The Kuh Review: Birch

For his latest, Brendan Collins flits from London to Tokyo to the Middle East and beyond
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London for me is Ladbroke Grove in the early ’80s, when the reggae beat of Joan Armatrading and Linton Kwesi Johnson seemed to float from every open window. I was a teenager, just starting to loosen myself from my home in Dublin with occasional excursions, and food was an instructive splurge. If I visited during the summertime Notting Hill Carnival, I’d devour the squishy fish patties that Trinidadian women sold from stalls. At other times of the year I’d order big plates of chicken tikka masala from mom-and-pop Indian restaurants; the chunks of thigh meat, spice-laden sauce, and mountain of basmati rice would never fail to last me through the day.

British-born chef Brendan Collins has his own spin on the classic: He’ll marinate a skewer of monkfish in fenugreek and yogurt, cooking the lobsterlike flesh over binchotan, that Japanese charcoal whose odorless smoke is prized by yakitori experts. The skewer rides on a slate slab, drizzled with a complex masala sauce that mingles with a blend of pureed lime pickle and yogurt beneath the fish. Balanced on top are a pair of crisp, airy veils fashioned from a paste of Carolina Gold rice that double as the world’s lightest pappadam, the crackling fried disk often formed from chickpea flour. Lest it come off as being too sculptural, the waiter, clad in a short-sleeved blue oxford shirt, eases the flesh off the skewer in a practiced move so inviting, you half expect to hear him say, “Have at it.”

The dish is a surprise, all the more so amid the clamor of the Cahuenga Corridor in a place called Birch, which looks every bit as Northern European as it sounds. The name is actually an allusion to the trees that stood near Collins’s childhood home in Nottingham, and Swedish designer Ann Karlstrom has spun the suggestion of silvery bark into the white walls and spherical planters surrounding pale wood tables and Eames-inspired wood chairs. The effect is calming until the staff rolls up the room’s retractable front, bringing you that much closer to the woofer-laden LeSabre cruising by.

Launched in March a block below Hollywood Boulevard, Birch is intended to fit into a changing neighborhood where the construction cranes almost outnumber the tattoo parlors and where parking attendants alter their lot fees like commodities brokers. Brunch can be as basic as eggs and toast, while Sunday’s $35 prix fixe (half-price bottles of wine) is an enticing choice if you’re wandering over from your loft. Gabriella Mlynarczyk’s drinks, deftly teasing out foraged notes with garnishes such as lacy white carrot blossoms, keep the bar program in the cocktail conversation.

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Maybe it’s the compact size of the restaurant, but the cooking seems more focused than what Collins was doing at Waterloo & City, the Culver City gastropub he operated with Carolos Tomazos from 2010 to 2014. Occupying a former Crest House Family Restaurant on a desolate stretch of Washington Boulevard, it could grind out 400 covers on a busy night. Though Collins outfitted his cooks with bowler hats and named the venture after a tube line, this wasn’t a theme restaurant for English expats. You could have a lustrous sauce lapping at your veal fillet, but you’d be as content sharing a chorizo-and-egg pizza or a smoked tongue-and-carrot terrine that packed all the power Fergus Henderson celebrates with his nose-to-tail cooking at London’s St. John.

Collins showed range then, and there’s more of it at Birch, despite a menu that fits on one page. He skips from India to Japan, with layovers in France, Greece, and the United Kingdom, always ready to blend several genres into a balanced whole. As an approach it risks being showy and confusing, but not in this kitchen; there’s invariably vision and precise technique behind even the most conceptual creation. Collins slow-cooks lamb belly, caramelizing it with red wine vinegar and fresh mint glaze on the flattop, then sets a morsel of tender, striated muscle over a peck of fresh peas that have been mixed with spring onions and nuggets of Benton’s Tennessee bacon. The garnish is so close to the classic petit pois à la française preparation, the lamb-mint combo could pass for a subtle Brit counterpoint, the smoky notes of the pork and a luxurious foie gras sauce engaging in a face-off between the rustic and the refined.

Such sure-handedness with animal protein is what earned Collins his reputation as a meat chef, but it’s equally impressive to see where he and chef de cuisine Philip Hall go with seafood. It’s not just a case of swapping one kind of flesh for another, as Collins does with the masala. He cuts the hamachi thicker than what you’d get with sashimi, playing off the soft richness with a crunchy coil of watermelon radish and a dab of pureed fermented grapefruit that’s been stretched out with yuzu juice. For a different item he wraps a sushi-grade fillet of salmon with rosemary and bay leaf in a thin sheet of birch paper, then roasts it like a tinfoil bundle on a campfire; it’s still smoldering when laid on the table. That’s about as showy as Collins gets. The fish-and-chips is authoritatively simple without being generic: a single, hefty piece of pearly cod coated in a yeast-bloomed beer batter and fried in pristine oil—he insists on the cleanliness to keep the oil’s flash point high—to form a crisp, fragile seal. A vial of malt vinegar accompanies the cod, but the tartar sauce is too assertive to bypass, rife as it is with chopped cornichons, caper berries, herbs, and white onions.

