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Reservations Recommended

Of Trees and Grain = Birch & Barley

If you’ve puzzled over the unusual name of Birch & Barley restaurant in the Logan Circle area, you are not alone. But think about it. Plenty of poets have written heart-warming verses about the beauty of trees. And while not many writers have praised the barley grain, it has been the stuff of manna and the basis for some mighty tasty brews since time immemorial. That’s probably reason enough to christen a new restaurant with this moniker: because, well, trees are great, and most folks love bread and beer.

That said, you would do yourself and some dining and drinking buddies a big service by lining up for a seat; you’ll likely need a reservation in the dining room, and if you stop by on a Saturday night, for sure you’ll queue up for the upstairs pub, the Churchkey. In other words, this place really buzzes, and with good reason.

The draft list (available upstairs in the bar and downstairs in the restaurant) is extensive, including some unusual smoky brews that are startlingly unusual. Imagine a Norwegian smoked beer with the undertone of juniper berries. As the waitstaff astutely remarked, sipping this with the crispy duck egg appetizer is a bit like having bacon and eggs for dinner without the strawberry jam — only better, of course.

But for the diehard foodie, the real reason to schedule dinner or brunch here is quite simply the divine cooking of the husband-wife kitchen team, pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac and executive chef, Kyle Bailey. Consider, first of all, the duck egg starter. Perhaps the most unusual appetizer in all of DC — which may sound a bit odd, but it is truly sensational — is the crispy duck egg served with pork belly that has been brined in apple cider vinegar and hard cider. Thus flavored and tenderized, it’s crisped and served with a duck egg that is soft-boiled, crumb coated and fried, and served with diced pears and frisée. If you save enough pieces of bread from the basket, you can even — politely, of course — mop up the yolk and juices on the serving plate. Order two for these are filling, and you can easily move on to dessert.

But then, if you did that, you’d miss the rest of the savory menu, the flatbreads and pastas and entrées that make Birch & Barley a don’t-miss restaurant experience. Despite the ultra-loud acoustics (the noise bounces off the walls, ceiling, and floor, rendering a quiet conversation impossible), you’ll want to linger over every bite, and that means tacking on a flatbread order, such as the port-glazed figs flatbread with Gorgonzola. Figs are usually identified with fall, but are a year-round fruit when dried, so with any luck, you will find this or a similar dried fruit at any time. What makes this, of course, is the Gorgonzola with lashings of paper-thin strips of prosciutto offset by sweet figs. Other small-plates include a hand-rolled ricotta cavatelli with braised lamb neck and sliced Manchego cheese plus two other another pasta and flatbread choice.

Chef Bailey switches into high gear with his entrées, the most notable (in my book, anyway) is the brat burger, a deconstructed bratwurst sausage-turned-hamburger served with a mound of beer-braised sauerkraut and crispy, hot-hot, hand-cut fries. This may be another dish that succumbs to seasonal variations, but as a dedicated hamburger freak, you may voice support for its permanent place on the menu. It’s having your well-seasoned sausage in patty form. Imaginative and successful, and eating a hamburger too.

Other entrée options aren’t quite so offbeat: crispy striped bass, braised pork cheeks, and pan-roasted skate may not take prizes for being edgy, though it’s hard to think of many chefs who honey-glaze a duck breast and serve it with wild rice and bits of dates and radishes. The meat is fork tender and suffused with flavor — what’s the cooking liquid, one wonders? Never mind. If you are not in the mood for a singularly unique burger, switch over to the duck entrée.

Then there’s dessert, and the don’t-miss option is MacIsaac’s drop-dead glorious chocolate peanut butter tart, apparently the house fav and there’s every reason it should be: warm, served with a scotch-infused mini milk shake and a scoop of buttermilk ice cream, it’s a calorie-spree that’s a fitting closure to the meal.

Of course, you should take full advantage of exploring the various brews. The waitstaff seem fully knowledgeable about what’s hot and what’s hip, and will help you pair food to brew (or brews, better yet). Fortunately, B&B has opened for brunch giving us foodies more of a chance to drop in, eat in, drink in. Maybe lunch??? Who knows?

Birch & Barley | 1337 14th St., NW; (202) 567-2576. Hours (closed Mon.): Tue.-Thu. 5:30-10pm; Fri. & Sat. to 11pm; Sun., all-day brunch, 11am-8pm. Entrée price range: $16 to 32. Credit cards accepted.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.