Dinner and a Show

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Restaurant News

Everything Old Is New Again
Branch Water Tavern to become Federal American Grill.

Katharine Shilcutt

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Former Ruggles employees protested outside Corner Table last Wednesday, February 13. The new restaurant hired chef Bruce Molzan, who protesters claim owes them back wages and tips.
Katharine Shilcutt
Former Ruggles employees protested outside Corner Table last Wednesday, February 13. The new restaurant hired chef Bruce Molzan, who protesters claim owes them back wages and tips.

As if Branch Water Tavern weren't already waving the old-school Americana flag loud and proud, its replacement tenant — Federal American Grill — already seems determined to carry on that tradition, possibly with an even larger flag. Maybe with pretty gold fringe on the edges.

Chef and owner David Grossman announced last month that he'd be departing Branch Water Tavern and taking the concept with him, but not before transitioning the restaurant into something new.

That something new is Federal American Grill, which has the same vaguely colonial, early American tavern bent that's a trend in restaurant names from Houston (see: Liberty Kitchen, Frank's Americana Revival) to California (see: Township Kitchen Americana & Saloon in Los Angeles or Craftsman New American Tavern in San Diego) and elsewhere (see: Village Whiskey in Philadelphia or Longman & Eagle in Chicago).

These restaurants share other attributes aside from nomenclature, however. They usually feature menus with food that's called "fare," often of the "modern American" persuasion and typically with at least one burger and an assortment of updated comfort-food dishes. They also feature cocktails, craft beer, and a substantial whiskey or bourbon selection. Because at some point in our mutual culinary history, bourbon became synonymous with old-old-school American dining.

Federal American Grill will offer all these things, although it will also — smartly — keep some of Branch Water's popular dishes in place (bone marrow is staying, as is the smoked pork chop). Owner Matt Brice isn't fresh out of the gate, after all. He's run the popular Bistro des Amis in Rice Village for years. He'll be making the Branch Water space more relaxed, too, by adding more tables and TVs in the somewhat stiff bar area.

The dishes that are coming on the new menu follow that trend: bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits, truffle-laced macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie. But Brice is determined to keep the service "old school," despite a more casual climate inside.

The press release for Federal American Grill promises that's not all, though. "Federal Grill will continue to offer an impressive array of artisan beer, boutique wines, American whiskeys and bourbons, and other spirits highlighting the restaurant's menu," it says as I grow wearier with each passing day reading the words "artisan" and "craft" and "boutique," although I'm often unsure of which other words to use or which other words could possibly replace them. Because it's not the words that I find tiresome but rather the frequency and imprecision with which they're used — and I'm a chief offender myself.

I'm not really complaining, though. I happen to like these types of cheeky Americana places for the most part, although I recognize that the novelty of paying a bit extra for fried chicken and raw oysters because they're served in a chic-rustic, catalog-perfect setting with my choice of local hooch will wear thin eventually. And when that time comes, we'll be full-tilt in the swing of some entirely new food movement.

Perhaps colonial Americana will be cast aside in favor of kitschy 1950s food, and we'll all be ordering Steak Diane and Cherries Jubilee with knowing smiles as chefs talk about re-creating their grandmothers' chicken à la king with heritage hens and hand-foraged mushrooms. We'll eat out of upcycled foil trays designed to mimic Swanson's frozen dinners, the compartments filled with artisanal Salisbury steak and fresh-picked peas. Oh, the giddy irony of it all.


Let Them Eat Cake
Corner Table sends out pizzas to protesters.

Katharine Shilcutt

A group of 25 protesters outside Bruce Molzan's new River Oaks restaurant was faced with an unusual concession last week.

Corner Table, where the beleaguered Molzan is now head chef, sent out two pizzas to the picket line, delivered by waiters in pressed white shirts and black aprons. The protesters were mostly waiters themselves, along with other kitchen workers who say that Molzan still owes them back wages from his now-closed restaurant Ruggles Grill. Many of the protesters were involved in a similar public display in December 2011, when the entire staff at Ruggles walked out on a busy Friday night after alleging that Molzan owed them back wages and tips totaling $14,000 to $15,000.

This was not a point that Molzan disputed, although he claimed that the "whole thing" had "been blown out of proportion." On December 5, 2011, Molzan told the Houston Press that his waitstaff would be "paid in full" that day.

Laura Perez-Boston of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, a nonprofit that assists low-wage workers, claims that promise never came true. Says Perez-Boston: "He has still not paid the waitstaff that walked off the job at Ruggles."

In lieu of payment, the two pizzas came as cold comfort.

"No food; pay me!" one protester began to chant. Soon the entire line — predominantly Hispanic, with a few supporters from Fe y Justicia and Down With Wage Theft — was chanting the same refrain.

"That was bizarre," said Perez-Boston of the proffered pizzas. "But it just energized us. We're here for justice."

The raucous protesters drew curious onlookers from the quiet neighborhood off Virginia and Westheimer where Corner Table recently opened. Soon police cars had been called, too, although they remained parked and silent, simply watching. Corner Table's managers and valets scurried outside amid chants of "Ruggles workers are still in the struggle!" and "No justice, no peace!" from the sidewalk across the street.

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