It’s the only overtly “British” entrée here, an isolated nod to Collins’s distant starting point. His father worked for Shipstones, a Nottingham brewery, manning the taps at the company’s network of pubs whenever an owner went on vacation. By 17 Collins was wearing a toque and pinging around Thames-side Michelin institutions like the Roux brothers’ Le Gavroche and Regent Street’s Hotel Café Royal. After landing in L.A. in 2002, he worked for Josiah Citrin at Mélisse and Alain Giraud at Anisette, where he honed the French technique that’s apparent, often subtly, in many of his updated offerings, even when they’re vaguely Italian. Squid ink pappardelle arrive in a skein studded with lobster knuckles and a potent sauce consisting of a stock fashioned from roasted lobster shells and a mirepoix of vegetables. A concentrated chicken jus anchors the arrangement of seared sweetbreads, potato gnocchi, and browned cauliflower. It’s tasty, but I find such a sedate grouping too well behaved—more rote than passionate. Collins’s cooking is at its best with more edge, as when he chars octopus and crescents of eggplant to an extreme, achieving an almost carbonized level of done-ness, then hitting them with an illuminating combo of chimichurri and red pepper hummus.

Charred octopus with Japanese eggplant, red pepper hummus, and chimichurri (left); fish-and-chips
Charred octopus with Japanese eggplant, red pepper hummus, and chimichurri (left); fish-and-chips

He goes more directly Middle Eastern with za’atar flatbread, which has been crusted with the herb blend and spends time in a CVap—a high-end oven that cooks with vapor—to develop swollen air pockets before being thrown on the griddle. You can dunk a piece in a smoked paprika-yogurt dip, but I’ve also used a handful to scoop up the chicken liver and foie gras mousse, the warmth of the thyme-and-sumac-scented bread melting the jellied Madeira crown. A rabbit baklava is topped with pitted cherries and a double chop but suffers from being mushy. I’m more in line with Collins’s gyro, which is less conceptual. Rather than spit-roasted lamb in a pita pocket, he serves pork shank glazed with lemongrass fish sauce. Alongside it is fermented cabbage slaw and some of that charred flatbread to pop the meat into.

Collins has a knack for elevating everyday dishes without condescending; he celebrates—as opposed to “improves”— by balancing robust flavors with delicate touches. So he takes what might be a perfectly fine ear of grilled corn at, say, the Alameda Swap Meet, putting the two halves in a bowl slathered with whipped mascarpone and bathing them in a foamed mushroom stock that’s been finished with brown butter. Shaved truffles go over the top. The cute corn holders that protrude from the ends of the cobs look like something from a ’70s issue of Sunset; I don’t know what era or hemisphere he’s channeling, but it’s good.

If there’s a point on the menu where the geography narrows and becomes specific, it’s in the desserts, which inspire outright nostalgia for Collins. Does rhubarb go with custard? Like bangers go with mash. Collins modifies the eggy mixture from the English norm, serving it cold instead of hot and formed into a sphere, the stewed fruit’s bright acidity folded around it like bunting. He tosses sliced strawberries over clouds of whipped cream, adding to the lushness with shards of meringue. Toffee pudding with burned-sugar ice cream (it sounds like a line from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is presented in a red Le Creuset skillet; the foursome I saw pouncing on the thing one night, spoons in hand, was happy in the way folks facing a platter of Beard Papa’s cream puffs can be. A few tables away a diner who’d been discussing his cool new Red Wing boots was getting to know posset, a pudding traditionally made from curds that Collins sharpens with orange segments and cocoa nibs.

The coziness of the sweet fare is in direct contrast to the din of the traffic and the voices rising inside and out as the night grows longer. Birch may not be the hideaway for a quiet date or where you’ll find a well-lighted table to get into David McCullough’s tome on the Wright brothers. Still, I like how the almost sports-bar entrance lends the place a welcoming feel, and it’s a nice reminder that a chef doesn’t always need a cloistered interior to make a personal statement.


Birch

1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
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Best dishes: Za’atar flatbread, chicken liver and foie gras mousse, corn with truffles, glazed lamb belly, monkfish tikka masala, skillet toffee pudding

Drinks: Excellent bar program; short, serviceable wine list

Atmosphere: Jovial

Noise level: Street traffic can get loud

Kid friendly?: Tables on the back terrace are best

Price range: $6 (flatbread) to $32 (pork shank)

Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 12-2:30. Dinner: Nightly, 6-11. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11-3

Parking: Valet ($8), street and nearby lots

Reservations: Recommended

Credit cards: All major

Contact: 323-960-3369

 

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