Farm fresh and flawless

Part of the reason I’ve been driven to focus on Asian restaurants recently is my growing weariness with overpriced mediocre American restaurants. There seems to be a glut of places that have the right interior décor and atmosphere, an enticing menu, artistic plate designs, but somehow miss the whole point by focusing on everything but the food. When I go out to eat, I expect good food. Every other facet of the restaurant is superfluous if the food sucks. And recently, I’ve found more consistently good food at ethnic restaurants.

When I heard that big culinary fish Bradley Ogden was making a foray into our little pond, though, I thought I could perhaps restore my faith in good ol’ American cooking by making a trip out to his (and chef/partner Randy Kliewer’s) Roseville Galleria establishment.

Birch Creek describes itself as “seasonal farm-fresh American fare,” and I have to agree that this seems the perfect description—though, on the night I went there, I could’ve added “flawless” to the phrase and not been out of line. As I ate, the words “yes” and “thank you” repeatedly came to mind. Here was what had been lacking at so many other American restaurants: attentive cooking, unfussy tastefulness. Actually, the word that perhaps best describes the food is clean. Our dinners uniformly tasted clean, full flavored but not heavy handed, fresh and light.

The menu changes daily—on any given day, the kitchen features the freshest and highest quality products available.

A good example was the lamb tenderloin ($26.50). Skewers of cubed tenderloin were grilled perfectly medium rare with a light dusting of salt and black pepper. They lay across whipped Yukon potatoes; scattered loosely around the edges were locally grown baby vegetables: carrots, turnips, golden beets.

Grilled meat, potatoes and vegetables; no sauce, no Eiffel Tower. So what, you may ask, makes this different from the food at so many other restaurants that serve similar fare? This: the light touch, the perfect seasoning, the equal care and status afforded both the meat and the vegetables. As you may know, my exposure to rampant vegetable abuse at various restaurants in the past has turned me into a vegetable rights activist. So the fact that I couldn’t decide if the lamb or the vegetables were the best part of the dinner was a refreshing experience.

Other dishes evinced the same tendency to present the inherent quality, the essential flavors and aromas of the ingredients without over-manipulation. A halibut cooked in a cast-iron skillet ($23.50) was cooked just-done and served in a large bowl over green lentils with fresh peas and asparagus. Again, occupying that graceful position in the midpoint between bland and overbearing, the clean-tasting fish paired up nicely with the light, saffron-perfumed legumes.

Not surprisingly, delicate, clean flavors characterized the desserts as well. The chocolate spoon bread with malted-milk ice cream was the best chocolate “thing” I can remember having. A bite seemed to gently whisper, “Yes, you like chocolate, don’t you.” Also, the excellent house-made sorbets were nicely smooth and retained the full-flavored characteristics of the fresh fruit from which they were made.

I was also pleased to see such words as “ham hocks,” “grits,” “buttermilk biscuits,” and “BBQ” on the menu. Such items are not always associated with “high” cuisine, but I think in presenting them in such a skillful and aesthetically pleasing way, in juxtaposing them with a typically elegant and classy atmosphere, Birch Creek does much to dispel the ill-formed but common idea of culinary hierarchies. For example, just because a place ventures to feature Blanquette de veau on its menu doesn’t mean the dish won’t be lumpy, tough and flavorless. And just because a place ventures to make grits and BBQ sauce doesn’t mean those items won’t have the kind of delicacy and subtle complexity of flavor that characterizes the best cooking. The hierarchy of food should not be based on categories, but on the skill and attention with which the men and women in the kitchen prepare the food.

And with the kind of execution that’s coming out of the Birch Creek kitchen, you can’t go wrong.