Staying at the new hotel, The Dean, located just a block away, I didn’t have to worry about getting into a vehicle.
I was started with a nice dry Chenin Blanc from Vouvray. It was crisp and floral and a dynamite accompaniment to the next dish, a gift from the kitchen.
Synergy is what any chef aspires to and this is what Chef Sukle achieved with this dish. Crab, carrot and celtuce greens were all tasty on their own, but when combined with a vinaigrette made from fermented carrots, lemongrass they went above and beyond with nuance and flavors superior to the sum of their parts and a result of surreal deliciousness abetted by the crisp white.
Sometimes a dish needs more than a bite or two to really show what it has to deliver. Such was the case with my next dish. On the first couple of bites, it came off as a bit unidimensional, but then with further eating, the various components started coming into play, providing layers of flavor that were distinct yet harmonious. The dish consisted of roasted butternut squash on a bed of melted leeks and topped with roasted squash seeds and fresh marjoram. A bouillon of brown butter and shellfish was poured over the top. The marjoram was particularly playful – at times assertive and at other times demure. It was a dish that really grew on me the more I ate it, especially when accompanied by a sip of the Riesling with which it had been paired.
This Riesling, a 2008 from Rudi Pichler in the Wachau was dry with nice fruit and great acidity. Whenever the marjoram started to seem a bit assertive, the wine reined it in. It was a fantastic pairing that elevated both the dish and the wine.
Chef Sukle loves using product from Rhode Island and surrounding communities, but he also loves incorporating product and elements from his mid-Pennsylvania roots. My son’s dish was a reflection of Chef Sukle’s upbringing, though, of course, Sukle added his own flourish to a traditional dish. Fried potato pierogies were served with mustard, sour cream and barbecued scallions. When I complained to my son that I didn’t even get to taste it, the kitchen brought out a pierogie just for me. It was pure comfort food, though for me growing up loving potato knishes with mustard, the flavors were reminiscent of that. It was wonderful!
The next dish was another gift from the kitchen. It, like the pierogies, was potato based, but was otherwise completely different, highlighting the versatility of the spud. Superficially, it didn’t seem like this dish would have anything crispy at all, but it did. The crispy potatoes were submerged along with preserved onions and an egg yolk underneath a layer of cream. Each bite was pure decadence with a mixture of crisp and creamy and lovely flavors.
The pairing for the potato dish came from an Italian varietal that I had never heard of before. Pignoletto. Produced by the Bassi winery near Bologna in Emiglia-Romagna. It was a soft, rich white with peach and apple notes that were perfect for the pomme de terre dish.
The main courses came next. Mine was locally caught monkfish that had been roasted and served with caramelized onions, crispy heirloom potatoes, grilled clams brown butter and fennel was another dish that had a dynamite presentation. This time, though, the gustatory pleasures did not quite live up to the promise of the appearance. The onions, as beautiful as they were, had not been sufficiently caramelized to appreciably add to the flavor dynamic of the plated whole, even as its crispness provided nice textural contrast. This is a dish with clear promise, but one that I feel needs further evolution to reach the heights that Sukle can take it to.
My son’s dish, on the other hand, was flawless. I rarely order chicken in restaurants, but that is a mistake, for when done as well as this dish was, it is far from the mundane. Once again, Sukle’s plating was beautiful and colorful. Consisting of a roasted thigh and confit leg atop a puree of roasted squash with cranberry and hidden underneath an avalanche of brussels sprout leaves. The dish was finished with a rich chicken jus poured over the top. The chicken was crisp, juicy and packed with rich flavor that was well balanced by the remainder of the plate.
The wine pairing for the course was a lovely, food friendly, light red from the Jura in France. It proved to be another excellent match with both dishes.
Chef Sukle has a talent for dessert that conforms to his savory aesthetic. The Triple Chocolate Pudding is lushly chocolatey, not overly complex, but perfectly in continuity with the dishes that preceded it. This was my son’s dessert and consisted of caramelized white, milk and dark chocolates with cranberry sorbet, oat snaps, peanuts and mint.
A wine was also paired with the dessert. I have been very much on a sherry binge of late and this Oloroso was a nice, not-sweet choice to go with my dessert.
When first presented with my dish, I must admit that, because of the name, I harbored some doubts as to how much I would like it, but I should have had more faith. Hidden on the bottom of the bowl was a “johnny-cake” with apple butter. The contents were raised up with aerated – “cereal milk” and crisp, sweetened (but not too much) crisped grains were strewn across the surface along with “Berbery Meringue” and chewy apples. The result was a sweet, but well balanced, and comforting dessert that left me quite satisfied.
At the conclusion of the meal, I was gifted with a glass of Contratto Vermouth Rosso, a fine finishing touch. Chef Benjamin Sukle is continuing to evolve. He retains a style that fits into the rubric of “New Naturalism”, but with a voice that is decidedly his own. While his plating and his combinations are imaginative and artful, they generally do not come at the expense of taste and deliciousness. The one dish that was prettier than it tasted hadn’t missed by much. With a little more honing, it has the potential to be as outstanding as the other dishes that we had eaten. When I go out to a restaurant, I do because I like to eat food that is different than what I can do at home. This typically means that I am searching for food that is particularly well prepared, creative and/or too time-consuming or difficult. Dining at Birch fits all three criteria for me. Sukle’s cooking can not be found elsewhere and it is worth seeking out. I don’t typically discuss cost in my restaurant posts, but I can’t resist it here. With ever escalating restaurant prices, especially in larger cities, Birch represents a particularly extraordinary value for the quality of product, concept and execution. At present, a four-course prix-fixe meal costs only $49 with an additional $35 for the wine pairings. For dinner at a restaurant of this quality in the United States, this is astounding. I look forward to continuing to floow the further evolution of Birch and Chef Benjamin Sukle.