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photo credit: Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image
7.3

Birch & Rye

$$$$

1320 Castro St, San Francisco
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At Birch & Rye, beet-tinted borscht is poured tableside with a dramatic flourish. And golubtsi stuffed with wagyu cheek are presented in a crispy buckwheat noodle nest. A fancy tasting menu spot putting unexpected twists on Russian classics is exciting, on paper. But the reality is a different story. While there isn’t anything outright wrong with the creative dishes, there isn’t anything super thrilling about them either. And for the price, we simply expected the flavors to dazzle. 

This spot pivoted to a tasting menu-only restaurant just months after opening at the start of 2022. The four distinct tasting menus are designed to make you feel like royalty sitting atop a bejeweled throne. There’s a standard five-course menu ($125), which we focus on in this review, plus a vegan version ($125), a three-course menu ($75), and a “caviar-centric” extravaganza that’s $200 per person. You can also get into cocktails, Georgian and Ukrainian beers, or tack on a wine pairing to the meal. Before your dinner in the neutral-toned dining room begins, your server will also introduce you to the ten infused vodkas that are made in-house. 

Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image

What actually lands in front of you ranges from perfectly pleasant to uninspiring. Using one of the near-comical amount of forks and knives that are on the table, you’ll cut into seared cod that gets most of its flavor from bursts of salmon roe, and sip on a puréed borscht that’s a bit snoozy. Some courses, like the duck pelmeni that soaks up a light bone broth, are good. And the Fabergé egg cloud, a.k.a. a soft-cooked egg buried in cauliflower foam and crowned with caviar, might be the most interesting thing you’ll eat all night.

Still, it’s easy to feel lukewarm about each dish, especially once you see the bill—the five-course menu and a drink or two will run you about $200. Food aside, other experiences feel a bit off-kilter. Tables are so close that you’ll have to awkwardly shuffle sideways just to get out. You might also leave with an entire PowerPoint presentation’s worth of random facts about the couple sitting to your left. And at night, it’s so dimly lit inside that you might have to pull your phone flashlight out in order to see the menu. 

Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image

There are still nice aspects to the meal. For starters, the ingredients, from seasonal beets used in the borscht purée to the plump foraged mushrooms, are high quality. The breads are also excellent across the board. Miniature slices of rye are perfectly dense. And golden-brown spelt rasstegai (one of the optional add-ons) is filled with a savory mix of wagyu and caramelized onion. The vodkas are uniquely flavored, including horseradish, linden flower, strawberry-rose, and carrot-cinnamon. Sampling a few different kinds is a fun way to enhance the flavors of the meal. 

There aren’t many Russian places in town where you can have a celebratory meal over whipped egg clouds and carrot-infused vodka. We give Birch & Rye props for originality. But when you finally squeeze out of your seat at the end of dinner (and successfully avoid knocking over your neighbor’s cocktail in the process), your wallet will be much lighter, and you'll leave feeling like the meal lacked a special spark.

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Food Rundown

The five-course tasting menu at Birch & Rye changes occasionally, but here’s an idea of what you can expect.

Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image

Borscht

A fancy take on a classic, recognizable by the deep fuschia color. Thick beet purée is poured tableside over an artfully arranged selection of root vegetables, and has a nice faintly sour taste. It’s good, but nothing you’ll be dying to come back for.

Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image

Einkorn Pelmeni

Even though the zucchini ribbons, corn, and tomatoes are supposed to be the supporting characters in this dish, they shine a little brighter than the actual duck pelmeni. The peeled tomatoes burst like delicate balloons in your mouth, and soak up all of the bone broth beautifully.

Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image

Gnezdo

Birch & Rye’s version of golubtsi features fork-tender wagyu beef cheek wrapped in cabbage, which is then zhuzhed up with a halo of crunchy buckwheat noodles (gnezdo translates to “nest”). The hearty entrée is the most filling dish of the night, and worth your attention, if it’s on your tasting menu.

Sarah Felker

Birch & Rye review image

Fabergé Egg Cloud

This dish is a play on Fabergé eggs. But instead of precious metals, the soft-cooked egg is adorned with cauliflower foam, a generous helping of caviar, and flowers. It’s decadent and creative. A few slices of dense white rye come on the side. This add-on will run you an extra $27.

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