Birch & Rye is Anya El-Wattar’s modern Russian fine dining restaurant, one of the only of its kind in the country. Opened in February in Noe Valley, the restaurant offers El-Wattar’s reinterpretation of classic Russian dishes through a Californian lens.
“One of my personal missions is to highlight the nuance and beauty of Russian culture and food,” says El-Wattar, who was born in Moscow and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 18. “Can I make it interesting? Can I really elevate it? Can I create something that can join the rest of the culinary community?”
The restaurant offers three distinct tasting menus: a five-course tasting menu ($125), a five-course vegan tasting menu ($125), and an opulent caviar-centric counter tasting menu ($200). Below are deep dives into five of the courses, dish by dish.
It’s almost essential to have a glass (or carafe) of one of the house-infused vodkas on the table at all times throughout the meal. There are 10 different ones to choose, like the floral strawberry-rose; the subtly sweet, magenta-hued black currant; and the spicy, nasal-clearing horseradish.
Along with the vodkas, it would also be wise to go with the wine pairings picked by Birch & Rye’s beverage director and general manager Maria Agostinelli, who sources rare and relatively esoteric wines from countries like Georgia, Slovakia, and Hungary to pair with the fare.
El-Wattar sources sturgeon from Sacramento and hot-smokes it over almond wood. She then makes a mayonnaise spiked with a cured Meyer lemon paste for an extra brightness; folds the smoked sturgeon into the mayo; and then passes the mixture into a food processor to create a creamy texture. The mixture is plated into a ring mold, then topped with a quenelle of kaluga caviar, and served with a few slices of Russian rye bread that’s baked in house.
“The combination of smoked sturgeon, caviar, and rye bread is so profoundly Russian,” says El-Wattar. “Smoked sturgeon is part of every celebration — any Russian feast has this dish in some way, shape, or form.”
This dish is found on both the chef’s tasting menu and caviar tasting menu, and they do a vegan version made with a mouse of smoked beluga lentils topped with seaweed “caviar.”
“Stroganoff has such a reputation of being beefy with a heavy sauce,” says El-Wattar. “I wanted to make a statement and make it more modern.”
A centerpiece of the vegan tasting menu is El-Wattar’s modern stroganoff dish. “I was inspired to create a dish that communicates the spirit of living off the land and using wild ingredients, and I wanted to lighten it up and make it a bit California,” says El-Wattar.
It starts with the noodles, which are made in-house from a dough of einkorn flour and semolina. The dough is then cut into a flat-and-thin, fettuccine-like shape. “I like this pasta because it’s chewier and it’s got this distinct sweet and nutty flavor,” says El-Wattar.
It’s plated over a mushroom coulis made from onions, wild porcini mushrooms, thyme, tarragon, dill, scallion, and parsley. It’s deglazed with porcini stock, then pureed and passed through a sieve so it’s nice and silky. It’s plated with dots of fennel oil, the noodles, and sauteed mushrooms, and then garnished with nasturtium flowers, dill, pea tendrils and garlic flowers.
Cabbage rolls stuffed with ground beef mixed with rice or buckwheat and simmered with tomato are a common dish you’ll find throughout Russia and other nearby countries, like Poland and Ukraine. The dish is called golubtsy, which translates to “little doves” in Russian.
And Birch & Rye, El-Wattar elevates the humble dish, using Wagyu cheek that’s slowly braised in a tomato and wine-fortified broth until tender. It’s served with a gnesdo (nest) of crispy fried buckwheat noodles, garnished with pan-fried morels and onion flowers. (A little crispy gnesdo nest for the little golubsty dove — get it? Clever, cute, and delicious.)
This dish is found on both the caviar and chef’s tasting menus.
Rye Doughnuts & Caviar
“Doughnuts are a Russian street food,” says El-Wattar. “On every street corner, there’s a doughnut stall. It was something you just grabbed on the way to the subway, so I thought it would be fun to bring that in.”
El-Wattar tapped her CDC, Stephen Simmons, to make a yeasted doughnut using a blend of rye and white spelt flour, and fried in rice bran oil until golden brown. The entire thing is dusted in sugar and served with a side of house made caramel — and Siberian sturgeon caviar.
One wouldn’t expect the flavors and ingredients to work well in one dish, but “the combination of caramel and caviar works well — it’s got the sweet and salty thing,” insists El-Wattar. The Siberian sturgeon caviar is the oiliest, saltiest, and briniest of the caviar offerings and pairs well against the sweetness of the caramel.
Find this dessert on the caviar counter tasting menu, of course.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar