IN­NER BEAST

Birch is meant to be a fancy, of-the-mo­ment, small-plates place. But the joy in its chef ’s cooking is most ev­i­dent when he lets his butcher in­stincts run wild.

Los Angeles Times - - SATURDAY - JONATHAN GOLD

When you stroll south down Cahuenga from Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard, you run into tat­too par­lors, neat mobs of peo­ple gath­ered out­side anony­mous vel­vet ropes, and bad­de­ci­sion 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.)

The cock­tails, un­der the su­per- vi­sion 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, mil­lioncalo­rie ver­sion of sticky tof­fee pud­ding, served in a cast-iron skil­let in a serv­ing suf­fi­cient for 10.

Christina House For The Times

BREN­DAN COLLINS, late of Water­loo & City, is driv­ing to­ward more mod­ern cui­sine (but still in­dulging in meat dishes) at his new restau­rant Birch in Hol­ly­wood.

Pho­tog raphs by Christina House For The Times

YOU COULD or­der the chef ly bur­rata at Birch or the kale salad, but the small-plates restau­rant’s great spe­cial­ties are its more for­mi­da­ble meat dishes.

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