Despite a glut of fantastic restaurants opening in the Bay Area and Wine Country last year, the list of semi-finalists for the prestigious James Beard Award for best new restaurant included just one from Northern California: Birch & Rye.
No one who follows the Bay Area food scene was surprised that the modern Russian restaurant in Noe Valley got the nod. Birch & Rye’s star has been rising quickly since its doors opened last February. It is so far the only Russian restaurant to have earned Michelin recognition in the United States, and chef-owner Anya El-Wattar was named Eater SF’s 2022 chef of the year.
El-Wattar’s elegant, contemporary menu thoughtfully teases apart and reshapes the elements of Russian cooking, but she does not consider it a love letter to her homeland. Birch & Rye is a love letter to America.
“We are imagining what Russian food might look like through a California lens,” the chef explains, if historical factors like scarcity, shortages, and strict governmental regulation hadn’t prevented chefs from accessing the wild-caught seafood, craft cheeses, and seasonal and local produce that might have allowed the region to develop a farm-to-table movement similar to our own.
Indeed, Birch & Rye’s menu is braided with local delights, from chanterelles to sea urchin. El-Wattar herself went out that morning to forage the pops of leafy green and blooming nasturtium that appeared on some of the dishes when I visited (just don’t ask her to reveal exactly where she goes).
Rye donuts with caramel and caviar.(Sarah Felker)
Some things, though, are better straight from the source. To make the most authentic smetana, a kind of cultured crème fraiche, for example, they import kefir from Russia and combine it with locally produced cream. El-Wattar has just gotten her hands on some historical Russian cookbooks—including the 1930s-era government-standardized recipe for rye bread—that she’s excited to interpret through her modern lens.
And then there’s the caviar, those briney pearls of salty goodness harvested from Siberian sturgeon and osetra from the Caspian and Black seas. It’s there that my long-awaited meal at Birch & Rye begins, with delicate clusters of roe topping pillowy einkorn blinis dotted with smetana. It’s also, ultimately, where my meal ends, with a fantastically subversive rye donut with caramel and a dollop of caviar—possibly the most unexpectedly delicious dessert I’ve ever had.
Equally subversive is El-Wattar’s five-course vegan tasting menu, which shatters the expectation that Russian cuisine must revolve around fish, caviar, and dairy. With a background in vegan cooking (she formally trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute), the chef creates a “dignified” plant-based menu with caviar in beet and black walnut form, and smetana made from pine nuts.
Black cod with beet root, asparagus, and pine milk foam.(Sarah Felker)
El-Wattar loves to create architectural shapes with her dishes and it’s evident in each of the courses delivered to the table. The squid-ink pelmeni, dumplings filled with crab and ricotta and drizzled with tangy sea buckthorn foam, has a lacy, sculptural, squid ink-infused crown; the black cod with beet, asparagus, and pine milk is punctuated by the delicate butterfly wing of a nearly translucent beet chip.
Where there is Russian food—even delicately deconstructed and redesigned Russian food—there is vodka. At Birch & Rye, they infuse the spirit 10 different ways, with mostly traditional flavors like linden flowers, pickled beets, and orange-pine-apricot, then serve them solo, as flights, or in cocktails like the black current martini. The sharp horseradish-infused vodka is so uniquely tasty that I vow to attempt my own at home.
While some chefs might feel more pressure to perform following a James Beard nomination, to El-Wattar the acknowledgement is an inspiration not a burden, not just for Birch & Rye but for Russian food culture as a whole.
“Seeing Birch & Rye on the semifinalist list inspires us to work even harder to achieve our goal to showcase excellence on every level—food, experience, and warm, loving hospitality,” she says. “We’re not just reimagining the flavors of my native land, we’re hoping to break stereotypes of how Russian food and people are perceived.”
// Birch & Rye is open for dining Tuesday through Saturday from 5pm to 9pm; 1320 Castro St. (Noe Valley), birchandryesf.co.
Executive chef and owner of Birch & Rye, Anya El-Wattar.(Mark Rywelski)