November 27th, 2009

Branch Water Tavern: A First Impression

In 7 Words: Confit, Ragout, Whiskey, Gargantuan, Gnocchi, Versatile, Artisnal

Excited to try the new Branch Water Tavern, I sit across the street waiting for Durham traffic to clear. The parking lot is bare; the only exception is a blue E-Z up tent that houses the valet, which allays my concern of having to circle the block to find parking. As I take in the horizontal, unpainted boards against the grayish brown exterior that mark the reformed Cue and Cushion building, I can’t help but feel that the exterior décor hints at something that slightly misses the mark. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is either an abundance or lack of the wood detailing on the outside of the building that affects the finish, but I’m heading here to eat, not do an architecture tour of Washington Avenue.

Once out of the car, we head towards one of the all glass entrances, as there are doors at each bend of the “L” shaped building. Neither of the doors is clearly marked, but we were saved the embarrassment of using the wrong one by the genial hostess who meets us at the correct door (the one on the right) and ushers us inside.

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In contrast to the muted exterior, the inside immediately picks up the aesthetic pace with a busy and engaging dark green paisley-esque wallpaper, beautifully re-finished, dark-stained wood floors, and exposed brick along the back wall of the main dining area. The entrance promptly sets the mood by giving the restaurant a very refined and romantic aura. The well-stocked and brightly lit bar occupies the right side of the “L” shape restaurant entrance. There is plenty of room to enjoy a cocktail at the bar or in the lux lounge seating of contemporary leather chairs gathered around small, intimate tables. The area is perfect for friends sharing a whiskey, cocktail or artisanal beer (mostly bottled) especially on a cool, rainy evening like tonight.

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Walking to our table, the waitstaff clusters together, sizing up the few patrons in the early evening and the cooks watch as we parade past a kitchen without the distinct cling, clang or sizzle of a Saturday night kitchen. As the restaurant is less than a week old, we experience the typical foibles of a new establishment, from dropped plates and a staff unfamiliar with the menu to choppy service. To add to the awkwardness, I manage to pick most of the items on the menu that are no longer available.

Despite the opening week glitches, it is a good experience. The menu is creative and playfully organized into categories like Snacks, To Share, Appetizers & Entrees, which allow the menu to cater to whatever type of meal you might be in the mood for. The kitchen at Branch Water Tavern provides anything from a full multi-course meal to cocktail snacks and appetizers like Duckfat Popcorn, Cracklers and Oysters cooked in a buffalo wing style. Main Dishes range from an $11 hamburger to the $27 venison medallions and the portions are hearty. The cocktail, wine and beer menus are extensive and reasonably priced for the Washington Avenue location. The beer menu offers three beers on tap and serves the rest in bottles or cans.

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As we make our way through the drink menus to the food, we select the steamed mussels in Riesling, bacon, harissa, crispy garlic for $10 from the “To Share” list. These are the largest mussels I’ve ever seen in my life. I am no mussel expert, but in my experience, they are usually smaller than oysters, but these bad boys were in no way meant for an elegant pasta or paella. They are delicious in their gargantuan way and the sauce was exceptional. The portion was truly enough to share and we are unable to finish the plate.

For our main courses, we have the venison medallions with sweet potato mash and Brussels sprouts ($27) and the Long Island Duck with rosemary gnocchi and duck confit ragout ($22). The Venison was the most expensive item on the menu and it was the clear winner of the two dishes. It is delicious and expertly cooked to medium rare and the sweet potato mash and Brussels sprouts were a great accompaniment to the venison flavor. The duck was decent, though slightly chewy, and was out-shined by the venison. The over-sized gnocchi was good, but a little more rosemary flavor would have been nice. Once again the sauce delivered the most taste to the dish and eased the awkward chewiness of the duck.

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The dessert menu offers a decent variety and each of the desserts are accompanied by a selection of recommended after-dinner drinks. We settle on the apple tart with vanilla ice cream, which was delicious and paired wonderfully with the Norman Conquest Cocktail (Calvados, St. Germaine, Sauvignon Blanc) that my wife orders earlier in the meal. The dessert menu certainly doesn’t steal the meal, but it is more robust than some other restaurants in the area and rounded the meal out nicely. Simply put, the dessert menu wasn’t just an afterthought.

The concept of Chef David Grossman’s menu centers on seasonal dishes and ingredients, so the menu will continue to change and evolve. My first impression is not quite up to the level I expected, but there are some real high points, including the venison and the duck confit ragout, both have a lot of potential. It will be exciting to see if they can continue to elevate all of the dishes as they finesse the concept and refine the menu. If there is a unique opportunity for Branch Water Tavern, it is in its versatile food and drink menus and late night hours. It has the potential to serve as a great alternative to the coffee shops and clubs both before and after dinner. They are open until 2 a.m., so you can certainly scout out the bar and/or dessert without having to commit to a full dinner.

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Brunch started last Sunday so we will have to follow up soon with more scoop. I would love to hear your experiences especially those of you with more Whiskey and beer knowledge about how they stack up.

NOTES and TIPS:

- The Heights Blog has some good links and early articles on the Branch Water Tavern evolution.
- Branch Water Tavern is posting a lot of photos and info on their Facebook page so become a fan to get some more info (the full menu is also on Facebook).
- They’re on Twitter too.
- Reservations via Open table: http://www.opentable.com/single.aspx?rid=37039- Some parking around back off Gibson (if the Valet becomes busy).
- Choose the entrance to the right.
- Restrooms are also to the right past the bar.
- Venison is an expensive but solid choice.
- Norman Invasion cocktail is an awesome choice with the Apple tart or toffee.
- More than just dinner, claim to have one of the most extensive whiskey collections in Houston and some interesting snacks to go with the drinks.
- Branch Water Tavern gets some national exposure from The Daily Beast.

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— Aaron

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