BBQ parsnips at Birch + Butcher

Restaurant Review: Birch + Butcher Has Lots of Wood-Roasted Potential

The new Birch + Butcher uses a wood-burning hearth to define its evolving, roasty cuisine.

When I talked with co-owner Miles Borghgraef by phone a few months before Birch + Butcher’s opening – in Barry Mandel’s North End development on Water Street – the carpentry was finished, light fixtures installed and Borghgraef and his crew were christening the wood- burning hearth at the center of his kitchen. “I think 12 months from now I’ll know what it’s like to cook on that hearth,” he said of his oak-fired cooking source, the only one like it in the city. The possibilities are endless, and the chef says his goal is that “60 percent of the menu touches it.”

That’s a menu featuring starters like a charcuterie and cheese board ($6-$25), sides such as roasted meatballs with grits and Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese ($12), mains including grilled whitefish with tomato butter and mustard ($17) and platters (for 2-4 diners) of grilled rib-eye steak with roasted potatoes and salsa verde ($36). Birch butchers also break down steers to produce roasts, chops and sausage, selling them in the shop, along with cheeses from Wisconsin and beyond, espresso drinks and other odds and ends.

on the hearth: roasted chicken in a clay pot
on the hearth: roasted chicken in a clay pot; photo by Paul Oemig

From my seat at one of the banquettes, I take in the long counter facing the kitchen. Breads are stacked, fresh from the morning bake. Wood-roasted bagels studded with seeds or topped with melted cheese are piled on a platter on the butcher shop side, on top of the glass charcuterie case – a mix of the shop’s house-cured wares and Madison’s Underground Meats. Runners ferry plates of barbecued parsnips with chile and yogurt and grilled rib-eye with roasted potatoes to diners in this ground-level space seating 132 inside (with plans for an outdoor patio in summer).

“Contemporary Midwestern” is the culinary theme of the menu. At this writing, a month or so in, some hiccups showed, but not too many. The sweet potato gnocchi with sunchokes and fresh savory is one ($13). I like the strong, thyme-like flavor of the herb and the nutty, sweet sunchoke, roasted until tender. But I push the mushy gnocchi aside.

I also love the idea of a bread board. The sliced, crusty rye yeast breads are a little dried out, but the soft and light whipped butter, topped with coarse sea salt, is a treat ($3).

The sunflower seed risotto with meaty king trumpet mushrooms ($14) is creamy and tender. It could ride shotgun with any of the meats/fish or stand on its own, tempering the bitter grilled rapini topped with raisins and slightly pungent Evalon cheese ($10) and providing texture alongside chewy, deliciously charred BBQ parsnips ($10). The risotto brings a nutty edge to the rich, pink fillet of butter-poached steelhead trout ($20). The roasted meatballs are a just-fine wintery plate, three coarse-ground pork-beef balls in fine-textured grits enhanced by Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese ($12).

The statement maker of the menu is the whole roasted chicken, hot, charred and very flavorful in its cooking vessel (a clay pot) – with roasty BBQ carrots, parsnips and an herby carrot-top gremolata ($34).

It’s the perfect hearth dish and a great example of Birch + Butcher’s reason for being. More of that sharp edge and the place will hit its stride. ◆

Birch + Butcher
459 E. Pleasant St., 414-323-7372
Hours: Mon-Thurs 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. (Butcher shop/cafe opens at 7:30 a.m. daily)
Prices: Main dishes $15-$32; platters $26-$36
Service: Staff seems invested, knowledgeable
Reservations: Recommended

‘Midwest is Best’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.