Last week, I was thrilled to have a long conversation with Anya El-Wattar, the chef and owner of the soon-to-open BIRCH & RYE in Noe Valley. After traveling throughout Russia with my father for three weeks during World Cup, my eyes were really opened to so many incredible dishes and ingredients and deep culinary history. I’m excited to continue my culinary education (and enjoyment) at this new restaurant, which is going to be a unique addition to our scene here.
This is El-Wattar’s first restaurant, a project her past catering clients and friends have been asking her to do for years. She received her formal culinary training at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, and studied at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, and has also worked at Greens—you can see her strong connection to ingredients and health. Her “modern Russian kitchen” menu will feature dishes from various eras and regions, and traditional Russian ingredients, but will also have a seasonal California influence and lightness. She is very in tune with the land and nature and farming, and this will all shape her menu.
Anya grew up in Moscow, and came to the United States when she was eighteen, but fondly and vividly remembers her summers in the country at her grandparents’ cabin, about 90 minutes outside of the city. For three months, she would be immersed in nature, and forage for mushrooms and berries, make preserves, learn how to tap birch trees for sap, and get water from the well. She said in the summer, every inch of their quarter-acre lot was planted. These memories are so firmly implanted in her memory, and she envisions the menu as an expression of her summer house experiences and memories. All the pickles and preserves tie back to memories of her grandmother, and how they’d need to preserve food for the rest of the year. Every dish on the menu has a story, and she wants her customers to feel like guests at her summer house—she is tapping into and sharing the soul of Russian food and cuisine, and wants to treat the food, staff, and guests with honor and respect.
You can take a look at a preview of the dinner menu, which begins with bread service (including spelt khachapuri, a traditional Georgian cheese bread, served with an egg yolk on top that you mix into the cheese, it is heaven on earth—and it’s going to taste extra-special coming from the wood-fired oven, a holdover from the space’s earlier incarnation as Contigo).
The zakuski (“little bites”) feature small plates like a reimagined version of Olivier, a potato salad that was a staple in the Soviet Union, and you’ll see traditional berries like sea buckthorn with the cured salmon, and black currants with the Liberty Duck liver mousse (Anya is working with an organic berry farm in Vermont, which planted five varieties of sea buckthorn, a berry I am obsessed with). Caviar service features blini made with einkorn, the oldest and original wheat, which also appears in the pelmeni (served with herbed chicken, bone broth, Tokyo turnips, and dill oil—sounds like a dream). Borscht will get body and creaminess from a roasted cauliflower base, with the soup poured tableside over roasted vegetables, fresh herbs, and smetana, a type of cultured cream that you will see elsewhere on the menu. There will be a few main dishes, including a wild mushroom Stroganoff with einkorn noodles and a sauce with fennel oil. Dessert includes birch sap jelly with gooseberries, Siberian caramelized pine nuts, and flower petals. It all sounds like a dreamy walk in the forest!
There will also be a special Sunday brunch service, with dishes like a rye waffle with sour cherry compote, whipped smetana, and maple syrup; duck egg salad with petite rye, kaluga caviar, pickled cucumber; and a roasted buckwheat bowl topped with nameko, winter squash, chestnuts, and jammy eggs. One of everything, please.
There’s also a full liquor license, and consultant Jennifer Colliau (Small Hand Cocktails) has been infusing vodkas with ingredients like horseradish or fig-anise or linden flower, which can be served neat as well as be used in a variety of cocktails. The wine list—from GM/beverage director Maria Agostinelli—features a diverse list of wines from California, Georgia, and France, with a number of sparkling wines, and an extensive offering by the glass, with some extra-special pours (thanks to Coravin).
The space was renovated by Jim Maxwell and Cindy Beckman of Architects II, who styled it with natural colors of white and grey, with handblown glass light fixtures, illuminated images of a rye field, stained wood, and silver-blue leaf banquettes. The feeling is of minimalist, organic luxury, echoed by the understated but quality plates from Portugal. The back terrace is now enclosed, and features a birch mural, ferns, and flowers, giving it the feeling of being in the forest. There’s also a chef counter flanking the open kitchen, with six seats where you can interact with Anya and have an extra-special experience (look for this in the reservations options). A curbside lounge will be constructed out front, where you can enjoy a cocktail while waiting for a table.
Birch & Rye opens on February 9th for dinner, but reservations are already getting pretty booked up. Brunch begins Sunday February 20th. Hours will be Wed-Sat 5pm-9pm and Sunday brunch 10am-3pm. 1320 Castro St. at 24th St.
Trio of caviar. Photo courtesy of Birch & Rye.