By Monica Wood Photographed by Douglas Merriam
The Black Birch
2 Government Street, Kittery
Located in a flat, featureless box first built as a post office, the Black Birch restaurant in Kittery offers first-timers a reverse bait-and-switch. Behind those bland doors resides a gastropub packed with convivial patrons of all ages. Our party of two steps in from a winter drizzle, warmed instantly in body and spirit.
At 1,200 square feet, the Black Birch reveals its meager breadth at a glance. To the left, a bar lighted by contemporary hanging globes of varying size; to the right, handsome wooden two-tops set along the outside wall; and straight ahead, a gorgeous slab of polished white pine that serves as a communal table.
Our evening’s host is Ben Lord, who swaps off bartending duties with co-owner Gavin Beaudry. With twenty-four microbrews on draft — from brewers with whom the owners are developing close relationships — these fellows know their beer. They take pleasure in suggesting pairings with dishes from the menu created by a third partner, Jake Smith, who prepares spirit-lifting homages to old favorites in an open kitchen not much bigger than a walk-in fridge.
Our server — Gavin’s wife, Johanna — teaches second grade, textbook training for serenely managing a busy Saturday evening. When asked, she makes thoughtful suggestions from the small, intriguing menu. Humble ingredients shine in combination, as in “deviled eggs three ways,” a trio of hardboiled eggs cut crosswise and stuffed with distinctive flavor blasts: mushroom duxelle; tahini and sesame; cherry pepper and chorizo. Duck rillette, a complexly flavored confit, tastes like a spoonful of Thanksgiving dinner. The “house pickles” tonight include a memorable kimchi whose originator — line-cook Gary Kim’s roommate’s mom — personally supervised the inaugural batch. It’s that kind of place.
The beer menu lists alcohol content, allowing aficionados to pace themselves. After enjoying a rye ale from Montreal — light, with a peppery kick — to accompany the “small plates,” the beer drinker in our party tries a truly unusual Cuvée des Jacobins for the medium plates. Aged for eighteen months, the brew begins in uncovered vats, fermented by wild yeast blowing through open windows. The result is a dark, earthy, pucker-producing lambic, an effervescent complement to the Caesar salad, which comes topped with oysters expertly fried, crisp and light. The kitchen’s attention to detail is gratifying, for even the broccoli proves astonishing — seared to perfection and served with Parmesan cream.
The “larger plates” are large indeed. Brick chicken and sweet-potato hash; braised pork shank and parsnip purée; deep-fried short rib with horseradish cream. For the beer drinker, the fellows suggest a Founder’s Centennial IPA to complement an excellent fish and chips in microbrew batter; for the wine drinker, a fruity Gilles Louvet cab-merlot for the Vermont quail and grilled squash.
If all this sounds a mite trendy, fear not. The Black Birch crew betrays not a jot of pretention as they dish up high-end food at affordable prices. The eclectic background music originates at a turntable behind the bar, where regulars sometimes contribute their own LPs to the mix. (Bill Withers, anyone?) If you ask, Johanna will bring the album cover to your table.
Effective soundproofing and close seating encourages cross-talk among diners and drinkers — mostly about the wonderful food — so we aren’t a bit surprised when a woman to our left raves about the schnitzel and offers us a bite. The child sitting to our right gives his poutine two tiny thumbs up. By the time we get to dessert — a sublime bourbon-vanilla crème brulée — we’ve made a couple of friends, and the pub’s forty-four seat population has nearly doubled, with almost as many people waiting as eating.
“This is exactly what we imagined,” Ben says, looking out at the bubbling crowd. Surely he knows that we’ll all go home smiling, half-convinced that this year-old experiment is a corner bar we’ve been haunting for years.
Monica Wood is the author of several books including When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir From Mexico, Maine.