After months of planning and a series of soft openings, Birch will open its doors at 459 Pleasant St. for both indoor and patio dining on Wednesday, June 2.
The restaurant, which was announced in April, will offer an ever-changing hyper-local, seasonal menu which focuses on simple, local ingredients coaxed to life by live fire and expert technique. And it will do so with an impressive slate of humans at its helm: former Birch + Butcher co-owner Becca Zwiefelhofer, sommelier Waterford Wine & Spirits owner Ben Christiansen and Chef Kyle Knall.
Guests who formerly dined at Birch + Butcher will likely notice a variety of (primarily spatial) changes at the restaurant, which has been reconfigured to offer a cozier, more intimate environment. That includes the addition of a service station toward the middle of the dining area and new, deep grey shelving on the southern wall which displays the restaurant’s extensive collection of curated wines. A semi-private dining area has also been added, separated by a half-wall.
Those changes will soon be augmented in the coming weeks by a brand new bar, which will occupy the former retail space at the entrance of the restaurant. The bar will feature drinks created by Beverage Manager Kyle Soukup, formerly of Lake Park Bistro, along with various wine pours. It will also provide a place for guests to grab a drink after work (the bar will open about an hour earlier than the restaurant) as well as a place for singles or couples to enjoy barside seating for dinner.
In turn, the former dining room bar will function as additional hightop seating for guests, with some seats offering a bird’s eye view of Birch’s open kitchen.
From the farm into the fire
Knall – whose career includes work in New Orleans and New York at venues including Gramercy Tavern and Maysville – heads up the kitchen at Birch alongside Sous Chef Zach Nelsen, another Gramercy alum who most recently headed the kitchen Oggie’s at Hotel Metro.
He says he and his wife Meghan, who is originally from Brookfield, began discussing a move to Wisconsin in 2019 after he’d helped to open Electric Lemon in New York.
“We decided that Wisconsin would be a great place to put down roots and raise our family,” he says, noting that he planned to open a modern American tavern in the area. “There’s something different and special that I really love about Milwaukee. I see so much positivity on both the career side and for my family here.”
But plans changed when Christiansen, who he’d met earlier through a mutual friend, invited him to partner on the Birch concept, which capitalized on his years of experience with hearth cooking.
“When people think about live fire, the first thing they think of is smoke. But smoke isn’t the feature; it can be too overpowering. For me, it’s more about using the fire as a tool for caramelization and to offer depth to dishes that are otherwise really fresh and simple.”
He says the fire is also a tool that assists in elevating seasonal vegetables and showcasing them at the center of the plate.
“You can’t make great food without amazing produce,” he says. “Part of what appeals to me here is the strength of agriculture in Wisconsin. The goal is to celebrate seasonal vegetables while they are here and get creative with what’s available during the colder months.”
The menu is accompanied by a beautiful selection of wines curated by Christiansen, which features select glass pours ($8-$16) and bottles (with a good number in the $30 to $60 range) from Austria, California, France, Italy, Germany and Oregon, including many you won’t find elsewhere. They range from refreshing sparkling selections and mineral-forward whites to well balanced roses and reds
Cocktails from Soukup range from the Pleasant Street Sour made with a rhubarb shrub to warm weather quaffs like The Gosh Darn Humidity Aperol spritz and the Birch Old Fashioned, which sports a hint of cardamom ($12-14). A short list of beers include Southern Grist Passionfruit Batida Fruited Sour, Bearded Iris' Name Game Double IPA and More Brewing’s Villa Pils German Pilsner ($7-$9).
A peek at the menu
Knall says his goal is to create a flexible menu that can be presented as a coursed meal with wine pairings or enjoyed as a shareable feast among family members or a group of friends.
“The menu will change often enough that a table that comes in and orders the entire menu can come back again the next week and still find something new,” he says.
That includes about eight smaller format dishes including an ever-evolving snackable salad featuring fresh raw vegetables displayed on a bed of seeds and served with carrot miso dip ($12).
Vegetables can be whorled in the miso dip and then coated in the seasoned bed of seeds, giving texture and flavor in every bite. The dish, says Knall, shows off what’s fresh at the market, as well as providing an interactive eating experience.
Additional selections will include a crudo, currently thinly sliced Steelhead trout with jalapeno, cilantro and lime ($13). It’s a bright, fresh dish that showcases the clean flavor of the trout.
Don’t miss the hearth baked focaccia (currently studded with grilled ramps), served alongside seasonal wood roasted vegetables and fresh, silky housemade ricotta cheese ($9). Our plate screamed spring with tender ultra-green fiddleheads that were amazing dipped in the ricotta.
You can also enjoy the beautifully caramelized foccaccia alongside beef tartare dressed with charred spring onion, pickled ramps and herbs ($14).
From there, Knall says there will be a selection of housemade pasta dishes (featuring both filled and cut pastas), up to three or four at any given time. Each will be available in either a small or large portion.
Current selections include bright vegetal wild nettle ravioli with asparagus, hazelnuts and lemon ($16/$25); it's beautiful paired with the Domaine Paul Pernot Bourgogne Cote d'Or ($16/$64). You'll also find wide egg pasta served with slow roasted Duroc pork, arugula and Hakurei turnips ($15/$24).
Meanwhile, wood-fired entrees will range from a vegetarian plate, which rotates with the influx of fresh vegetables to a dish inspired by Mexico City restaurant Contramar featuring grilled marinated fish served with fresh tortillas, herb salad and a fresh salsa.
The current rendition features flavorful grilled Steelhead trout and salsa verde with bright tart tomatillos and avocado ($27).
There’s also roasted “chicken under a brick” featuring tender, flavorful chicken with an ultra-crisp exterior served with an herbal grilled bread salad and tarragon aioli ($26); and herb-brushed beef flat iron steak served with creamy field peas, charred spring vegetables and a bright, yet earthy pumpkin seed chimichurri ($28).
Pair the steak with the amazing Ottosoldi Barbera del Monferrato (2016), a wine that's simultaneously earthy and juicy with bright blackberry notes, along with leather and herbs ($10/$40).
The dessert menu will include simple, crowd-pleasing options including something chocolate, seasonal hearth-roasted fruit desserts and refreshing granitas.
Starting June 2, Birch will be open Wednesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations can be made online at birchonpleasant.com
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.