Our Gourmet: Creative cuisine at The Birch on Elm

July 11. 2017 11:42PM
The Pork Belly Cubano at The Birch on Elm. 
The Birch on Elm
931 Elm St., Manchester
782-5365; www.thebirch.restaurant

Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Walk-ins only.

Cuisine: Contemporary American.

Pricing: Snacks $3-$17; Green plates $9-$14; Entrees $14-$28.

Scores for The Birch
Atmosphere: 19/20
Menu: 19/20
Food: 20/20
Service: 19/20
Value: 18/20
TOTAL: 95/100

Two excellent small plates from The Birch on Elm: Octopus Nuggets, left, and Crispy Brussels Sprouts.

Manchester has transformed itself so thoroughly into a restaurant mecca it is difficult — unless you are a downtown denizen — to keep track of the comings and goings. But occasional visitors like us need only hang around for half an hour and drive around a bit to find at least half a dozen that appeal to your taste and style.

We did exactly that last week and found a fairly recent addition to the scene. The Birch on Elm offers a menu with imagination, suave servers with sure hands, and patron-tested dishes that soar on the scale of taste.

Let’s get right to it.

The atmosphere is urban cool, heavy on dark wood and black style touches. There is a large portrait of gangster John Dillinger, complete with authentic bullet holes (shot by the artist, we were told). At the far end of the bar is a small display of genuine birch wood, with a couple of fishing poles leaning nearby — a direct tie-in to the large, rustic wooden canoe hanging over the cocktail space. The bar top itself is a gleaming wooden plank, handmade by Dan, who happened to be our server this night. Deceptively simple, the bar is as fine a piece of craftsmanship as you will find within miles.

There are about 30 seats at The Birch, with another 15 or so at the bar. They don’t take reservations, and the crowd was growing as the evening hours matured. The targeted closing time is midnight.

There are green dishes on the menu, but none is called a salad. There is seafood, but nothing so tame as salmon.

We ventured directly into the midst of delightful new tastes and presentations.

Octopus Nuggets ($14) is a long plate of one entire octopus tentacle, sliced into chunks, deep-fried tempura style and served over a plate-glazing mild Korean BBQ aioli sauce. Anyone who likes squid or calamari will love this dish. If that’s not you, we urge you to lie to yourself about what it is and give it a shot. After you try this delicacy and love it (a sure bet), you can probably dispense with the deception until the plate is empty.

A green dish at Birch that’s highly recommended is the Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($9), a heaping plateful of those substantial veggies infused with a roasted corn vinaigrette, grilled to slightly crispy, then sprinkled with toasted almond slices. We enjoyed the outstanding natural flavor with the ever-so-slightly burnt edges.

Dan suggested a small bowl of the corn vinaigrette (homemade, as is almost everything at The Birch) on the side, which provided just the extra moisture that a healthy brussels sprout can call for. It’s a great side dish, very reasonably priced, that provides veggies for at least two people throughout the meal.

The “Beef Tacos, Yes!” entree ($16) featured two dark corn tortillas holding slices of tender, marinated meat in their folds, along with a roasted tomatillo salsa mixed with charred corn, with a spritz of foamy “lime air” seasoning on top.

These were substantial, but delicate tacos, graced with a subtle Mexican tang and a fully satisfying flavor.

Like everything we enjoyed at the Birch, the homemade quality and fresh, healthy bearing of the food was unmistakable. There is no time or energy wasted in the kitchen on needless sauces, fillers, or run-of-the-mill flavors. My Pork Belly Cubano ($15) was a perfect example of that.

A thick center cut of juicy pork was slightly braised around the edges, and presented with the melt-in-your-mouth fried plantains and cold sliced pickles. The pork and plantains were lightly drizzled with a smoky, spicy mustard sauce, and the dinner was accompanied by two big, thin slices of Gruyere cheese baked into a crisp. Altogether, the meal was a beautiful balance of flavor, and an adventurous dinner, combining many tastes with the super-tender pork. Also high on our list of recommendations.

It’s a habit to say we’d order something again (although we would), but there are many items on The Birch’s smallish, seasonal menu that would get our business next time. Like Jonah Crab Tortellini (remember, homemade), Pan-Roasted Green Beans and Mushrooms, Whole Chicken Wings, and Sirloin Centercut. If it’s a new season, bring on the new menu. Dan said new dishes are sometimes offered as experiments, and if patrons give many thumbs up there’s a menu item for the new season.

For dessert, we took home one order of Peanut Butter & Jelly Cheesecake ($11) and mentioned that it would go very well with an ice-cold glass of milk. Dan suggested at least two glasses of ice-cold milk, and the PB&J cheesecake did not back down one bit. It was superbly rich and creamy, and blended the three flavors perfectly. We are not dessert connoisseurs, but we know this one was remarkably good.

The Birch on Elm is a winning combination of contemporary style and culinary imagination. We look forward to the next season, and many more after that.

Our GourmetManchester

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