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Dreams of a Dinner Unfulfilled: A “Review” of Birch

Mar. 3, 2022 at 1:00PM

Adventures often start because you “know a guy” and for me, knowing a guy is why I attended the soft opening of Birch + Butcher way back in the before times. It was the first (and only) soft opening I’ve ever attended, and it was an experience. You could feel the energy in the room, the hope of new beginnings, the effort all the staff put in to present their best—service, food, ambiance. I attended the event with the understanding there would be kinks to work out, but it was actually one of the best meals I’d had in a long time, kinks be damned. 

From the introduction to Spirit Tea’s Rosella Herbal Tonic, magenta and tart, to the bread service. Carb lovers rejoice; it was honestly the best bread I’ve ever had in my life. Fluffy, chewy, and flavorful. The slightly bitter carbon char adorning the meat and vegetables. It was something special. Both are unique in flavor and execution, but with the earthy notes of comfort food Milwaukeens expect. 

I returned a handful of times and even enjoyed a Birch + Butcher catered menu at a wedding a few years back—still serving the fresh, grounded dishes I adored. When COVID-19 hit, I stopped eating at restaurants, ordering takeout to support some of my favorites, and keeping fingers crossed the situation would transition into normalcy or a version of it sometime soon. 

That was two years ago.  

In the meantime, Birch + Butcher closed temporarily and reopened with a new chef at the helm, Kyle Knall, and dropped the “Butcher” to reflect the more streamlined, seasonal menu. With the Gramercy Tavern under his chef coat, and experience liaising with local farmers and purveyors, partner Rebecca Zweifelhofer brought Knall on to maintain the quality and vision Birch + Butcher was known for at its inception.

Birch + Butcher Becomes Birch

When I heard about the change, I was curious to see if it would stand up to my previous experiences—if Birch was better, more refined than it’s predecessor. I bided my time (until I was assigned this article, which was the impetus to action) and made plans to order a spread, eager to share my thoughts with all of you lovely people. I called one, two, three times to order from Birch and was denied. “We don’t do takeout on the weekends” became “We don’t do takeout anymore” (in the span of less than a week) and I remain hungry evermore. 

I know everybody copes differently, but I’m not comfortable sitting indoors at a restaurant yet, not with Omicron raging in our cities. And I’ve convinced myself that taking food to go allows me to focus on just the food, without the distraction of service and ambiance. So, I felt denied of an experience I was very much looking forward to. And if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s the value of adapting, of being open-minded in the face of dumpster fires and shit shows. 

A restaurant review you will have, just not the one you were expecting. I’m going to tell you what I imagine the food at Birch is like because at present, until the warmth of the sun returns and outdoor patios open once again, I will be unable to order their food without putting my health at risk. Instead, I’m left to dream and drool over the descriptions listed on their website.   

So, here’s what you can expect from a dinner at Birch, at least how I imagine it.

Dinner at Birch: Start With the Bread  

Before you order anything else, order the grilled garlic focaccia. It comes with honey nut squash, a miniaturized version of the common butternut with a more intensely sweet, nutty flavor. Fresh ricotta tops off this decadent starter. It’s far superior to the plastic tubs you purchase at the grocery store, which are somehow grainy, watery, and full of sadness. 

Fresh ricotta takes this dish to the apex of richness that’s almost a step too far. The focaccia comes with ample olive oil, pillowy and fattening, topped with sweet squash and homemade cheese. It’s Wisconsin, but Wisconsin after it spent a weekend in the Berkshires high off of its own fancy.

Step Two: Beef and Beets

Beef carpaccio has graced menus for decades, but it never goes out of style, especially when Birch makes it by dry-aging the beef fat and pairing it with woodsy rosemary and the forgotten stepchild of root vegetables: salsify. The herb and root vegetable combination ensure the beef fat stays balanced, never overtaking your palette. The dish coats your taste buds like a walk in a winter forest to your A-frame cabin, where you’ll settle into a torn old armchair, the texture of dumplings, warming your hands and feet on a crackling fire.

Little Johnny joins you after he finishes stacking wood on the leeward side of the cabin, oak from a felled tree from last summer’s wind storm. His tiny hands crimson from the cold and the effort. You taught him to use an ax early, just like your father did, grunting, “Make yourself useful, boy.”

Add levity with the beets. The beets are artisanal, hand-scrubbed delicacies, harvested during the full moon by trained raccoons. They might as well chill on the dumpster diving and make themselves useful with those little hands. Like Johnny. Johnny made himself useful. 

They’re served with country ham—the salt to the beets’ sweetness—and a tangy onion agro dulce. Urfa chili, a chili variety hailing from Turkey tops the dish. Dried into small granules of dark red, chewy, raisin-like pops of spice. They explode in your mouth, in a slightly painful but thrilling way. Like Pop Rocks, sting pong, and an energy drink all rolled into one. It hurts so good. 

And with your palette awakened, you’re ready for your main course.

