As one of the Southern Highlands’ newest culinary players, Birch hasn’t wasted any time impressing Sydneysiders and locals alike
There’s nothing quite like a weekend amid the rolling hills of the Southern Highlands to revive a weary Sydneysider, and a drive down there on a Friday night in peak hour traffic to get their tummy grumbling. So it’s a good thing I have a reservation at Birch.
As one of the the Southern Highlands’ newest culinary players, Birch makes the most of the region’s bounty with a menu where seasonal produce takes centre stage. This is not a new concept for regional Australia’s much-lauded and oft-Hatted restaurants, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable – or impressive, when well executed. There is something inherently comforting about eating a meal made with ingredients you know have been locally grown, picked and prepared, and in the lush and fertile Southern Highlands the produce is as good as it comes.
Birch is located in in the old Moss Vale post office – a beautiful, historic building with arched windows and high ceilings, and while the interior is simple and timeless, nodding to a fine dining elegance, it is also on-trend with its wintery, moody walls softened by white tablecloths and floral, berry-toned art. An intimate, blank canvas of a space, I find out the staff introduces styling changes to the space each season like a fashion store showcasing a new collection, and as a result not only do the locals get an ever-changing menu, but a refreshed interior, too. Needless to say Birch is a restaurant unlikely to get stale or lose its appeal any time soon.
The relaxed, personable and passionate approach of owners Renee and Glenn Wallace is felt throughout the restaurant, lightening what could otherwise be a too-formal affair. They talk about their dishes and local wines with an inspiring enthusiasm. “Don’t be misled by the fact we’re in a small, regional town,” says Wallace. “The execution is up to the standard of a capital city and we have a small but experienced team to thank for that…The Southern Highlands has long been a brilliant destination for foodies and we hope Birch will be an additional reason for people to spend time in the region.”
As for the food, Head Chef Ben Bamford’s relationships with local suppliers is evident on the plate with a menu that changes daily depending on the seasonal produce, and a considered approach to each ingredient. “Our suppliers know if they have a trial crop or an abundance of a particular vegetable, that produce will always have a home at Birch. Although we start chatting with producers months in advance to forward-plan for the next season’s dishes… we’re also equally as reactive to what they have available, week-to-week,” says Bamford.
Diners can go the whole hog with a seven-course degustation, but we decide to take the shorter router after the long drive down and opt for a-la-carte. I can’t resist choosing the black tiger prawn, wasabi greens, finger lime, tomato and cucumber, and my travel companion opts for a paddock-to-plate starter of carrot tarté tatin, crisp pastry, cappuccino, truffle mascarpone and coconut. I watch him, bemused, as he eats his way around a delicious plate of carrots three (or was it four?) ways with complete, in-the-moment focus.
For mains, it’s braised duck pappardelle, porcini, zucchini, baby spinach and basil for me and for him, noisette of lamb, buttered turnips, smoked celeriac, rosemary, mint and spinach. The servings are huge – neither of us get through them – and rich, but after that dose of carrots we figure we can be let off the hook… until we opt to share Birch’s signature baked apple, crisp pastry, cinnamon anglaise and vanilla ice-cream – a modern take on apple pie that’s baked to order.
The wine list works in unison with the menu, and we are also treated to delicious local drops hand-picked by Renee that give us a glimpse of the impressive wines being produced in the region. There is also a selection of bespoke seasonal cocktails available, created in collaboration with the chefs to ensure the dining experience extends beyond the food. You can even craft your own cocktail, if you’re game – which of course, I am. It’s Friday night after all.