Birch's classy casual nearly hits the mark

Not your mama's fish sticks: The walleye at Birch's

Not your mama's fish sticks: The walleye at Birch's

Birch's may share cheesy strip-mall digs with Nails by Cindi and the Assembly of God church, but on weekend evenings the parking lot outside the restaurant looks like a luxury-car dealership of Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexus SUVs. Such is the nature of Long Lake, a wealthy suburb just past Wayzata on Highway 12, where manicured lawns start to fade into farm fields.

Inside Birch's, the crowd reflects this dichotomy: Younger diners in baseball caps and tank tops look like they just hopped off their Harleys, while older patrons in khakis and sweaters look like they just docked their yachts. The first time I stopped at Birch's, every table was occupied; it was far more crowded than I'd ever seen the space when it was the upscale Italian restaurant Ravello. The walls were now painted dusty blue and decorated with large black-and-white photos of birch-tree stands, but otherwise things looked mostly the same. The biggest change made by the new owner, Burt Joseph, former owner of Joseph Catering and the 222 Event Centre in northeast Minneapolis, was to put in a bar—a C-shaped counter so large it seems like a pen for the rambunctious, martini-shaking bartender. The hostess informed my party that we'd have to wait a few minutes for our reservation and graciously offered us each a comped drink.

When our table was ready, I eased into my chair and found I had a ringside seat to the inner workings of Birch's kitchen—a rather inglorious view. There was no door between me and the squint-inducing fluorescent lights, no curtain to shield me from the piling of dirty pans. Between the clattering coffee pots, the shouting staff, and the instructional sanitation posters, I felt like I'd been tossed into the restaurant's junk drawer.

The situation got worse when our food arrived and I glanced around the tabletop for silverware. I was considering walking back into the kitchen and pulling a few clean forks out of the dishwasher—I could practically see it from my seat—when I noticed a pint glass on our table stuffed with utensils. I suppose this setup is intended to make diners feel comfortable and relaxed, but for me it had the opposite effect. I imagined the grubby paws of prior customers inadvertently groping the goods. (Of course, there's nothing to say that an employee elsewhere who sets the table or rolls the utensils into napkins didn't do so right after smoking a cigarette, picking a zit, and taking out the trash, but somehow those presentations at least retain the illusion of cleanliness.) I know tossing the silverware into a cup is a common practice at greasy spoons, but at a place like Birch's it felt like a cop-out: If you don't take time to set the table, how much care are you putting into the food?

Once I began eating, my mood greatly improved. The fried zucchini—cut into shoestrings and lightly battered—possessed all the best qualities of French fries and eggplant Parmesan: a greasy, crunchy vehicle for a spicy-sweet marinara. "These are as addictive as chips," one of my guests remarked as he reached for another handful. At a neighboring table, the fries passed an even stricter test: I watched a kid actually set down his portable video game long enough to sample a few.

I also liked the pastrami-smoked salmon served with coarse-ground mustard, pickles, and toasts—the peppery, deli-meat spice rub was a perfect foil for the silky fish. A fat, well-seasoned walleye cake was another winner, well-paired with a zippy tartar sauce and a pile of baby greens. During Birch's afternoon and late-night happy hours, small plates like these are discounted to encourage drinkers to snack while they sip a glass of wine or nurse a cocktail (Birch's mint-citrus Swamptini is a riff on the local country-club favorite, the Bootleg).

The irony of my cup o' silverware aversion was that several of the dishes I liked best were those I ate with my hands. Among the serviceable pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches, my favorites were the muffuletta stuffed with roasted vegetables, olives, and melted cheese, and an order of Nat's ribs (named after Joseph's dad)—a sticky, meaty mess topped with crisp onion bits.

Joseph plans to change his menu seasonally but says he'll keep a few items constant, including the signature Buckhorn Chicken-in-the-Rough. Served in honor of a long-gone nearby eatery, each half-bird is marinated in a buttermilk-herb brine and then fried in lard in a cast-iron skillet. The night I tried the chicken, the meat was moist and the breading well-seasoned, but its dip in the fryer had perhaps been too long. Along the edges of each piece, the batter had pooled into lumps that were hard enough to crack a tooth.

So Birch's isn't perfect, but there are a few reasons to be forgiving of its flaws. Joseph has kept prices low, so the dinner check doesn't need to be approached with the trepidation of a 401k statement. Also, he says he's been relying on customer feedback as he tweaks his menu. When I spoke to him on the phone, Joseph mentioned several items he hadn't been happy with and had just taken off the menu—the very same dishes that had most disappointed me.

First, the truffled tuna casserole—a family-size serving of pasta tubes, tuna, peas, and mushrooms in a barely detectable truffle cream sauce—was the poster child for the sort of bland, unsatisfying food that leads to unnecessary overindulgence. Second, the veal skirt steak, which I'd felt obliged to try since it showed up in three variations on the menu. Had the meat been amazing, I'm not sure it would be worth the guilt, but that question remained theoretical. The slices I sampled in the steak salad reminded me of bad calamari: rubbery and slick. Third, Joseph also volunteered that he hadn't been happy with the desserts and had recently hired a pastry chef to make improvements. Good call. The sweets I tried were so dull that a week later I had to refer to my notes to remember that I had eaten about two bites each of chocolate torte and banana cake before losing interest.

Birch's focus on comfort and affordability seems well suited to the current economic climate. My only hope is that informality doesn't degrade into sloppiness. Even in a casual setting, the details still matter. Compare these two approaches to service, for example. One evening, our waitress recited the numerous dessert options so fast that we had to ask her to repeat the list twice—Was that chocolate mousse cake or two separate items? The waitress stood next to the table, impatiently hovering, as we awkwardly debated our picks; the whole interaction just felt uncomfortable. In contrast, I watched a sympathetic waitress at a nearby table kneel down as she spoke to an elderly couple so they might hear her better.

It's the little gestures—like the comped drinks our hostess offered when we had to wait for our table—that make customers feel like they matter. And equally small slights—those same drinks showing up on our bill—that make customers feel like they don't.