A New Friend In An Old Canton Haunt
Raindrops on roses may do it for Julie Andrews, but one of my favorite things is gathering my
favorite people for a great meal. I gladly did the gathering--C.C., my niece Staci, my nephew Mike,
and our witty cousins (and fraternal twins) Ben and Sam. The meal--and it was great--took place at
Birches Restaurant (641 S. Montford Ave.,  732-3000).
I have pleasant memories of this Canton space's former occupant, the Wild Mushroom, and the
setting is largely unchanged, if perhaps a bit subtler--the lighting more subdued, the beige
linens blending nicely with the abundance of wood. Our server delivers slices of Italian bread and
a plate bearing two small disks, one pink, one brown.
"Butters," she says. "Balsamic mixed nuts and lemon-raspberry." And we know, even before opening our
menus, to expect the unusual.
Among our starters (or "kickshaws," as they are called here) is blue-crab-and-asparagus soup ($5 cup,
$7 bowl), topped with a roast garlic crostini. The other soup, a smoked-chicken bisque with Vermont
cheddar pillows and crispy maple leeks, is still cooking, and I regret that, but only until I taste
the crab. Creamy, heavy with crabmeat and slices of fresh asparagus, it pleases us unanimously. The
spicing is intriguing, a touch of something sugary playing up the sweetness of the crab. We ask our
server, who informs us that the soup is flamed with Pernod.
My kickshaw selection, pan-fried mozzarella di bufula in a tomato-basil sauce ($8), is almost as good.
The cheese has been thily sliced and lightly fried, the slices arrayed like spokes on a bed of sauce that's
much fresher than the usual marinara. Salads, while less distinctive, demonstrate the same attention to
detail. Mike's hearts of romaine with balsamic Caesar and grilled red onion ($6) is quickly devoured, and
grilled plum tomatoes lend a pleasingly smoky edge to C.C.'s baby spinach with an English Stilton vinaigrette
For main dishes, the men opt for meat: bacon-wrapped filet mignon with a sherry-mushroom-veal glace, a
Vermont cheddar and Yukon gold potato gratin, and caramelized roast garlic ($28). I wince as Ben and Sam
request the steak medium-well, but the tenderness is unaffected. The gratin, layers of cheese and potato, is
decadent. Mike chooses Birches' Trio ($28)--a small filet mignon, pan-seared boneless breast of chicken, and
several shrimp scampi, accompanied, as if that weren't enough, with a mound of maple mashed sweet potatoes
(which Mike inhales) and a generous serving of horseradish creamed spinach (which he rejects, prompting me to
inhale it). Redolent of mustard as well as horseradish, this is like no other creamed spinach I've ever tasted.
The gals go vegetarian. My turnover ($18), filled with acorn squash and mushroom duxelle (a sort of mushroom
paste), is encased in a flaky, beautifully browned pastry. It's huge, leaning up against a pile of roast-garlic
haricots verts (French for "painfully thin green beans"), a bit understeamed for me. Turnover and beans rest
on a pool of maple chipotle grits, which provide just the one-two punch (sweet-hot) required to offset the
mild veggie flavors.
C.C. selects, from a list of sandwiches and meal-sized salads, a roast-eggplant-and-red-pepper panini ($11).
The good grilled roll (sourdough) is lined with baby spinach leaves and roasted pepper, sprinkled with Parmesan
and feta, and accompanied by a pile of "chips" that are more akin to fried potatoes than what Utz produces.
Happily, the flavors merge without getting lost.
Staci, who adores pasta, gets her fill in a dish of fettuccini tossed with porcini mushrooms, roast garlic,
basil, and plum tomato ($18). The sauce is brown, not red, and echoes with earthy flavors. Fans of fungus will
be pleased, but I find this the most lackluster of our dishes.
I'd apply the same epithet to Ben and Sam's dessert choice, vanilla-bean crème brulée ($7), except that the
little pots of custard are accompanied by homemade double chocolate biscotti, airy and crisp, that eclipse the
item they are meant to enhance. C.C. and Staci share the most stellar sweet, caramel apple in a puff pastry with
whipped cream ($8). The pastry itself is fine, but it's swimming in hot (wait till it cools a little) caramel
that coats slices of fresh apple. If you like caramel apples, you won't after trying this, which trumps the
childhood treat. Mike and I attack a hunk of flourless chocolate pecan cake ($6), which I fear will be as dense
as other flourless confections I've tried. On the contrary, this reminds me of cake-style brownies, one of my
favorite sweets. It doesn't even need the whipped cream or squiggle of caramel that adorn it.
As you will have noticed, Birches isn't a cheap eat. But you needn't spend a fortune here: A cup of soup and
one of the sandwiches (priced between $9 and $14) will provide a good sampling of the kitchen's range, a refuge
from the cold, and a respite during this busy season.
by Susan Fradkin
Baltimore City Paper