Had the pleasure of dining at Birch last night for the first time in many moons. Going there is practically a special occasion for us in and of itself. Last night was no different, but the meal did have its ups and downs and left us with some unexpected food for thought.
First and foremost, I'm more convinced than ever that this is the most ambitious restaurant in Rhode Island. They are aiming for the fences with every single plate, which makes it all the more disappointing when it's a swing and a miss. But when they hit...you're in for the most interesting, provocative mouthfuls of food in the state.
My husband and I agreed that this was our least enjoyed meal at Birch since our first outing there mere weeks after opening. So what accounts for that? First, we both felt, independently, that their serving sizes were smaller than usual, maybe 85% of what we've come to expect there. But when each of the four courses in only 4 or 5 bites, that 15% can actually be felt. I left just a hair shy of satiated, my husband even less so. They had this same issue right at the outset, and I think it would only take a minor correction to remedy. No one who loves Birch wants heaping plates of food, but if the plates are too scanty, the diner will leave feeling physically unsatisfied.
My cocktail (a sake, gin, and dolin blanc concoction) was slightly less tasty this time around. Usually, their featured cocktails are a highlight of the meal.
The first two courses were right on par with expectations. I started with tomato dashi served with charred eggplant and tomatillo. Green garlic gave the dish an unexpected spice. Second course was grilled hen-of-the-woods, bbq chicken hearts, and hazelenuts--just a wonderful, thoughtful combination of flavors and textures. These were not straightforward dishes. You took a bite and had to take a minute to figure out what was happening in your mouth. Nowhere else in PVD can you have that experience. Bottom-line: this food was interesting and it still tasted great. A+
Now, I hit a snag on the third course--fluke with celeriac, potato, and broccoli. To my mind, this was not a successful offering. First problem, the plate defied expectation. Now, most of the dishes are surprising when they come out. The chef has very unexpected interpretations of his ingredients. However, I do think that all listed ingredients should be discernible to some degree in the dish. Here, I was served about a quarter of a tiny celeriac (smaller than a clementine wedge,) coated with dehydrated potato and broccoli the texture of panko. The celery root was butter-poached, which overpowered its delicate flavor and the flavor of the other flaked vegetables. I had no idea what I was eating, other than something buttery. (Indeed, the waitress initially misidentified it as a mushroom, and I totally believed her.) The fish was well-executed but incredibly small, the entire thing could fit onto my fork tines. And...there was nothing else on the plate. Here, an inadequate amount of food ran up against a visually unappealing, empty, and boring presentation. The fluke was white, the celeriac was brown, the plate was white. Compare this to previous seafood plates at Birch--beautiful bright bowls full of fresh vegetables, herbs, and greens.
To the restaurant's credit, they asked for more feedback when I didn't express 100% delight in the course (not that it was unpleasant to eat, it just wasn't all that I'd hoped.) And the course was struck from our bill, which was totally unnecessary but a generous gesture.
Dessert has always been a high point of meals at Birch. I think they usually have the most interesting desserts in town, just weird and savory and complex. My husband's bowl of warm pears with beeswax ice cream was on par with expectations. My apple dessert was not. At least this plate had its spectacular presentation going for it--it was very inviting to look at. But ultimately, it was less than the sum of its parts, essentially tasting like a plate of apples.
So overall, a less impressive outing than we've come to expect, but we'll definitely be back. The folks behind Birch are thoughtful and constantly striving to improve the diner's experience. I'd never write them off.