Birchwood Cafe's Marshall Paulsen puts food in spotlight

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2013 - 9:14 AM

By all logic, the kitchen at the Birchwood Cafe should be a disaster zone.

The cramped space, barely larger than a food truck, was designed to support a coffeehouse menu of scones and soups, not a crushing volume of customers and three full-out daily meals. Yet physical limitations don’t seem to get in the way of chef Marshall Paulsen.

“Anyone who sees our kitchen is amazed that we can do the menu that we do,” said owner Tracy Singleton. “I never thought of us as chef-driven, chef-identified, whatever the term is. But that’s one thing that Marshall has brought to us. He has put the food in the spotlight.”

It’s true. Now approaching its 18th year, the Birchwood has never tasted better.

Diners can set their calendars after eating Paulsen’s hyper-seasonal menu. Sweet corn lover? Paulsen inundates his dishes with the stuff in August and September, and then it disappears until the next year. Same with rhubarb, tomatoes, watercress and countless other vegetables and fruits. Right now, his abiding affection for the orange means a blood-orange gastrique here, a tangelo-cranberry jam there and vividly colored Minneola garnishes everywhere — and all fully exploited at their peak.

“And then we spend the rest of the year looking forward to their return,” he said.

Paulsen’s vibrant, accessible cooking redefines what a neighborhood restaurant can be. Picture tender wheatberry waffles, lavishly topped with hazelnut-honey butter, smoky bacon and a meticulously poached egg. Or a delicately flaky savory pie, garnished with a sweet pear chutney and filled with puréed sunchokes and a harmonious medley of diced root vegetables.

Or a juicy and wildly flavorful turkey burger, topped with tangy pickled onions and a generous swipe of lemon- and rosemary-fortified mascarpone and served on a house-baked buttermilk bun. Or a golden-crusted pizza dotted with a colorful, sweet-savory assortment of beets, kale, oranges and punchy sheep’s milk blue cheese. Or a vegetarian’s crunchy-chewy dream sandwich, layering tamari-glazed tofu with pickled radishes, roasted fennel and a sweet potato purée inside a textbook-perfect focaccia. Family-friendly, vegetarian- and vegan-focused and pretense-free. That’s the Birchwood.

Go local or go home

Some chefs make a cursory attempt to source locally and then market the heck out of their minimal effort; you know, the microgreens garnish, the covers-the-basics cheese plate. But for Paulsen, maintaining an intricate supply chain of 40-plus Minnesota and Wisconsin producers is the only way he knows how to do business.

He’s not just an over-the-phone buyer, either. To gain firsthand experience and knowledge, he and his fellow Birchwooders routinely get out of the city. One popular outing is the monthly warm-weather visits to Riverbend Farm in Delano, planting tomatoes, weeding cucumbers and harvesting onions, hundreds of pounds at a time.

“A little bit of my philosophy is that if all my customers visited the farm and learned more about what we do, they would be better customers,” said Riverbend Farm owner Greg Reynolds. “It builds a level of involvement or buy-in that you just can’t get any other way. It’s good for their business, and it’s good for our business.”

Paulsen recently spent some quality time at Callister Farm in West Concord, Minn., the source of the restaurant’s chicken. He caught a chicken, cut its head off, drained its blood, feathered it, gutted it and butchered it.

“You get a sense of how valuable that life is that you just took, and that none of it should go to waste,” he said. “It goes back to knowing where your food comes from, that connection. You should know that it’s an animal, that it was alive, that at one point you took care of it and at another point you cut off its head. It’s life.”

Price points

Locally raised and organic foods can have a reputation — justifiably, in some cases — for being the province of the upper-tax bracket. But not at the Birchwood, where Paulsen works hard to keep most items in the $13-and-below range.

“I’m proud of the fact that I source from a lot of the same people that a lot of really great chefs source from, too, a lot of people that I have a lot of respect for,” said Paulsen. “I’m proud that I’m able to cook those ingredients in a respectful, well-received way, and I’m proud that we’re able to do that for people who want to come in every day instead of having to save up for a month for their big night out.”

Running a very casual, counter-service operation helps keep the budget in line. So does sticking to the more affordable end of the ingredients spectrum.

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