Chef Chat, Part 3: David Grossman of Branchwater Tavern and His New American Cuisine

Branch Water Tavern 510 Shepherd 713-863-7777 www.branchwatertavern.com

This is Part 3 of the three-part Chef Chat series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

This week, we chatted with Chef David Grossman of Branch Water Tavern and found out how he got started in the industry, how he defines his cuisine, the meaning behind "Branch Water" and the last meal he'd eat if he were given carte blanche to choose whatever he wanted. Today, we taste some of his cuisine.

When I think of Branch Water Tavern, I don't think "hip" but rather "cool." Cool and retro, with this sort of provocative urbanity. There's the slim, sleek, architectural wooden lines of the restaurant's exterior, resembling a modern temple of sorts. Inside, you're greeted by a wall of this kind of velvety, dark-green damask and lots of leather and wood. It feels like you've walked into a modernized, upscale tavern somewhere in the middle of Great Britain sometime during the 1970s -- if music from the TV show Shaft were playing, and guys wearing leather and brown bell bottoms were milling about, it wouldn't be out of place.

Such is the setting at Branch Water Tavern, so on the menu, you get things like duck mousse pâté with cornichons. You have whisky and bourbon cocktails. There are chicken-fried oysters with a dousing of Sriracha-enhanced spicy sauce, items that fit like a glove with the decor.

For our tasting, Grossman decided to highlight a few specials on the menu. The first was a summer appetizer made with house-cured salmon gravlax and served with house-made potato chips and caviar. The artfully plated presentation was beautiful, the gravlax formed into a small round cake with a generous application of deep black caviar.

Unlike smoked salmon, which can be salty as well as strong in terms of fishy flavor, the gravlax preparation had a softness to it, the curing process giving the salmon flesh a firm yet smooth bite that was mild in flavor. The caviar added a mildly salty brininess to the salmon while simultaneously assaulting the tongue with little pellets of texture. I enjoyed how the little pearls rolled and disintegrated on the tongue next to the smoother salmon and crispy potato chips.

Bread service was a basket of hot, house-made buttermilk biscuits, served with a sweet pepper jelly and freshly whipped butter. The biscuits were crusty and flaky, almost as buttery as a croissant, but moister and softer. With the sweet pepper jelly, they were quite divine and it was hard to stop eating at just one.

For the main entrée, Grossman brought out one of his Houston Restaurant Week specials, bacon-wrapped venison with a black currant reduction, sweet potato puree and grilled Brussels sprouts. The sweetness of the sauce and the sweet potato puree cut through the minerality of the meat, while the bacon wrap added a bit of flavor and fattiness to what would otherwise have been an extremely lean cut of meat. I thought the dish was a great representation of Grossman's interpretation of New American cuisine. Classic technique and styling, American ingredients and flavors; it was very well done.

The final treat was a crème fraîche cheesecake with blueberry topping, again very New American in the sense that he took something that is classic American and lightened it. I hadn't planned on eating the whole portion, but the very light quality of the cheesecake, lightly sweetened in such a way that it wasn't too cloying, made it hard to stop eating.

Grossman struggled with the classification of his own restaurant during our chat. Is it "modern cuisine" like the sign on the outside says, or "New American with Gulf Coast and English influences?" In the end, it doesn't really matter. What matters is the taste, which, for me, was just as enjoyable as Grossman's artistic plating of each dish.

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