Oh great. Another restaurant has opened in downtown Manchester, N.H. Well, why not? Few things keep a city center vital and evolving more than a lively restaurant scene, especially during evening hours.
The Birch on Elm is one of the city’s newest additions, and though it is still working out the always tough task of matching its ambitions with its presentation, the place is showing great promise.
The basic idea is the mix of a craft cocktail room with a restaurant menu that plays off new and traditional cuisines and includes its unique take on tapas. How could you not want to try a white rum-based beverage called “Tolerating the In-Laws” ($10)?
Executive Chef Nick Provencher, still in his mid-20s, is clearly teeming with ideas, and you sometimes get the impression he can’t wait to get them to your table.
The single rectangular dining room has the feel of a speakeasy, and that is meant as a compliment. The bar, along one of the long walls, has an inverted canoe above it. Brick walls, exposed beams and dark tones contribute to an inviting atmosphere. The restaurant seats nearly 50, about a third at the bar, the rest at tables.
“Here at The Birch,” the menu reads, “we serve small to medium-sized plates that are brought tableside as the kitchen prepares them.” Any tapas veteran is accustomed to that, and I have worked my way through many a Barcelona night celebrating that rule.
Our dinner, however, was full of surprises. The grilled endive ($8) was served at room temperature, but was a nice blend of textures and flavors, including shaved fennel and a charred blood orange vinaigrette.
The burrata ($13) was slightly chilled, so instead of a soft center that flowed when sliced, this starter, though tasty, had the consistency of your typical mozzarella. Mixed greens, smoked sage salt and more blood orange added to the experience.
The Birch on Elm stayed true to its menu pledge, even if that meant our entrees arrived close to 10 minutes apart. Mind you, I like staring at my wife doing most anything, so I was OK watching her enjoy her salmon and pasta daily special ($16). But if this had been, say, a first date, it would have been a little awkward.
Her dish itself was a winner: house-cured salmon and arugula pesto pasta with lemon zest. There was a fine balance of flavors, and the salmon was done right.
Similarly, my flank steak ($21) with a rutabaga puree and grilled scallions hit most of the high marks and was prepared medium rare as requested.
But the surprises continued with the main courses. Both entrees were somewhat warm, rather than hot, and when we later queried our server about it, he was good enough to talk to the chef and then take the time to sit with us and explain why they were meant to be served that way.
I would politely disagree on both counts, but we appreciated the extra effort and the commitment to the dishes, though I’d suggest making sure customers understand the temperature thing ahead of time.
There are only two desserts. But in this case, that’s enough. The drunk cherry cork ($8) is a rich chocolate espresso cake, while the white chocolate panna cotta ($8) was a hands-down treat among treats.
The Birch on Elm is whipping up a lot of exciting ideas in its kitchen, and though it’s still a work in progress, there are already enough things being done right to merit a visit.
The Birch on Elm
931 Elm St.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight. Thursday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.