I like a sleeper—someone or something of which I expect little that then takes me happily by wondrous surprise. And right now, a mere four weeks into service, I am loving Branch Water Tavern. In the hullabaloo that surrounded the opening of Stella Sola, Bistro Alex and Haven, Branch Water Tavern seemed to just pop up out of nowhere. Understated and unannounced. Delicious and lovely.
Partner/chef David Grossman, Houston born-and-raised, Culinary Institute of America-trained, has put together a menu of excellence, seasonally responsive, and classically executed with a personalized flair. With a passion for freshness, an attention to detail and a devotion to the European tradition of no waste, Grossman and partner Evan Turner (the bar guy) have created a novel concept—a tavern in the true sense of the word, a gathering spot for the community, a watering hole, a public house.
The current menu focuses on flavors of winter with a glimmer of an East coast accent tinged with a Texas twang. Both Grossman and Turner worked in powerhouse spots in NYC (Gotham Bar and Grill, Oceana, and Palladin) before heading south. For example, Chicken Fried Oysters get treated like buffalo wings, fried then doused with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, sitting pretty on a celery root slaw dressed with creamy tinged ranch style dressing. The menu dances with contemporary combinations, such as a thick, meaty, glorious crab cake that wobbles atop a crunchy green papaya salad. And the chef’s current favorite dish, medium rare venison loin with mashed butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and cranberry delivers the seasonal punch of a hearty winter entrée with an alluring play of savory and sweet.
I loved the simple bowl of mussels, each plump and juicy, with its sweet hints of Riesling, salty accents from tiny cubes of house-cured bacon and a hint of heat from harissa. A bowl of duck risotto charmed my palate, rich and creamy, each forkful held new nuances, one earthy with bits of parsnips another luxurious with tender morsels of duck.
I admire Grossman’s drive and intensity. He gets his ducks in whole, creates entrées such as the Long Island duck with rosemary gnocchi and duck confit ragout, then renders the fat from the other bits and whips up a bar food specialty, Duckfat popcorn, using the tasty duck fat to pop the kernels and for good measure drizzling a tad more fat on top. Clever guy.
But the show stopper for me was the trio of giant gulf shrimp wrapped in that house-cured bacon atop creamy, dreamy grits and a slow-poached egg that broke into the most wondrous of sauces. I love the dish almost as much as I love the delicate etched glass that held my Campari cocktail. Elegant, old fashioned and exquisite.
Turner, the genius behind both the cocktail and the glass, confessed he had stolen the retro cocktail concept from Anvil. With limited funds, he and Grossman brainstormed a way to have fab barware without the Riedel price tag. One day while haunting a thrift shop in Sugar Land, Turner came upon a horde of glasses, rang Grossman, and thus their glassware concept spontaneously developed.
Back when they were in the planning stages, Grossman and Turner searched for a unique bar focus. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a scotch bar,” says Turner. So they turned to American whiskey, a beverage they both enjoy and, importantly, remains affordable. As the loquacious Turner puts it, "you don’t have to mortgage your house for a few shots.” Their goal is to carry every whiskey available in Texas. The current count approaches a hundred.
My dinner date informed me that the basic L-shaped layout of the building remains true to his former haunt at this address, the Cue & Cushion, but much else has changed. Most notably the magnificent ornate and textured wallpaper—it is simply breathtaking. Seemingly indigo blue in the low light of dinner service, a daytime viewing revealed it is actually a dark green with a creamy gold background. Grossman discovered it while in England, took a picture and sent it back to his designer.
So taken are patrons that Turner wishes he had a dollar for every time someone strokes the walls. Soon he’ll abandon that idea. Once the word gets out about this sleeper, both Turner and Grossman will be too busy to notice the stroking of the walls.