In a sea of shared plates, kale salads and foraged ramps, there might be no restaurant in town as of-the-moment as Birch, Brendan Collins' sleek newcomer a few feet from the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Cahuenga. There are edible flowers in the cocktails and foams on the pastas; the menu is practically bursting with what we in the business call "critic bait." Some of the dishes here seem as though they might have been created to parody our current restaurant-world state of being. Baby octopus ragu and foie gras butter and house-made pasta and bone marrow and rabbit and caramelized sweetbreads? Not all in one dish. But almost.
Collins is well known for his love of offal and meaty bits, having made a name for himself as a grand purveyor of charcuterie and beef Wellington at Waterloo and City, his Culver City restaurant that closed on New Year's Eve 2014. Waterloo and City was a much larger, more boisterous affair than Birch, which occupies its modest Hollywood storefront with a sense of style not often seen in this neighborhood. At Waterloo and City, British-born Collins seemed to be channeling his homeland's aptitude for large-scale gastropubs. At Birch, his effort seems less derivative, more personal and vastly more inventive. There was an adept chef at work at Waterloo and City. There's an inspired chef at work here.
The space is glossy and modern, fronted by rolling garage doors that open out onto the street and anchored by a curved, white marble bar. Walls are an eggshell blue-gray, and succulents in built-in planters are the only decoration.
It's a lovely place to stop in for a cocktail and nibble on something at the bar. As of press time the cocktail program was in flux, with Gabriella Mlynarczyk taking over what already was a pretty great list. I can understand the hiring of Mlynarczyk, though, who for years was responsible for the super-modern culinary cocktails at ink. Her Cinnamon cocktail, made with mezcal, amontillado, lime and rice milk, is perhaps a better match with Collins' cooking than the elegant riffs on classics the bar had been producing.
Why are modern cocktails better suited? Because Collins is working to close the gaps between the neighborhood restaurant, the middle-ground destination restaurant and the full-on modernist experience. Some of his dishes are straight-up statuesque, such as monkfish tikka masala, which comes as two kebabs resting on a wooden board, drenched in a creamy, modestly spiced sauce and crowned with a sculptural papadam — made from a mixture of Carolina gold rice and powdered egg white — that's so light it dissolves on the tongue.
A house-made squid ink pappardelle with lobster, tomato and basil is nothing new — there are variations on this dish all over town. At Birch, though, it comes in a pile of foam, as if it was pulled from the washing machine mid–soap cycle. It's a gimmick, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't work. The effect is to lighten, and it also brings to mind the sea foam in which the spry, sweet lobster was recently paddling (or whatever it is that lobsters do).
A gimmick that's not as familiar is a rabbit baklava, a dish with a name that makes it practically impossible to resist ordering. Baklava is perhaps a bit of a stretch; this is cured, confit rabbit meat wrapped in phylo pastry. It's more of a rabbit pie, in the same way that spanikopita is spinach pie. But the sweetness of dates and the subtle crunch of pistachio does hint at the dessert that inspires the dish, and the teeny tiny rack of rabbit ribs as garnish will make the right kind of diner — those who don't mind thinking of the bunny as they eat him — smile. The winks and cleverness of the dish aside, the important part is that it tastes fantastic: hearty, meaty and wholly original.
I wish I could say that the theatrical elements Collins brings to his savory food work just as brilliantly with his desserts. Dishes such as rhubarb and custard scatter your attention in seven different directions: A vanilla soufflé glace! White chocolate cremeux! Rhubarb macaroons! Stewed (but somehow still woody) rhubarb! This million-riffs-on-one-flavor theme carries over to a chocolate posset, which was described to us by three different service folks as more of a mousse, more of an ice cream and a dessert based on cookies. It turned out to be all of these things, the mousse element more like a chocolate paste lining the bottom of the dish, the ice cream and cookies and orange and Greek yogurt piled on top. Looks pretty. Tastes frantic.
You can see Collins' sensibility in these desserts, but that only strengthens the argument that even the best cooks really do need someone else in charge of pastry, in this case someone who might pare back, simplify and distill the ideas of the chef.
The savory menu sometimes overreaches as well. Red Thai curry is delicious and so are sunchokes, but I'm not sure they go so well together — sunchokes might be that rare vegetable that spicy heat dislikes.
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On the other hand, some of these dishes sound as if they'll go horribly wrong, like they'll be overwrought and texturally mismatched, such as a baby octopus ragu with rigatoni and bone marrow. Wouldn't you know it, the dish turns out to be a burly, inspired combination, the meatiness of the octopus working with the tang of the tomato, and ricotta salata making it extra luxurious.
It must be said that of all the streetscapes the rolling garage doors might open onto, this corner is hardly the most alluring. It allows you to gaze upon the perpetually closed Panpipes occult store, some road construction and a dingy adult bookstore, as well as the cast of characters who roam this part of Hollywood (mainly tourists and people arguing about drug deals gone awry, in my experience). But with Birch, as well as the cocktail den and New American restaurant Butchers and Barbers a few blocks away, it seems as though Hollywood proper might be going through a bit of a mini dining renaissance. I don't understand why, but I'm not one to argue with good food, no matter where it pops up.
And there's something delightful about stumbling across this place in the midst of all the sleaze, like discovering a designer dress in the back of a thrift store. If Birch were such a dress, it would be much less Chanel, much more Christian Siriano. It hardly feels timeless. But it feels like right this minute, and that's not so bad.
BIRCH | 3 stars | 1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood | (323) 960-3369 | birchlosangeles.com | Lunch: Mon.-Fri., noon-2:30; Dinner, daily 6-11 p.m.; Brunch, Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. | Share plates, $6-$48 | Full bar | Valet parking