Birch is at its best when Brendan Collins lets his inner butcher out
When you stroll south down Cahuenga from Hollywood Boulevard, you run into tattoo parlors, neat mobs of people gathered outside anonymous velvet ropes, and bad-decision bars not quite decadent enough to make it into Thrillist listicles. A DJ spins dated electrofunk records outside the Jamaican taco truck adjacent to the occult supplies store. Tourists suddenly realize they’re not on Vine. It’s not a bad block if what you’re after happens to be espresso or 24-hour pancakes, but it also may be the last place you might expect to find a sleek new restaurant from a chef with Mélisse on his résumé and a knack for foie gras, a bottle of Alsatian Riesling or a plate of grilled corn with mascarpone and summer truffles.
Yet there you’ll find Birch: matte gray exterior, blond wood tables and monkfish tikka masala hiding under airy slabs of pappadum. The bartender has opinions on amaro. The only hint of the dive bar that this used to be is the single line of stools facing the street just outside the boundary of the roll-up wall. It’s a secret nice place amid the cacophony and the endless ambulance sirens of a Hollywood Saturday night. (If you wind up at a quiet table in the patio, in a reclaimed alley lined with other bar patios, the street life seems a thousand miles away.)
This is meant to be a fancy place, a stripped-down small-plates restaurant in the manner of Redbird, Tar & Roses, or Hinoki & the Bird. Chef Brendan Collins, who opened Birch after running the Culver City gastropub Waterloo & City for years, stocked the wine list with small-producer, mostly organic wines. He indulges something like a farmers market fetish — the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market operates right around the corner — so that you know when favas came into their short season, and sunchokes passed from theirs. (One of the best dishes in Birch’s early months involved nuggets of fried sunchoke in a thick, red Thai curry. I ordered it every time I visited the restaurant, and I was sad to see it go.)
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The cocktails, under the supervision of the estimable Gabriella Mlynarczyk, are sleek and modern, identified with numbers instead of names. (The No. 3, made with carrot juice, gin and bitter Aperol, crowned with a whimsical spray of carrot flowers, is especially good.) You will find all the usual chefly maneuvers, from the slabs of raw Hamachi with grapefruit and olive oil, to the blob of burrata with prosciutto and peaches, to the squid ink pappardelle with lobster.
And it is definitely of its moment. There is this year’s requisite homage to Middle Eastern flavors: Scrolls of za’atar-laced flatbread with yogurt serve as the house breadbasket, and the grilled octopus comes with a red pepper hummus. Birch’s best-loved dish is probably the rabbit baklava, which is to say juicy scraps of meat folded into leaves of filo with beans. (The crisp, golden pie, molded into the shape of a small brick and garnished with carrots and doll-size double rabbit loin chops, is adorable.) Does the menu include kale salad, chicken liver mousse and tuna tartare? It does.
Birch is a good place to stop by for a green Bloody Mary, a plate of ham and eggs, or fried chicken with black-eyed peas after the Sunday market.
But as anybody who ever visited his late gastropub Waterloo & City can attest, Collins is at heart a big meat guy, happiest when throwing down with massive terrines, squishy parts and formidable slabs of beast. Waterloo & City was a place you went for shepherd’s pie and Sunday roast, fish and chips and deviled eggs. He may have tossed lobster into the spag bol and sneaked a bit of truffle oil into the fries, but there was no mistaking the intent: It was working-class British cooking chopped and channeled by a talented chef.
And as hard as Collins has been trying at Birch to move toward modern cuisine, as exquisite as his rare king salmon served on birch bark or his halibut with bone broth and morels may be, the joy in his cooking tends to emerge when he lets his inner butcher come out to play.
So while you may want to skip the squash blossoms stuffed with a stodgy forcemeat of rice and served under a disk of toasted Parmesan thick enough to stop bullets, you will do well with his sweetbreads, seared until they are nearly caramelized but still soft, served in a bowl with potato gnocchi and cauliflower florets — a small, elegant essay in textural interplay, even if the kitchen is a little overexuberant with the truffle oil. The soft-shell crab may have spent too much time in the fryer, but the hunk of lamb belly with snap peas is strong-tasting but luscious, long-braised and crisped on the grill. Everybody else in town may be doing chicken liver mousse at the moment, but his is a good one — almost liquid, enriched with a little foie gras, glazed with fruit jelly and served with slabs of grilled bread.
There is nothing subtle at all about what is probably Birch’s great specialty, a giant braised pork shank burnished with mellow palm sugar, served with shredded cabbage that splits the difference between cole slaw and sauerkraut, and served with rolled up sheets of grilled za’atar bread. You tear off a length of the bread, shred some pork, add some thick, herbed yogurt and some slaw — it’s Carolina pulled pork barbecue Middle Eastern-style, and you are going to end up eating it all.
As you’d expect, you’ll find decent seasonal fruit desserts, and the peanut butter spring rolls with caramelized bananas have already become local fetish objects. But if you ever got the chance to stop by Waterloo & City when it was going you will understand that they were rendered irrelevant the second Collins reintroduced his gooey, million-calorie version of sticky toffee pudding, served in a cast-iron skillet in a serving sufficient for 10.
After closing Waterloo & City, chef Brendan Collins has opened a sleek new restaurant in Hollywood.
1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 960-3369, birchlosangeles.com.
Smaller plates, $6-$18; somewhat larger plates, $17-$29; desserts, $11-$12.
Lunch Mon.-Fri., noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner nightly, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Summer corn and truffle; sweetbreads with cauliflower and gnocchi; rabbit baklava; king salmon with asparagus; skillet toffee pudding.
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