(by Corbo Eng)
It’s easy to see that the building that houses the restaurant was formerly a garage. The roll-up door is still intact and is opened on warm days to let the outside in—sunshine and light and everything else that’s foreign to darkness. Normally, the interior at Birch and Barley is bat cave dark—and, in a way that Hitchcock rather than Bruce Wayne, might have approved of (if the legendary filmmaker had wanted to create a pernicious undertone). But, such a possibility would, ultimately, be baseless conjecture—and wrong. There’s more hope and benevolence to that moody space than anything remotely sinister. Candles punctuate the walls like stars dot the night; and, a series of hanging lights sprinkle the dining room with the same force of illumination that love might express—if a heart were healing from heartbreak.
It’s the kind of ambiance that can make a meal special and that recruits wonder and intrigue where things are faint, that wants a nose to find aromas, and where symmetry and plating inform diners that something delicious is at hand. Even the better lit back room, where the chef’s table butts against the kitchen, loses very little of the aura that dresses the main room. But, in the end, one would have to admit that it’s a different kind of love that bathes it. The amiable precision of the team in the kitchen at work suggests a band in concert, finding its groove, and not healing heartbreak so much as frolicking in the moment.
Sitting at my seat—a smooth, transparent plastic stool with metal legs (which looks like a futuristic NASA prototype)—I can appreciate the aesthetic, the interplay of style, texture, and materials that the restaurant attempts to achieve (with the rich wood and exposed brick that otherwise frame the space). My eyes scan to see the seamless juxtaposition that’s there (the brute but gentle force of nature meeting the polished handiwork of modern man); but, like a man pulled into a performance, I’m too drawn to the kitchen from my vantage point.
There, the sights and sounds of that aforementioned “band” draw me in. And, it’s all mesmerizing: the basting, the searing, the mixing, the broiling, the kneading, the cutting, the chorus of clattering plates that, for me, replaces human voices. Line cooks and sous chefs move in synchrony. Executive Chef Kyle Bailey, in the house on a respite from The Arsenal at Bluejacket—where he also serves as the head chef in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s new brewery and restaurant—is tonight’s expeditor, tonight’s maestro behind the movements.
His shaven head and goatee give him a distinctive look that, in DC, at least, is unmistakably his. With a rapt expression and intermittent smile, it’s a look that moves with his movements, that intermingles and even soothes rather than intimidates. As he steps from the sink to his perch behind the stove, to a line of wooden cutting boards used to assemble and serve charcuterie, Bailey is very much like a man in a control room producing a record. He’s absorbed in the sights and sounds of his kitchen—and, at times, his eyes appear closed, in concentration or in calculation, as he’s calling out orders. With his arms gesturing or simply by his side, there’s an instinctual, almost unconscious quality to his work—like he knows what he wants, has found it in himself and others, and, is, as a consequence, delivering the goods.
Once the charcuterie is served, it’s clear this is so. It’s got me using my bare hands, fumbling for the wrong fork, mixing up a string of adjectives as I compose my thoughts: luscious, smooth, earnest, robust. The coppa, exhibiting cheeks and jowls, and the chicken liver mousse, vibrant and creamy, fight to the head of the class even as the sausage, cut into a trio of segments, initially impresses the most. The sausage is like a guitar riff that opens a song…but that ultimately shares a larger, more complex soundscape that, unrepentantly, can’t be ignored (with melt-in-the-mouth lardo and a whole grain mustard that smacks me in the head).
While it would be unlikely that the inspiration for the charcuterie stretches in a line directly back to Dan Barber himself—he of Blue Hill fame, guru of pig-to-tail and farm-to-table eating—it is, nonetheless, a tempting thought given that Bailey once worked under Barber’s tutelage and undoubtedly absorbed some of the James Beard Award winning chef’s philosophy and approach. Between bites of scrapple and cleansing my palate with an irresistible cornichon, I picture Kyle Bailey in his chef whites chasing down a few stray pigs at Stone Barns, Barber’s farm/restaurant in Westchester County, New York…a playful image that fades into an engrossing scene of Bailey as a charcuterier, making sausage, but suggesting none of the pejorative associations of a bad sausage making joke. This is no joke—but artistry.
But, there is more pork to come. Pork, in various and harmonious permutations, is well represented at Birch and Barley. Such would be expected at a restaurant that butchers its own hogs and uses every part of it. But, between finishing off the charcuterie and sampling a few slices of beautifully rendered fig and prosciutto flatbread (that feature more of Bailey’s pork-centric vision), I wait for the roasted pork loin, my main course.
