A Russian Oasis Exists in SF’s Noe Valley Area
Birch & Rye is simply a cut above the rest
Of all the time to open a Russian restaurant… but, of course, Birch & Rye, which debuts in February 2022, was in the works long before the terrible current events in Russia and Ukraine. Chef/owner Anya El-Wattar dove in head first to help Ukraine at her upcoming “Dine for Ukraine” benefit dinner on April 13 with none other than Dominique Crenn.
As you enter the intimate space that housed my beloved Contigo – a Spanish favorite I cherished a block from my home during my years living in Noe Valley – the hospitable glow of Birch & Rye confirms that we needed a Russian restaurant like this for a long time.
SF Bay Area holds one of the largest Russian populations in the United States at around 75,000, with around 30,000 of that number living in tiny San Francisco alone, with around 20,000 other Ukrainian-Americans in the Bay Area. SF’s Richmond district has been home to a dense Russian community for over a century, marked by Russian Orthodox churches, Eastern European delis, and treasure troves of restaurants like Red Tavern, which satisfies my blintze cravings. or vareniki dumplings I grew up on homemade by a close Russian friend. family in SoCal.
They have a lot less Russian population, but Portland, Oregon, Kachka was an example of the type of modern Russian restaurant that I wish many cities had. Not to replace traditional Russian delicatessens and restaurants, but to complement and provide that yin to yang that every cuisine deserves from traditional and experimental expressions.
Birch & Rye of El-Wattar is very different from Kachka, but in the same way it is a place where Russian classics are reinterpreted while retaining their essential soul. Soul just talked to Anya for a few minutes. Trained at the Natural Gourmet Center in New York and the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque — and has been cooking at the SF vegetarian legend since 1979, Greens — food runs through his dishes and Her presence.
Yes, there’s the seasonal Californian influence and lightness, the sourcing of local ingredients – and beyond – but also a deep-rooted authenticity in the dishes of the Moscow-raised chef, heavily influenced by summers spent in the his grandparents’ hut in the Russian countryside, in search of mushrooms and berries or harvesting sap from birches.
Birch trees quietly dominate the space in their gentle splendor: as an art backdrop in the dining room and as a birch mural on the charming patio. The flow of the open-fronted space and kitchen resembles Contigo, gaining hand-blown glass fixtures, a backlit photographic panorama of a field of rye, and velvety banquettes of silver-blue leaves. In addition to brunch, a curbside lounge optionally comes in for pre-dinner cocktails.
I’I’m always thrilled when I see khachapuri on a menu, the fabulous Georgian cheese bread, shaped like a boat with cheese and egg yolk in the middle (Bevri in Palo Alto has long been a major source – for food of the country of Georgia in general). Anya has wisely made the typically enormous “petite” bread from spelled, baked in their wood-fired oven. Brilliant idea: mini-khachapuri with quail egg yolk and three kinds of cheese, including salty feta. I satisfy my craving but I’m not satisfied and I spent the rest of the meal.
Zakuski (“small bites”) goes much lighter, into luxury territory, especially when it comes to their thoughtful selection of caviar from three different styles of caviar: golden oscietra, kaluga and Siberian sturgeon. Go full service with fluffy spelled blinis (the oldest known wheat) and instead of crème fraiche, homemade smetana (Russian heavy sour cream). The caviar service is the more elegant solution, but a more affordable caviar trio allows you to taste the three caviars on different potatoes: brackish but clean golden oscietra on red potato, Siberian sturgeon on purple potato and, my favorite, creamy- still brackish Kaluga.
Consultant Jennifer Colliau (Small Hand Cocktails) has crafted a thoughtful menu of vodka infusions infused with traditional ingredients like horseradish (an infusion I’ve long loved, especially with Eastern European cuisine ) or sea buckthorn, as well as delicious combos like fig-anise, hazelnut-chocolate-honey or the other star: carrot-cinnamon. The infusions are the basis of cocktails like a Tchaikovsky Toddy (no, it’s not spicy), the dry and luminous carrot-cinnamon vodka with citrus and Benedictine.
Maria Agostinelli, GM/director of beverages, has compiled a rich wine list in California and France, as well as wines from Russia’s neighboring Georgia, though some local wines are made in a similar old quevri style (such as Eristavi Qvevri Sauvignon Blanc). As a lover of Georgian wines for a good fifteen years, I was pleased with the beer-laden finish of the 2019 Gotsa Mandrini Petillant Naturel and the gorgeous, dry, skin-to-skin tannins of the 2020 Tsolikouri de Baia. A Georgian brandy, Kakhuri Gvinis Marani XO Brandy, is ideal with dessert.
BBut back to the food: a staple USSR-era potato salad, the olive tree, is cleverly reinvented with Maine lobster as the protein. This is a “fancier” but still filling potato salad with rich heirloom potatoes arranged in a centered circle with lobster, dried egg yolk and carrots, sprinkled with egg smoked trout, pea tendrils, smetana and dill oil. It’s cool, warm, soothing. Same salted sea buckthorn salmon and cultured beet butter with rye bun, sea buckthorn berries from an organic berry farm in Vermont Anya.
Old spelled reappears in pelmeni, the ubiquitous Russian dumplings (in their variation as vareniki dumplings, I like them most filled with sour cherries, topped with smetana and get my fix at the aforementioned red taverna) . Here’s a gourmet chicken soup I’d crave when I was sick: comforting little potato-stuffed pelmeni swim with herbed chicken, Tokyo turnips, mustard flowers and carrots in a bone broth. Feed in a bowl.
Borscht is one of my favorite broth soups. Anya’s version is (again) happily reinterpreted with a high-end lens. She gives it the creaminess of roasted cauliflower, pouring the bright purplish-red broth tableside over the beet coulis, smetana root vegetables and herbs. It’s a refreshing variation that enhances the rustic soup.
I wanted to order wild mushroom stroganoff spelled noodles contrasted with fennel oil. But given how much starch I was already indulging in, I opted for the protein-rich golubtsi wagyu instead. It’s the most expensive entree at $52, though three large pieces of tender wagyu beef were heavy enough to share. Golubtsi is another Russian dish that I have loved for a long time – with many Eastern European variations – of cabbage leaves wrapped around ground meats and vegetables in a rich tomato sauce. Again, it’s deconstructed here with a sweet char over wood-fired cabbage leaves, a streaky spicy tomato sauce down the middle of the plate, and a crisp contrast of buckwheat grains.
A The bright side of simple and comforting Russian sauerkraut combines cabbage, carrots and Himalayan pink salt with an approachable fermented sour note. It is the good accompaniment to richer dishes. I have heard friends complaining about the cost vs portions. The costs add up quickly here. But the quality is high, dishes like golubtsi and pelmeni are filling, and I appreciate the small portions that allow me to try more. A tasting menu option could provide a useful limit of a fixed price around smaller portions.
With coffee from partner Tartine Coffee Manufactory served in a French press, a dessert of rye honey cake in whipped smetana, cherry tart during my visit, is a balanced finish. My dessert choice for something different is a bowl of birch sap jelly punctuated with gooseberries, Siberian pine nuts and flower petals in birch syrup. It’s a game of contrasting textures ranging from jelly soft to crisp, highlighting the birch of the restaurant’s name.
At a time of tremendous horror and devastation with the war on Ukraine, this Russian oasis in SF feels like healing balm, bringing the modern Russian food I crave with heart. In these special times, it feels like a source of peace and understanding as Anya and the team reach out in support of Ukraine. Birch & Rye offers a haven of peace, delicately playing with Russian cuisine with a healthy and current sensibility.
// 1320 Castro Street; https://birchandryesf.com