Embrace the Hearth and Order A Feast

A mushroom available during the dearth of winter, hen-of-the-woods, or maitakes are a savory treat worth coveting. Birch pairs them with ribbons of tagliatelle, swiss chard, rosemary, and lemon. The tagliatelle, hand-crafted by the hands of the adept kitchen elves. You won’t see them though; they work in the cover of darkness, unseen, unappreciated.  

You think the dish is about the pasta, and it’s a perfect vessel, but it’s really about the vegetables. Birch passes the test all respected restaurants must pass—treat vegetables with respect and you win my respect. Birch’s staff even sing to the vegetables before they go into the flames. “We Belong” by Pat Benatar, of course. It helps bring out their sweetness. 

Forget it, I don’t even need the fresh pasta, just give me the mushrooms. I hear they’re a superfood. When you eat them, you transcend to higher levels of consciousness. You’ll never get sick again in your life. Why aren’t we talking about this? 

Forget Paxlovid and vaccines and social distancing and masks and—fuck I’m tired–all you need is maitakes. Surely, they at least taste better than your own urine?  

Although “chicken under a brick” is essentially how I feel two years into the pandemic, the dish delivers on savory flavor that makes me forget how trapped I feel every day while it’s -12 outside, and I don’t know if or when it’ll ever feel safe enough to reenter society. Weekend brunch at Simple Cafe was all just a dream, wasn’t it? May she rest in peace.  

The chicken under a brick is paired with garlic yogurt a touch too garlicky, though I believe garlic is overused generally, including by Birch. There will be a protest in the coming months—People Against the Excessive Use of Garlic—we’re one member strong and counting. The sunflower crumble adds a delicate crunch and the jalapeno adds dimension without blowing the chicken out of the water, which is another shocking visual. And basically, how I feel every time a new variant emerges.    

My partner orders the pork. (Just a reminder this far into my article; we didn’t actually eat this dinner. I am 100% making this shit up. But if my partner had been able to order a dish from Birch, it would have been the pork.) It’s both slow-roasted to tenderness, and grilled, adding the signature Birch char. 

Another variety of squash adorns this dish, this time the autumn frost squash, which I learned about this year when our CSA supplied us some. They never let us down. They never lied to us. Not like whoever told my generation that quicksand would be a serious concern. In fact, our CSA gave us so many beets that I’ve become 14% beet, which may, in part, explain the content of this article.   

A particularly well-grown beet can make you see God. Autumn frost squash gives you wings. You’ll fly home after dinner.   

Autumn frost squash is delicious. I imagine it’s delicious in Birch’s pork dish as well, especially paired with the onion’s more subtle cousin: the leek. Ignore the whispers coming from your plate; the leeks get a little bit feisty after they’re tossed in the woodfire oven. Also charred, because we haven’t had enough of that yet at this point in the meal. I’m getting bitter. Like the char.  

For dessert, a magician comes to our table and performs a magic trick. There’s a rabbit. A hat. A puff of smoke. And—ta da—a maple panna cotta appears before me, topped with toasted sorghum, cranberry dust, and a fennel reduction. The magician saws a woman in half, and the top half of her presents my partner with a parsnip and cardamom cake served with lemon curd and topped with dried carrot tops from last summer's harvest.

Johnny’s logs fueled the fire used to dry the carrot tops and bake the cake. Good job, Johnny. 

A Fever Dream

It’s January 2022. One person I know is pretending COVID-19 doesn’t exist. All three of my closest friends are having an existential crisis at the same time. My mother starts talking at 4.0x her normal speed every time the pandemic comes up. I’ve watched everybody I know have their own flavor of a meltdown in the past month. Myself included, but mine involved the excessive purchase of candles. I’ve now moved on to skincare products, but inside I’m panicking. 

I’m panicking. You’re panicking. We’re all panicking.  

I don’t know what any of Birch’s dishes taste like. I don’t know if the squash is pureed or diced and roasted. I don’t know if the agua dulce hits just right, the perfect burst of acid, or if it causes your mouth to pucker because it’s too intense. I have no idea if the tagliatelle is gummy or al dente or even worth the cost. I don’t know if I should imagine the dishes as I’d like them to taste—balanced, dynamic, and nourishing—or to let the absurdity of the world come through in my writing. I’ll let you be the judge of where I landed. 

Just don’t judge Birch. Their menu sounds incredible, and I have full faith they’re executing well. I just can’t vouch for it for a few months yet.

Dinner Dreams Delayed for Now

At this point, I’m equal parts salivating and disoriented from indulging the full breadth of my imagination. I’m also, like, really hungry 2,000 plus words into this article. So, Birch, if y’all are listening, it would be great if you could let me come pick up some food. You don’t even have to deal with the third-party delivery nonsense. I’ll come to you. All you have to do is take my money and toss some food into some brown boxes. 

Please, bring back to-go orders so I can write a real review about real food. The power’s in your hands. The water’s boiling. Spring’s on its way. I’ll give you my money.

Until then, the people will just have to settle for a trip through my vivid imagination, but I think a plate of your pasta would be more satisfying. *Fingers crossed*

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.