When the braised pork shank was placed in front of me at White Birch in Flanders, two things came to mind: the Rock of Gibralter, as if glazed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for one of their epic installations; and Fred Flintstone, who would have sworn off brontosaurus ribs forever to get his mitts on a specimen like this.
The glaze—a reduction of the strained pan drippings, vegetables and herbs—had been lovingly ladled over the bone-in shank after its six-hour braise. Beneath the glisten, the meat was soulful and succulent. But there was more to the plate—a bed of tender cabbage and apples, plus crisp dominoes that suggested tater tots. These, it turns out, are made from truffled polenta. I’ll call them polenta pals.
When I first heard that chef Sam Freund had opened an upscale American restaurant in Flanders, I thought, really? The Slamwich guy?
At Slamwich Scratch Kitchen, which Freund and George Braun opened in a 1947 diner in Madison in 2015, Freund directed his culinary education and his years working for Danny Meyer in New York and the equally esteemed Troy Guard in Colorado into creating a funky deli.
“At that point,” he says, “I just wanted to have fun with food. I took my 14 years of high-end experience and put it in a sandwich.”
I could taste the connection with Slamwich in the take-no-prisoners pleasure of White Birch’s pork shank. Freund, 34, still co-owns Slamwich. But White Birch is something more, Freund in full—artful, elegant, gracious and gratifying.
Freund says his ideal is “sexiness of flavors and plating.” You get that across the menu—for example, in a single raviolo, bright as a full moon. Stuffed with sautéed wild mushrooms and finished with a truffled butter sauce, it rested on a bed of kabocha squash purée and braised Swiss chard. Equally mouthwatering but more ethereal was a starter of hamachi crudo with lemon oil, juicy Asian pear and dribbles of a sauce Freund concocts from house-made kimchi.
Freund’s pork-belly appetizer is one of the most enjoyable and distinctive around. Spanish in spicing, it can be thought of as thickly sliced chorizo bacon, seared crisp, the flab literally pressed out. Topped with a quail egg and surrounded by Peruvian potatoes and peppers, it’s breakfast in evening clothes.
Most remarkable was a dish described simply as red snapper wrapped in Serrano ham. What arrived—on black rice with a terrific leek-fennel compote and romesco sauce—looked like two bratwursts. In fact, the snapper fillet had been flattened, rolled up with tarragon and lemon zest, wrapped tightly in the ham, enclosed in plastic wrap, poached, and just before serving, crisped in a pan.
Freund calls them cylinders, not sausages. By any name, the dish splices sea and land with a delicate Spanish accent.
White Birch represents the fulfillment of a dream that long predates Slamwich. Freund grew up in the Port Murray section of Mansfield in Warren County, about 10 miles west of Flanders. “It’s all farmland,” he says. “Growing up, I don’t remember buying eggs from a store. We just went up the street to the farm. Growing up near farms, I have relationships with all these people. When my wife, Lauren, and I moved to Long Valley, it blew my mind that restaurants weren’t using what we have in our backyard.”
For 27 years, Freund’s uncle ran a luncheonette called Bryan’s in Succasunna. Freund, who in sixth grade declared his ambition to be “Chef Boyardee Jr.,” began washing dishes and busing tables there at age 12. When he was 14, his uncle handed him a spatula and tongs and put him to work on the flattop.
But being “a bit of a knucklehead”—albeit captain of the high school football team (“I might be little, but I packed a punch”) and lettering in wrestling and baseball—Freund frittered away two years after high school before starting culinary training at the Art Institute of New York. Eventually, degree in hand, he began learning under mentors Meyer and Guard.
The name White Birch is really an elegy for his father, Mike, a construction worker who died of a heart attack two years ago at age 60. Mike had built the house in which the family grew up. In the front yard, he left standing one white birch that had three trunks, representing each of the couple’s children. “My father and mother, Linda, were one of the best teams I’ve ever seen,” Freund says.
The restaurant’s location is no more random than its name. In the ’70s, Freund says, “my parents, then high school sweethearts, used to go on dates there when it was called the Bartley House. It was eventually knocked down and rebuilt as the Metro Grill.” Freund redesigned it with soothing, neutral colors, three seating areas, each with its own unique feel, and lots of big windows to let in light.
One of those seating areas is a curved bar devoted—this being a BYO—to the production of pastry, bread and cold appetizers. From behind this bar comes the warm foccacia that, paired with soft herb butter, tests your willpower when you first sit down.
One of the most visually stunning dishes to come from the kitchen is the cauliflower steak. This collaboration with sous chef Justin Franklin doesn’t sound sexy, but with its well-orchestrated elements, from pomegranate seeds to an herb emulsion to a “couscous” made of yellow cauliflower, it’s an orgy of color, flavor and texture.
Plush, pink duck breast with a trompe l’oeil lasagna of thinly sliced root vegetables was equally sensuous, even more so when a bite of duck was dragged through its contrasting complements: pistachio purée and huckleberry glaze.
A seared scallop entrée with vanilla-infused turnips, by contrast, seemed a bit austere. A salad of quinoa and spicy arugula with fresh figs, honeyed goat cheese and roasted carrots would have been heaven had the carrots been caramelized rather than given a cursory roast.
For all his skill and talent, Freund freely admits, “I’m not one who excels at desserts at all.” He found someone who does: Melissa Smith, a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Arts who worked extensively with Andrea Lekberg of the Artist Baker in Morristown.
My advice about her vegan chocolate cake is to forget the first word and just dive into one of the most intensely sensuous chocolate layer cakes of all time. If you prefer sunbeams, go with the lemon curd, a refraction of textures and flavors—meringue, mint, crisp ginger snaps, bits of olive oil cake and lots of snappy meringue, all arrayed in what I hesitatingly called “a wonderful mess,” a description Smith cheerfully endorsed.
- Cuisine Type:American - Modern
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$17; entrées, $22-$33 (venison Wellington for two is $78); sides, $8; desserts, $9-$12
- Ambience:Casual, yet soothingly elegant
- Service:Informed, helpful, upbeat
- Wine list:BYO