Food for Thought

New restaurant bets that two chefs are better than one, banks on Houston's best crab cakes

New Heights restaurant bets that two top chefs are better than one

The Federal Grill Matt Brice
“It’s classy but in an inviting way, it’s come-as-you-are," says Matt Brice, the new owner of Federal American Grill. Photo by © Jill Hunter/The Federal Grill/Facebook
The Federal Grill Houston Eggplant Napoleon
The incredible eggplant Napoleon: I love it even though I don’t usually like eggplant. The Federal Grill/Facebook
The Federal Grill Houston crab cake with asparagus jumbo lump with buerre blanc
Made from Blue Star sustainable lump crab meat, very little breading, topped with a delicious champagne beurre blanc sauce and nestled atop a bed of succulent fresh asparagus, yes, yes, you could eat these crab cakes every day and feel fulfilled. The Federal Grill/Facebook
The Federal Grill barbecue bone marrow
Federal now serves lunch daily, like the $12 barbecue bone marrow. It’s a deliciously creamy cow marrow with a little extra kick to it. The Federal Grill/Facebook
The Federal Grill fried chicken potato salad and spinach
If it’s Thursday, that special is buttermilk fried chicken with sautéed spinach and grain mustard mashed potatoes for $15. The Federal Grill/Facebook
The Federal Grill Matt Brice
The Federal Grill Houston Eggplant Napoleon
The Federal Grill Houston crab cake with asparagus jumbo lump with buerre blanc
The Federal Grill barbecue bone marrow
The Federal Grill fried chicken potato salad and spinach

If you owned a restaurant, what would you eat there?

For Matt Brice, the new owner of Federal American Grill, in the old Branch Water Tavern spot on Shepherd, it’s easy.

“The crab cakes, I eat them every day,” the lanky young restaurateur says.

And I have to say they are divine. Some of the best crab cakes in town, and that’s saying a lot. Made from Blue Star sustainable lump crab meat, very little breading, topped with a delicious champagne beurre blanc sauce and nestled atop a bed of succulent fresh asparagus . . . yes, yes, you could eat these crab cakes every day and feel fulfilled.

 “It’s kind pricey having two chefs, but they are great so we are making it work." 

But there are more tasty dishes on the menu here as well.

A lot of foodies were shocked to learn back in February that Branch Water Tavern chef/partner David Grossman was selling the 1920s building that had been an auto parts store and more recently a pool hall before he turned it into a hot eatery featuring bourbon and regional gourmet eats.

But the good news was that Brice, a longtime restaurateur and current owner of Bistro des Amis in Rice Village, was the buyer. They took a couple of months for the transition but by late March things were changing and now it’s complete.

A First Taste

I have to admit I haven’t been to Brice's French bistro and didn’t know what to expect at Federal. I hadn’t been to Branch Water Tavern in a blue moon. Perhaps others haven’t either, which may be why Grossman left. But I fondly remembered the days of Maker’s Mark dinners and suckling pig brunches.

But I was delighted by a recent lunch at Federal. The exterior brick has been white washed, but the interior is the same rustic wood with a casual comfy feel. And the original open kitchen that had been closed off has been reopened. Brice calls the place fine-casual.

 You could eat these crab cakes every day and feel fulfilled. 

“It’s classy but in an inviting way, it’s come-as-you-are,” he says.

And the food?

Still great. As part of the deal some of Grossman’s dishes have stayed, although he did take his the chicken fried oysters and the sticky toffee pudding with him with plans to open a new Branch Water Tavern at a new location in the future. But Federal has its own fried oysters, served on a bed of spicy slaw.

Brice took over with executive chef Michael Hoffman, formerly of Cafe Annie and Mockingbird Bistro, and added Antoine Ware, the genius behind the original food at Hay Merchant.

“It’s kind pricey having two chefs, but they are great so we are making it work,” Brice says.

And Brice says he’s focusing on building the lunch business. Federal now serves lunch daily with offerings from $9 to $25, but most of the options are in the $12 to $15 range, like the $12 BBQ bone marrow. Listed as an appetizer, you could make a lunch out of it and a basket of the housemade buttermilk biscuits. It’s a deliciously creamy cow marrow with a little extra kick to it.

There are salads, including a Caesar and iceberg wedge; sandwich choices that include a Texas Wagyu cheeseburger and a croque monsieur; and entrees like fish, a four-ounce prime filet (the most expensive thing on the lunch menu), an incredible eggplant Napoleon that I loved even though I don’t usually like eggplant, and a daily special.

If it’s Thursday, that special is buttermilk fried chicken with sauteed spinach and grain mustard mashed potatoes for $15. It’s a huge portion, so you can either take it home for latter, or if you have the time, order a glass of wine and just go at it.