It might be melodramatic to say that the fate of the state’s culinary future rests on Ben Sukle’s shoulders. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. A Johnson and Wales grad, Sukle made a name for himself as chef de cuisine at La Laiterie and later at the Dorrance, posts that provided him with the requisite press to strike out on his own — at least in a small way.
In June, he and wife, Heidi, took over the minute space on Washington Street that was Tini, foregoing any marked aesthetic changes in favor of an exclusively culinary focus. It was a good move. Sukle’s food — highly complex and decidedly nuanced — was never quite at home in the Dorrance’s sprawling space. The sky-high ceilings, big-time bar program and dance-hall vibe competed with his ornate plates rather than supported them and, in that sense, the twenty-top counter is more conducive to concentrated eating.
Of course, decor isn’t entirely optional. Other than stripping the walls of its digital menu and painting one half an earthy taupe, there’s very little that defines the space. It seems bare, particularly for a restaurant with a name as evocative as “birch.” Roots, limbs, soil, shelter — all cry out for some representation so that, in the time before ordering, diners have a sense of what’s to come. (“I want something to look at other than a brick wall,” said the man in cocktail-sipping stage to my right.)
Once the plates arrive, however, it’s game on. There is no standard dishware: courses come out on an eclectic array of wooden platters, rustic earthenware dishes and subdued porcelain, a decision that belies the exactitude of each constructed plate. For a streamlined menu (six appetizers, a similar number of entrees, three desserts), Sukle’s culinary landscape is infinitely intriguing and more intricate than descriptions lead you to believe. Layering is critical to the birch palate, each bite giving way to a variation of ingredients, and precision is de rigueur — from seared black bass to hush puppies formed into flawless quenelles. (After repeated dining, one wonders if there’s a quenelle savant who does nothing but shape dough, vegetables and creams into pristine French ovals.) Sukle embraces contrast in both taste and texture, as with a simple dish of freshly picked sweet buttered peas paired with tart green strawberries, meaty clams and a foundation of soft jasmine rice ($10).
That’s not to say that every dish succeeds: both shaved scallops ($10) and steamed fluke ($16) are monochromatic and one-noted.
The former is cut too thick to be considered shaved and, served in a mayonnaise-based sauce, the unctuousness is overload. The fluke is a more conscientiously clean dish — steamed in verbena and paired with almond milk — yet the only bold flavor on the plate comes from a panoply of carrots (roasted, raw, fermented and powdered). But what’s critical to birch’s efforts, and the reason Sukle’s efforts are commendable, is the convergence of classic technique and risk that we see in too few local restaurants. Given the draw of press-hungry, personality driven chefs nationwide, pushing the envelope of ingenuity is not an option; it’s an imperative. And when Sukle gets it right, it’s revelatory.
Behold: warm Jonah crab with toasted amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat ($12), which bears some resemblance to Korean stone pot cooking in that it arrives with a glistening egg yolk waiting to be folded in as sauce. Rather than overwhelming the delicate crab, the spiced, crunchy grains and slices of sharp green tomato make its sweetness more manifest. It’s an entirely harmonious display of nostalgia and novelty, worthy — as many patrons do — of being posted on Instagram before imploring the staff to keep it on the menu despite season changes or inclination.
Other savory dishes make a definitive impact, including a deeply braised Berkshire pork ($18) with dollops of bright rhubarb puree and a study of raw and charred cucumber. Italian sofrito accompanies, no doubt a homage to the mirepoix used to flavor the pork but which, in this case, imparts a crispness to the melting meat.
Even desserts are surprising given that the cocktails, too, run consistently toward tart. Sukle thinks big on small plates but, as it turns out, he has a deft hand with sweets as well and presents them gracefully. A trio of chocolate mousses (white, milk, dark) is topped with chopped nuts, shards of oat snaps and droplets of fruit sorbet but it’s his signature cheesecake that baffles and captivates. Whipped egg whites (“Japanese style,” according to the house) create a loaf somewhere between cheese and pound cake, with a consistency that demands complete consumption from diners who smile both quizzically and rapturously. Even better — perhaps Sukle’s best — is what he does with a simple bowl of berries. It would be easy to serve them austerely but that approach is antithetical to what this restaurant does. Instead, the fruits are mixed with Marcona almonds, kernel-sized meringues, cubes of lemon and raspberry jelly and covered with shavings of elderflower granite, each bite a texture bomb that reveals itself differently at each turn but without alienating traditionalists.
And all this in surroundings that are not much bigger than a bar. The space barely affords room to contemplate the meal, let alone face your companions to extol or question it. But empires start small and it’s worth indulging what should be a bigger footprint on a reputable road. Certainly Sukle has found his home for now. Even in its infancy, birch thinks radically enough that one anticipates tomorrow’s meals with unbridled eagerness. Some of this lies with Sukle’s proficiency as a chef and purveyor of local, often overlooked ingredients. But most of it reflects a vision that demands we see things differently, taste things carefully and hope for things that we haven’t yet encountered. To make an enduring name for itself, the future of food in Rhode Island depends on it.