Long before Soviet Russia-raised chef Anya El-Wattar knew she’d take over the former Mahila restaurant space in Noe Valley, she dreamed of opening not just a Russian restaurant, but also a vegan one. That personal desire points to broader history: Darra Goldstein, the top Russian food scholar in the United States, once told El-Wattar that, in the past, devout individuals “who followed traditional Russian diet, with its many prescribed fast days, were de facto vegans for roughly half the year.” Initially, when the restaurant opened in January 2022, El-Wattar offered a la carte options only, but after about a year in business she began offering tasting menus, vegan and non-vegan, too. In doing so, Birch & Rye became one of the only fine dining destinations in San Francisco to offer such an option for plant-based diners.
Before opening Birch & Rye, El-Wattar cut her teeth at landmark vegetarian restaurant Greens, and she says hers is the first Russian restaurant in America to make it into the Michelin guide. But the chef wants her business to be impactful in addition to being pioneering; since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, El-Wattar has helped raise more than $100,000 for Ukrainian relief through the World Central Kitchen.
On December 1 the current five-course vegan tasting menu will cycle into a winter offering, but there’s still time to catch the chefs’ love letter to Russian plant-based dining before it’s gone. Each of the five dishes is either gluten-free or can be made without gluten. Here’s how they’re made:
El-Wattar left Russia at 18 and says she mostly remembers the country through her family, memories of her summer house, and the fields. That also means she doesn’t truck with the arguments that borscht isn’t really Russian. “It’s, for me, a deeply personal and passionate dish,” she says. Her vegan iteration of this most well-known of Eastern European dishes is almost exactly the same as the non-vegan version except that it comes with a cashew smetana rather than a dairy-based smetana.
The most common iteration of the dish is winter borscht — the “pink soup” made from beets and often served in restaurants and people’s homes. But summer borscht is more like a salad topped with kvass, a fermented cereal-based drink sort of like kombucha, which Birch & Rye is looking to put on the menu in the coming months. El-Wattar’s vegan riff leans more toward the summer version of borscht, featuring a thick blend of beets, pickle juice, lots of dill, and cauliflower poured atop root vegetables and cauliflower florets, served with soaked and blended cashews to make a cashew cream smetana. On the menu, the dish is accompanied by a Dostoevsky quote: “Beauty will save the world.”
For the menu’s second dish, El-Wattar wanted to bring in a bit of ritz. She says that while caviar is still king for Russian diners, it's increasingly common to see Russian meals where half of the dishes on the table are called “caviar.” Salads, soups, and meat dishes all can be stylized into forms of caviar, she says, which adds a sense of class. (Think of restaurants serving items “a la mode,” meant to invoke a French sensibility, when they could just as easily point out the dish comes with ice cream.) “There was no recipe for this,” El-Wattar says. “But Russians love caviar. Anything with the word caviar casts a magic spell on a Russian’s soul.”
The dish aims to highlight Russians’ love of the most expensive of caviars while centering vegetables. Beluga lentils and shallots, carrots, and a bit of celery get sauteed in sunflower oil with a seven-spice blend, then creamed in a freezer-mixer to create a light mousse. It’s then garnished with pickled mushroom puree, pickled mustard seeds, and flowers to give it a visual similarity to sturgeon eggs. Slices of rye bread come on the side, though for gluten-free diners potato chips are also available.
In the third course, einkorn noodles, porcini coulis, and fennel oil combine for a stroganoff that’s as stately as it is nourishing. Many of the elements of this dish, El-Wattar says, are nontraditional; but the chef says because Russian food culture is “more or less unknown” to many American diners, she gets a chance to be more inventive. She grew up foraging for light vegetables and mushrooms alongside many of the women in her family. That’s why wild porcini mushrooms, with their natural creamy texture, serve as the star of El-Wattar’s rendition of the dish alongside assorted mixed vegetables and herbs including thyme, parsley, dill, and scallions. It’s finished with fennel, a bit of oil, and microgreens. “They create an illusion,” El-Wattar says of the mushrooms. “As if it’s really an unctuous dish, but it’s just the mushrooms.”
The fourth dish on the menu is traditionally called “doves on a wire,” usually prepared with beef and either rice or buckwheat patties wrapped in cabbage leaves sitting in a pool of tomato sauce. El-Wattar decided to make her vegan version with cabbage and a nest of deep-fried buckwheat noodles for the would-be birds. The chef then smokes and chars a large piece of cabbage in a wood-fired oven before transferring it to a roasting pan, with oil and herbs, for another 45 minutes. “It’s super, super soft,” El-Wattar says. The cabbage comes out atop cashew sour cream and gigante beans, firm but not overly so, prepared with tomato, basil, and vegetable stock.
This 80 percent spelt and 20 percent hazelnut cake, one circular piece that looks like it was cut clean out of a larger sheet with a cookie cutter, comes with chunks of caramelized apple on top and a coconut milk-based sour cherry ice cream on the side — El-Wattar says she uses a lot of cherries for the base, about half coconut milk and half cherry with a dash of elderflower liqueur and orange zest. For gluten-free diners, a poached pear with marzipan tucked inside, like a Russian tea doll, is available. As a final note, the dessert brings the palate back up in just the way dessert should — like walking around the corner for a scoop of your favorite ice cream after a birthday dinner, the sharlotka is distinctively its own dish while being the ideal complement to the rest of the meal.
Birch & Rye, 1320 Castro Street in San Francisco, serves dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations can be made via OpenTable.