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Patricia Chang

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Wander Into Birch & Rye for Porridge Nests in the Woods

A first look at the new modern Russian restaurant’s striking menu and wild space

A new Russian restaurant creaks open in Noe Valley in the next couple of weeks: Birch & Rye will flip on the reservation lines shortly and open for dinner on February 9, with plans to add brunch on February 20. In a city with few Russian restaurants, it’s an intriguing addition. Chef Anya El-Wattar won’t serve either homey comforts or communist kitsch — rather bold and beautiful dishes featuring foraged and fermented ingredients, in a neutral and natural space filled with birch trees. And so, step into the woods for a bird’s nest of savory porridge, linger over wild mushroom stroganoff on einkorn noodles, or lose your senses to vodka infused with sea buckthorn. Here’s a first look at the bold menu and dishes of the modern Russian restaurant.

El-Wattar says the seed for a restaurant was planted in 2016, when headlines started swirling about Russia interfering in the presidential election. “I was crushed,” El-Wattar says. “For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed to say I was Russian.” Originally born in Moscow, she attended college and culinary school in New York, before launching a successful catering business called Butterfly Social in the Bay Area, serving many different menus, from Jewish to Indian-influenced dishes. Ultimately, the decision to open a Russian restaurant was a way to reclaim pride in her own culture. She did a six-month stint at Greens just before the pandemic, specifically to prepare for restaurant life.

Birch & Rye aims to fill a void in San Francisco, where despite the Little Russia community in the Richmond, there aren’t many Russian restaurants. Of course, fans dearly love Cinderella Bakery, known for comforting piroshki and honey cake, and further north there’s Kachka in Portland, acclaimed for its Soviet-retro pickled herring and vodka shots. While both are delightful, in contrast, El-Wattar says she hopes to parallel the recent resurgence of a local food movement in Russia, where she sees chefs crafting “beautiful, futuristic” dishes starring wild fish and craft cheese, and only in the past year has Michelin even acknowledged Russian restaurants. As a child, El-Wattar spent summers foraging for mushrooms, picking wild sorrel, and tapping birch trees, while her grandmother hung frozen gooseberries out the window in winter.

Digging into the menus, that goal takes shape with breads, including naturally leavened rye sourdough, as well as spelt khachapuri, those cheesy boats with love from Georgia but a favorite street food snack in Moscow. Small plates or “vodka chasers” hit a trio of caviar specially sourced from a Russian farm, less salty and more pure ocean, as well as house-cured salmon. The two requisite soups are borscht, which is “rebellious” and vegan, as well as einkorn pelmeni dumplings. Larger plates include a wild mushroom stroganoff, also unexpectedly vegetarian, and a golubtsi wagyu dish, a deconstructed play on stuffed cabbage, that “doesn’t taste or look like grandma food.” In sweets, the clean birch syrup of El-Wattar’s childhood is transfixed in a gelatin dome suspended with gooseberries and flower petals.

“But brunch is my favorite menu,” El-Wattar says. “We will have one of the most unique brunches in San Francisco.” In fancy porridges, a ring of millet replaces oats, with an entire poached and torched pear standing upright at the center, and housemade almond milk poured tableside. Her kids’ favorite is the buckwheat nest with sweet delicata half-moons, little nameko mushrooms, and jammy eggs. The sirniki, those little cheese pancakes, are her mother’s recipe, and the restaurant is making its own fresh cheese, smetana (sour cream), cultured butter, and buttermilk, using imported kefir cultures. In a neighborhood deprived of cocktails, a full wall proudly displays infused vodkas, from horseradish to delicate linden flower and unusual sea buckthorn. Those are all thanks to cocktail consultant Jennifer Colliau, who also poured them into a strong list of 10 cocktails, including a Black Currant Martini and a Princess Anastasia waltzing with strawberry, cucumber, and tonic. Check out the full dinner menu, below.

The former Mahila and Contigo space on Castro is an intimate 49 seats, flipping the usual layout: The front door swings into the open kitchen with the original woodfired oven, where half a dozen seats pull up to the chef’s counter, before winding back to the bar on the right, and stepping up to a square patio. Architects II renovated the space, toning down the previously bright colors into gray neutrals, warm woods, and natural motifs. They installed birch trunks in the lightwell, strung a birch branch as a light fixture above the host stand, and painted a birch mural across the back of the patio, which will also be lined with ferns, bringing the forest to life. Art etched with waving rye fronds floats above blue banquettes embossed with a silvery leaf pattern, and hand-blown glass light fixtures float like baubles over the dining room.

El-Wattar anticipates that Birch & Rye will have two audiences: Americans who may have little reference for Russian food, who she hopes can be tempted over to her strong flavors, and Russians who she fully expects to be a “tough crowd” with some skepticism. But the menu offers a couple of different journeys into the woods, whether diners opt for a light lunch of a khachapuri cheese boat and a vibrant bowl of borscht, or go wild at dinner with caviar trios, wagyu steak, and infused vodka. “I want a 2022 Russian experience,” El-Wattar says. “Born out of a sense of pride.”

Birch & Rye will open for dinner on February 9. Opening hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. The restaurant will add brunch on February 20. Reservations will go live shortly.

Birch & Rye

1320 Castro St., San Francisco, CA 94114 Visit Website
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