Review: The Sensational Things Birch Is Doing With Seasonal Cuisine

Birch is driven – like its predecessor Birch + Butcher – by wood hearth cooking. But that’s one of the only similarities.

Inside Birch, the near-Downtown restaurant specializing in wood-roasted and “hyper-seasonal” fare, there are four counter seats facing the kitchen. The action is riveting on a Saturday night. We watch a cook plating beef carpaccio with fresh herbs, next to the wood-burning hearth where another staffer is stoking the flames and removing sheet pans of focaccia and roasted fish. Executive chef/co-owner Kyle Knall maintains a watchful and amazingly calm eye over everything – orders, plating and the staff.

Executive chef/co-owner Kyle Knall; Photo by Marty Peters

Birch – which morphed out of the former Birch + Butcher – feels like a whole new place. Knall, a Birmingham, Alabama, native who’s worked in kitchens such as New York City’s highly regarded Gramercy Tavern, is committed to keeping the menu fresh and seasonal. Despite the wood hearth as the cooking source here, it’s not Birch + Butcher all over again. Plates aren’t fussy. Something as simple as the grilled onion focaccia – gorgeously tender and spongy – with roasted, blistered snow peas and fresh ricotta is extraordinary ($9). Vegetables and herbs take center stage, the sauces light, the cooking precise. And there’s going to be a lot of fluidity with this menu.

When the owners – the trio of Knall, Rebecca Zwiefelhofer and Ben Christiansen of Waterford Wine & Spirits – were in the process of opening the restaurant, they considered changing the name. They wound up sticking with “Birch” and removing “Butcher” from the moniker because the latter is no longer a focus. Inside the space, they replaced the café/butcher shop near the entrance with bar seating.

 

 

Expectations are high, and from this diner’s perspective, Knall and his team are exceeding them. With a handful of first courses, a couple of pastas and four entrées, the menu offers just enough choices, allowing the kitchen to flex its muscles with each one.

Birch is committed to keeping the menu fresh and seasonal with offerings like crunchy farm vegetables with carrot miso dip and roasted kale oil; Photo by Marty Peters

As the menu shifts with the seasons, you’ll have some richer, more autumnal offerings than I did when visiting in late summer. There were really no lowlights to my visit, except for a dish that needed a skosh more amplified flavor: the grilled walleye with summer vegetables and ramp salt in a bright-green herb broth ($23). The fish was beautifully cooked; a little more ramp salt was all it needed. By contrast, a plate topped with wafer-thin sliced beef carpaccio dressed with coarse salt, olive oil and fresh basil ($14) was close to perfection, the flavors in total alignment. Roasted summer squash, blistered sweet corn and sweet cherry tomatoes defined the layered, napoleon-like creation topped with fresh mint and clumps of mild Hidden Springs feta ($13) – each bite encapsulating summer.

Butterflied and simply roasted, the crispy-skin chicken under a brick ($26) was tender and juicy. Its accompaniments – broccoli, marinated cherries and the leafy green purslane – added sweet, salty and slightly astringent notes. And the pool of tarragon aioli was ideal for dipping in each forkful of meat. Finally, the tender grilled flank steak matched its beefy intensity with rich charred eggplant, chewy spelt berries and roasty pumpkin seed chimichurri ($31).

The fresh seasonality and simple, precise culinary artistry make Birch the restaurant you need to experience right now.


Birch

459 E. Pleasant St., 414-323-7372

Hours: Dinner Wed-Sat; brunch Sat-Sun

Prices: Pasta, entrées $15-$31

Service: Welcoming, knowledgeable


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s October issue.

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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.