In 2011, Grayl’s Hotel, the 1924 Beach Drive Spanish mission-style landmark, went into foreclosure. Fortunately, within 24 hours after a local bank claimed it, Chuck and Kathy Prather had a “Luck Be a Lady” moment. They threw down $1.85 million in cold hard cash, and rolled the dice. Now, with its re-opening as The Birchwood, the jackpot is ours.
The design is both visually exhilarating and imaginatively functional. As you take the short elevator ride to the fifth-floor Canopy Rooftop Lounge, the doors open and your gaze is drawn toward a thrilling space. There’s the sky bar, private cabanas, fire pits, indoor/outdoor grass, living room seating, high-top tables and a surprising glass railing with unobstructed, breathtaking views across the treetops of Straub Park out to the glistening Bay.
The attention to detail quickens my pulse; it’s the nicest outdoor bar in the Bay area (or any place else I can remember from my culinary travels). Todd McNulty’s delightfully creative drinks menu includes, for the Champagne aficionado in me, Veuve Cliquot by the amply poured glass.
It’s only five stories up, but it sure seems close to heaven. Unfortunately, hundreds of the beautiful people also got the memo. The place is packed to the gills, and the service (only two weeks old) is, not surprisingly, slooooow.
Downstairs at Birch & Vine, you can choose between noshing outside along Beach Drive, or inside at tables or in beautiful banquettes amidst a climate-controlled, smartly lit wine collection that spans the restaurant’s length.
Chef Jason Cline’s “locally sourced, globally inspired” farm-to-table menu features “unique, exotic and bold, flavorful” dishes. His kitchen also embraces the modernist sous vide technique that begins with putting ingredients under a vacuum seal. It can be used to compress airy ingredients like watermelon until dense, intensified, and resembling raw ahi tuna. It’s also the perfect method for cooking delicate proteins, in this case lobster or sea scallops, in an exacting low-temperature water bath using a scientific immersion circulator. The results are impeccable every time.
Many dishes feature ultra-fresh garnishes of micro-arugula, heirloom golden cherry tomato halves, tender pea shoots and an intense balsamic vinegar reduction.
The appetizers offer a nice array targeted for sophisticated palates. A salad of compressed watermelon touched by balsamic reduction adds watercress, blood orange and salted almonds in tangy ginger-Champagne vinaigrette.
Flawless sous vide butter-poached lobster is knee-buckling. The split tail sits in its half shell on creamy truffle grits. A few fried leeks and vanilla bean-Myers rum butter sauce snake around the rectangular plate’s perimeter.
Paper-thin slices of bright red, impeccable beef carpaccio are paired with surprising Gorgonzola ice cream and topped with just the right amount of local macadamias, balsamic reduction and lemon oil.
Pan-seared foie gras is overcooked, well past unmatched lushness. But it sits between a tasty Gorgonzola fritter and yummy blackberry shallot jam that provides a welcome sweet touch. A hazelnut liqueur reduction from the menu doesn’t register, and the lemon focaccia “crisps” taste stale. The line cooks need to recalibrate.
The kitchen is, not surprisingly, overwhelmed and still finding its sea legs. Our entrees take forever to arrive. However, the pan-roasted local day-boat fish, in this case Southern bass, is juicy and delicious with tasty Asiago polenta (though not the cake the menu promises). Dollops of fresh black olive and sun-dried tomato purée brighten the plate, but the very salty sautéed spinach under the fish is inedible.
Grilled Niman ranch rack of lamb, arguably the best meat money can buy, is served with wilted Swiss chard, the same polenta, and cherry chutney, but drowned in a chocolate cherry demi-glace that comes to our table charred. My dining companion is close to tears. Note to kitchen: let the lamb be the star.
Pan-roasted red curry duck “breast” with sticky forbidden black rice arrives as a monochromatic, but crisp, thigh and leg. The charred lemon duck jus is tasty, but the baby bok choy is buried under the duck and I’m not sure where the Bing cherry chutney and daikon sprouts ended up.
Mouthwatering tangerine-miso sous vide sea scallops sit on the same truffle grits, but the shiitake-shallot ragout and crispy pork belly promised on the menu go missing. However, the roasted corn and edamame succotash in its place, while unexpected, tastes great.
Chocolate-chili ice cream arrives hidden under a large inverted waffle cone with candied almonds and swirls of blood orange and dulce de leche sauce. Unfortunately, this batch is way out of balance; what should be a surprising hint of heat ends up as a four-alarm fire.
Surprisingly soft ricotta cheesecake sits Greek yogurt-like on a ginger snap crust with candied lime and orange zest garnish. No one at our table can discern the orange blossom honey in which the adjacent six bright red maraschino cherries have purportedly been soaked.
The one sweet that garners unanimous raves is brûléed plantain “Foster.” Sweet vanilla bean custard is sandwiched between stacked crisp phyllo. It’s accompanied by a tart, almost lemony, crème fraîche ice cream on a sweet plantain slice. A flavor-filled pool of dark Myers rum-tinged caramel completes the dish.
My complaints, while many, are easy fixes. Birch & Vine is surely worth a visit for a three-star experience. When the kitchen corrects the missteps that come with the shakedown of the opening weeks, everything about the place points to a four-star future.
NEXT WEEK: Cigar City Brew Pub
This is a great article! Gary Mormino does a great job of illustrating the politics…
I will be honest, I've been keeping this place a secrect. So very happy for…
Best Thai food I have tasted, very accurate review, check this place out!