birch & barley / churchkey

Let me tell you about my experiences at each of these sister DC establishments.

Brian took me to Birch & Barley a couple of weeks ago to celebrate my 30th birthday. It was, hands down, THE BEST restaurant experience I’ve had since going gluten free, and probably one of the top 3 ever. I will most definitely be spending the next weeks or months or however long it takes attempting to recreate their fig and prosciutto chickpea flatbread with Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized onions, drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Ohhh, yes!

We ordered the grilled octopus appetizer, with pickled eggplant, fingerling potatoes, and red pearl onions. Not 10 minutes later, the manager was at our table with a complimentary charcuterie board, which was 100% gluten free, including the bread! This was in apology for the delay in getting our appetizer, but I hadn’t even noticed anything was amiss. I was just enjoying sipping my glass of Malbec and chatting with Brian about our days.

After the charcuterie, octopus, and a delectable little treat of deep fried chickpeas (also complementary), our meals arrived. I already told you about my heavenly flatbread. Brian had the honey glazed duck breast, which was not gluten free so I can’t say how it was first hand, but he looked to be in ecstasy. In fact, once our meals arrived, we both stopped talking for a good long while and simply relished our food.

The fig and prosciutto flatbread was just as awesome after a few minutes in the oven the next morning for breakfast. That’s right.

The service was impeccable – attentive without being snooty or hovering, and we didn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place the way we sometimes do at a fancy restaurant. Instead, we felt taken care of. Special.

The atmosphere was just right. Upscale but not stuffy, with a kind of modern rustic feel. I don’t usually notice things like lighting, but it was noticeably perfect here. There were gorgeous tiny globe candles hanging from the high ceiling at different heights, giving a kind of starry night feel. The room was dimly lit, but with strategically placed unobtrusive spot lights above the tables – no squinting necessary to read your menu.

No detail was overlooked at this joint.

So you can imagine that I was really looking forward to visiting Birch & Barley’s upstairs bar, ChurchKey, which I heard has a similar but slightly more casual menu, including house made GF tater tots. Yeah! So when Jess came to stay with us Thursday night before our NYC 30th Birthday Adventure, we took her there.

We got lucky and scored a table despite the crowds. The waiter brought menus, and after a few questions it became apparent that the only gluten free option on ChurchKey’s menu is the fig and prosciutto flatbread (in addition to the 5 or 6! gluten free beers on the beer list). No bother, that’s what we were planning to order anyhow (except we had to skip the tater tots). We scarfed it down and it tasted seriously good, as before.

The atmosphere was pretty different from downstairs. There were small tables, a community table, and lounge seating. There was a bouncer. It was loud. And crowded. The three of us squeezed ourselves into a small 2 top squished between two other small 2 tops. But we were happy to have gotten a table at all so this was just fine. And really, as long as I could have that flatbread, everything would be OK.

Jess enjoyed it just as much as I did. Brian got something else but was eyeballing our flatbread longingly, so we let him have the couple of pieces that we were too stuffed to stuff in.

Fast forward about 3 hours, and my stomach started cramping. Badly. We went to bed, but I didn’t fall asleep. By midnight I was doubled over in pain that was coming in waves, and spent the rest of the night awake alternating between clutching my gut and finishing the last Hunger Games book on the floor of the bathroom. Jess slept through the night just fine, but in the morning, which finally did come, her belly started to revolt too.

My experiences at these two establishments, which share the same kitchen mind you, were at two extremes. I don’t have an explanation, except to assume they aren’t careful about cross contamination.

The first time I got lucky.

The second time we got glutened.

The next time I eat fig and prosciutto flatbread, it will be out of my own kitchen. No food, no matter how extraordinarily tasty, is worth feeling like that.

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