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Duck Fat: the New Butter

Popcorn tossed with duck fat instead of butter is my new favorite bar snack. I had some with a glass of St. George American single malt whiskey at Branch Water Tavern on Shepherd the other night. I love the slow-cooked meats and reasonably priced appetizers at this cool new restaurant. The duck fat popcorn is only three dollars.

On my last visit, I had the "Flintstones style" beef ribs. Two giant rib bones stuck out of a pile of black beef, which had been braised in stock and red wine until the fat melted and the meat fell into threads of tender mush. This luscious stewed meat was piled on top of a puddle of wild mushroom risotto. The stuff was so good, I could barely stop eating long enough to try my tablemates' entrées.

One of my friends got the Long Island duck — the rosy medium-rare breast slices were wonderfully tender and very juicy. They were fanned out over slow-cooked dark-meat duck confit that was tossed with chard and served with two pillows of rosemary gnocchi. The duck fat from the confit coated the pasta and the inside of my mouth as I ate several large bites. Man, I love duck fat. I want to eat this stuff in my oatmeal.


Branch Water Tavern

510 Shepherd, 713-863-7777.

Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sundays.

Duck fat popcorn: $3

Squash soup: $7

Crab cake: $12

Duck: $22

Short ribs: $28

My other tablemate got the slow-roasted salmon with lentils, greens and mustard. When you grill salmon, you render much of the fat out of the fish in the cooking process. By slow-roasting it, you keep the fat from melting out and leave the final product with a velvety mouthfeel and fuller flavor. The pile of greens and lentils flavored with mustard reminded me of one of Bryan Caswell's fish bowls. Which makes sense, since Branch Water Tavern's chef, David Grossman, worked at Reef for a while.

Grossman is a striking young man with dark hair. He looks like a young Elliott Gould. The restaurant has an open-display kitchen, but in three visits I never saw Grossman speak to a customer or even wave hello. He just stands there glowering. His staff follows his dour example. Why put your kitchen onstage if your chefs are going to act like a gang of undertakers? How about a smile, chef?

The young chef has an impeccable résumé — he graduated top of his class at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, did a San Francisco internship with French chef Roland Passot and learned to cook seafood at Oceana in New York. But I suspect the style of cooking he's doing at Branch Water Tavern was probably most influenced by the time he spent working at Gotham Bar & Grill under Alfred Portale.

Portale pioneered the casual, tavern style of fine dining 25 years ago. It's a uniquely American restaurant style with an emphasis on a well-stocked bar and simple meat and seafood dishes that don't have French names. In many ways, it's a throwback to early American eateries like City Tavern in Philadelphia, where America's founding fathers hung out while they were drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Branch Water's bare brick walls and clean lines work with the tavern theme. And so does the menu. Oysters on the half shell, crab cakes, venison medallions, New York strip steak, smoke roasted pork chops: I imagine the same items were served at 18th-century American taverns. And the beverage list is just as classic.

Grossman's partner in the front of the house, Evan Turner, has done an admirable job as beverage director. Turner, who has worked as the sommelier at Gravitas, 17 and The Strip House, put together an interesting wine list. But it's the bar at this new American tavern that intrigues me the most.

Turner is the guy who is out slapping backs and shooting the breeze with the clientele. Under his tutelage, I learned beaucoup about what's going on in the American whiskey business. On my first visit, I asked him to recommend something unique. He brought me a glass of St. George single-malt, a light-tasting whiskey that's made in Sonoma but tastes like it was made in Scotland. It reminded me of such butterscotchy Speyside single malts as Glenmorangie. It starts out as dark brown ale and is distilled in a tiny copper pot still. It's aged in bourbon barrels first, then in French oak. St. George is part of a new breed of American whiskeys that are straying from the orthodoxy of bourbon.

Next, Turner recommended Bernheim's wheat whiskey. Bourbons are made with 51 percent corn. The rest of the blend usually includes rye and wheat. Some "wheated bourbons" like Maker's Mark include more wheat than rye. Bernheim's throws the balance in the other direction — it's 51 percent wheat. The result is a light floral aroma and a flavor that isn't as sweet as bourbon or Scotch. The wheat whiskey reminded me of Irish whiskeys, which are made from unmalted barley.

On another visit, I tried Pappy Van Winkle's 15-year-old Private Family Reserve, an awesome, wheaty bourbon that was awarded one of the highest ratings of all time at the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago.

The wine list at Branch Water Tavern is very good, but the savvy American whiskey collection is remarkable.

On my second visit to Branch Water ­Tavern, I was eager to introduce the fabulous food to my spouse. I ordered some pork "scratchin's," which were sort of halfway between cracklins and fried pork rinds. I forgot that she finds eating pure fat odious.

The waiter brought a plate of biscuits and a butter dish to the table when we ­ordered — it's Branch Water's version of a bread basket. "Buttering these biscuits is redundant," she declared as she ate one of the unctuous, flaky bread squares.

To appease her appetite for light and healthy food, I ordered the quasi-vegetarian butternut squash soup. But she said it was too rich and shoved it over to me. I loved the stuff. Okay, maybe there was a little cream and butter in the squash, and granted, it had a very large duck confit ravioli and some oily pesto floating in it, but it still qualified as health food in my book.

The pan-roasted chicken was brined and cooked slowly with the skin on until it became very moist and tenderized by the slowly melting chicken fat. She wanted to cut the skin off and throw it away before she even considered eating any of the meat. I put my head in my hands. The roasted black drum with basil broth was the only dish she really liked, and she wouldn't eat the ricotta dumplings that came with it.

"Is the theme of this restaurant 'fatty foods for lean times'?" she asked with a smile.

To my mind, fatty short ribs or duck confit, braised in a flavorful sauce until the fat tenderizes the meat and the whole thing falls apart, is the ultimate winter comfort food. I also tend to think that squash soup needs lots of cream, that bone marrow is the perfect topping for a strip steak and that bacon-wrapped shrimp feels most at home on a bed of cheddar grits with a slow-poached egg on top. And it's hard for me to remember that everybody doesn't like that sort of cooking.

There are a few other things about Branch Water Tavern that won't please everyone. So I better temper my enthusiasm for the place with some caveats. First of all, let me warn you about the idiotic parking situation.

On my last visit to Branch Water Tavern, I ran over an orange cone and parked my car in the empty parking lot in front of the restaurant. "You can't park here, it's valet parking only," the thug at the stand told me.

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"Call a tow truck, I'm going in the restaurant," I replied. He didn't, of course. You aren't breaking any laws by parking in a restaurant parking lot while you are eating there, and the valet service has no authority to tell you where to park. My tablemate on that visit told me the valet at a nearby wine bar stole his iPod out of the center console. "How much did you tip him?" I had to ask.

I predict 2010 will be the year of the valet revolt. I am not paying these people to park my car in an empty parking lot, steal my valuables, switch my headlights on so I run down my battery, or otherwise harass me anymore. I suggest that Branch Water Tavern and every other restaurant in town with a perfectly adequate parking lot fire the valet service.

Some people have complained that the restaurant is noisy. I haven't been there on a weekend when it's packed, so I haven't noticed that problem. I have noticed that the bar gets noisy, but that doesn't bother me.

As for the food, the shy but brilliant David Grossman cooks the kind of rich, straightforward meat and seafood dishes I love to eat on a cold night. But be forewarned. You shouldn't take a vegetarian or a salad fancier to this place and expect them to get all excited about the duck fat popcorn.

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