Here, with a medley of spaetzel, English peas, and pea shoots, four unassuming slices of pork loin—each with a teasing crest of lovely fat, partnering with yet more house made sausage—delights me in a way that only the best meats can—with traits that mark anyone’s list: tender, succulent, and seared in places where it ought to be. It has me muttering underneath my breath and trying to remember when I last had pork this good. It’s worth a few more swigs of pale ale.
Victor, my server, stops by to check on me. But, by this time, there is nothing that I want or need other than some water…other than an offering of completion at the end of a race. So, I have some—even as my head, still contemplating what it came for, searches for daylight. The main dining room, now, is abuzz with guests as I emerge from my food, which like an airtight bubble, has seemingly shielded me from the crescendoing activity of dinner service.
About twenty minutes earlier, Victor had brought out a complimentary serving of Chef Bailey’s newest dish: tortellini stuffed with eggplant, with peas, smothered in a tomato sauce infused with smoked cheese. I inhaled it faster than I could form an opinion of it, which, in and of itself, says everything, of course. Kyle Bailey, even before landing at Blue Hill, had spent time at Cru—a glamorous spot in Manhattan’s dining scene, under Shea Gallante, a noted pasta aficionado and avid proponent of Italian cuisine. Either there, amidst elegant wine pairings, or, later at Blue Hill, between beers, roasting pork, and grilling fish, Bailey, undoubtedly, picked up the knack for making great pasta as well; and, in so doing, he rounded out his talents in a way that would make him a keenly versatile chef.
Kyle Bailey came on board when Birch and Barley opened in 2009 and took the helm of a restaurant destined to reshape the nascent food scene on 14th Street, which, at that time, was unremarkable. Many of the neighborhood’s best restaurants—Estadio, Le Diplomate, Pearl Dive, Doi Moi, Ted’s Bulletin, and Kapnos—which have all become mainstays, were still distant dreams. Frankly, the neighborhood’s two main draws were, arguably, Yum’s II, a perfunctory Chinese carryout, and Popeye’s Fried Chicken.
Birch and Barley, with its beer-centric approach was, obviously, aiming to do something different—to offer great food, which would be paired with great beer. It was a challenge, certainly, if for no other reason that food, in such a model, is prone to be thought of as gastropub fare. But, being a fan of beer and having cooked with beer pairings in mind at Allen & Delancey, the now shuttered Lower East Side restaurant in New York where he first headed a kitchen, Bailey, undoubtedly, wanted to create a more elevated menu—one that would duly represent him as the restaurant’s principle agent.
Given his range as a chef, shaped by his proclivity to satisfy the carnivore within himself and his customers—favoring pork and fish, as he does, and his being a skilled pasta maker—the force of all that, once wedded to a seasonal/local equation, might have resulted in food that’s trite and uninspired and that could be featured on 50 other menus espousing the same approach or, else, have reached too far and be too playful and gimmicky. However, the menu and the food, changing subtlely and evolving over the years, always has Bailey’s well-anchored imprint all over it. Thankfully, he hasn’t offered up any Berkshire pork chops with tofu mousse or salmon sliders with ham and blue cheese.
If there’s anything forced, it’s the sky over DC—which, with the sun having set, is dark blue, the kind that’s so blue it wants to be black—so uncompromising that it won’t easily let something as earthy as a meal get the better of it. Skies, inscrutable and untouchable, often, sulk but dominate once the sun is gone. It’s no different today as my first step onto the 14th Street sidewalk, post-meal, feels nothing like a dining room that wants and needs to be hospitable. While there’s a vague segue of tones—dark and blue-black—I know I’ve left. It’s emphasized all the more by the hanging lights, overhead, tugging at me to stay.
“Thank you, I appreciate the kind words,” Chef Bailey says to me. We chat; I thank him for a great meal. My words, effortless in their intent, float like timeless space between notes….in that silence just before a drum break. Then, the clattering sound of plates and the hustle of, not one, but two or three servers—ushering bread, desserts, risotto, and cavatelli onto trays—is all I can see and hear. Everything, at once, glows in a flash of brilliant light…but it doesn’t, really; or, does it? My eyes betray me. Turning around and walking away—heading for the door, I’m still too absorbed in the food to know.
This article was originally posted in May 2014.
Copyright 2014 (Corbo Eng). All rights reserved.
All photos by Corbo Eng unless otherwise stated.