I lost count at fifty. So let's just say there are at least fifty sheets of kohlrabi, layered in soft, translucent ribbons, that made up this dish. They're marinated with cherry leaves, interspersed here and there with apple, Vietnamese coriander and lemon balm. The whole fragile assemblage is laid atop a base of tangy creme fraiche. It's beautiful, delicate, brightly flavored, unexpected – and also the best kohlrabi dish I've ever tasted.
I keep lists of restaurants for dozens of cities I've never visited, as if I might get airlifted one day without warning and need to find a good meal. I didn't have a long list for Providence, but I did have at least this one name. I'd heard of Birch by way of DocSconz, who'd gotten there early and then made his way back the following year.
So when I had reason to visit Providence this past Sunday, I didn't look that hard for a same-day return flight, and instead lingered for dinner. It was time well spent.
As that kohlrabi dish suggests, Sukle's approach at Birch is vegetable-forward, with a strong focus on the local and seasonal, including a few real oddities here and there ("preserved hardy kiwiberry"?). Just from looking at his menu, you'd likely hazard a guess that Sukle's spent some time in the New Nordic church, and you'd be right: his resumé includes a one-month stage at Rene Redzepi's Noma, and it obviously made an impression. But there's a difference between inspiration and apery. This isn't all reindeer moss and gooseberries; Sukle's taken the spirit and ethos of the style and adapted it to his native New England ingredients in a way that feels natural and uncontrived.
That menu comprises four courses, with three choices for each. I unabashedly enjoy solo dining, but one downside is not getting to try as many things. Happily, there was a solution: though not listed, Birch will also do a chef's choice, 8-course tasting in smaller portions. Perfect.
The dining room at Birch has a wonderfully simple layout: it's a square about 20 feet across, occupied by a u-shaped counter lined with comfortable stools on three sides. A couple servers present and remove plates and drinks from the middle. It's similar to places like Momofuku Ko or Blanca or Catbird Seat, or if you want to go a few years earlier, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, except that the kitchen remains hidden behind a closed door. To me, it's actually reminiscent of an old school horseshoe-shaped diner counter, and engenders a feeling of intimacy and camaraderie.
(You can see all my pictures in this Birch - Providence, Rhode Island flickr set).
The seasonal focus is on display from the start with a bite of asparagus, the stalk of which had been tempura fried and then wound with a paste of black garlic, truffle and nasturtium, the purple-shaded bud unadorned. The fried stalk was so delicate as to almost disappear in one bite; the raw tip retained a pleasing vegetal snap.
Following the kohlrabi, a dish of raw scallops paired with turnips in a broth infused with cherry blossoms, dusted with lemon zest, and topped with arugula flowers. The white-on-white composition looked like shards of alabaster in a shallow pool. The sweetness of the cold fresh scallop played against the firmer, earthy chew of the turnip, both bound by the salty, tangy, faintly floral broth.