March 16th, 2010

Branch Water Tavern (Revisited): Simple Food, Expertly Prepared

In 5 Words: Bourbon, Snacks, Accommodating, Thorogood, Crispy

It’s not often that I’m one of the more adventurous eaters in a group, but every so often, I find kindred “classmates” who are even more steeped in their ways than I. Such was the case on Saturday night when we met up at Branch Water Tavern to celebrate a friend’s birthday. While I immediately saw some items on the menu that leapt out, some of my dinner companions were a little intimidated by the menu. By the end of the meal, everyone was won over by both the food and the service.

As anyone will tell you, the first stop at a restaurant should always be the bar. Luckily, though my palette is less advanced than most ten year olds, I can legally sit and relax with a refreshing cocktail in order to get ready for the meal ahead. Since several members of our party were late, we had ample time to unwind with a drink.

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The bar calls to you immediately as you enter Branch Water Tavern. The restaurant, which is shaped like an L, has one wing that houses the bar and lounge, while kitchen and dining tables occupy the other. The treated brown wood and dark leather in the lounge area is simple and clean, reminiscent of a modern ski lodge. The decor is minimal, which allows Branch Water’s large selection of bourbons to take center stage on the wall behind the bartenders.

While waiting for our table, we sampled a few of Branch Water’s signature cocktails. Made with fresh fruits and top shelf ingredients, they were good, but not on par with some of the better cocktails in Houston. There was nothing that stood out, and everyone switched to wine once we sat down to dinner. Branch Water’s wine list is quite rare in the fact that they offer a wide range of bottles with some very reasonably priced options. When I’m drinking, I follow George Thorogood’s mantra of bourbon, scotch or beer, (no, I don’t order one of each) so I’m not a qualified judge of wine, but the table was quite pleased with the variety they shared.

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Our group was an eclectic mix brought together by the birthday girl. All told, there were nine diners, which allowed us to sample quite a bit of Branch Water’s offerings. Large parties are always an inestimable beast at restaurants, but Branch Water was incredibly accommodating. From seating our incomplete party and allowing us to order snacks while waiting on the laggards to offering to split checks upfront, the dining experience was seamless.

Our early bird group ordered a variety of snacks and appetizers. The popcorn, which soaked up the flavor of the duck fat it was cooked in, was a table favorite. Personally, the Reuben sliders stole my favor; the spice of corned beef mixed perfectly with the sauerkraut and rye roll. We also ordered the Asian BBQ buns, which, as the waiter described, were basically open faced kolaches. Chicken fried oysters disappeared as quickly as they were placed on the table. The waiter also brought out plates of biscuits, which were warm and hearty.

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Without a full table we were still managing to fill ourselves. If the first course was to be any indication of the rest of our meal we were in for a stellar treat. As the starters were passed around, everyone commented on how good they were. We weren’t sure if it was because we were famished or if they food was really that good, but we were pretty confident it was the latter.

By the time the entire party arrived, we decided to stop teasing ourselves with more appetizers and jump directly into dinner. Our entrees ran the gamut: From the NY strip to the hamburger, and most everything in between. The steak, piled high with onion rings looked delicious. The venison, which Aaron raved about in our initial review, continued to be exceptional. The birthday girl went with the duck and savored every tasty morsel.

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I went with the chicken, which was incredibly tender and flavorful. The skin was crisped perfectly, lending an amazing flavor and texture to the dish. The ricotta dumplings were tasty and made for a nice accompaniment. The seasonal vegetables included Brussels sprouts, which I can’t say I’m a big fan of, but they were seasoned and cooked well, so that most of the bitter aftertaste was diminished.

My girlfriend selected the slow roasted salmon which arrived perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned, allowing the salmon to shine through. It was crispy on the outside but moist and juicy. The kitchen was also kind enough to prepare her salmon with the chicken sides since she hates lentils. Looking back on the evening, these kinds of accommodating gestures are really what stick out for me. From the waitstaff to the kitchen, it seemed like all the cogs of the restaurant were turning in unison so that we could have the best possible experience.

While I didn’t partake in the cocktails, I couldn’t keep my sweet tooth at bay and had to try the sticky toffee pudding, which was a phenomenal way to end the meal. The sweet toffee paired expertly with the Pistachio ice cream and, if I wasn’t in polite company, I would have licked my plate.

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For my tastes, a restaurant experience should be a relaxing and stress free gathering. I’ve been to the hoity-toity places where everyone from the bus boy to the maître d’ speak to you like your an ignorant slob and they don’t impress me as much as a place where the chef will take a few minutes to talk to you. Branch Water Tavern is like that.

It offers a perfect all around experience in a comfortable environment no matter who you are. From the table of cougars in the back of the restaurant to the scattered tables of lovebirds to our loud boisterous group in the middle of the restaurant, everyone is welcome and everyone is treated to a good meal with great service. While Branch Water Tavern’s menu is new American, at the heart, it’s simple food expertly prepared.

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Where – 510 Shepherd, Houston, TX 77007 (View Map)
What
– New American Cuisine, New to Houston
Wear
– More Business than Casual
How Much
– A Little Higher than Mid-Range
When
– Lunch, Dinner, Drinks, Brunch on Sundays (closed Monday)
Web
Homepage; Facebook

[All photos by Paul are from a brunch visit]

— Marc

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