Matt Brice, the new owner of Federal American Grill, was making his rounds to all of the tables in the wood-paneled dining room last Thursday night. Tables were filling up quickly, but not all of them had come to eat at Federal American Grill. And Brice knew that.
"Those two women over there," Brice told my friend Brandi and me as he came by to check on our table, "told me that they'd come here still thinking this was Branch Water Tavern." It's a mistake more diners are sure to make in the coming months, as Federal American Grill moved into the old Branch Water space a few months ago and revamped large portions of the restaurant before reopening in late April.
Brice continued with a laugh: "They told me that they'd come here for the biscuits and that they'd have been really upset if those were gone." Luckily, the complimentary biscuits are still on the menu -- complete with former chef David Grossman's sweet jalapeño jelly on the side -- as are a few other favorites. The duck fat popcorn has remained, as has the smoked pork chop with pimento cheese polenta.
But there are plenty of changes, too -- all of them for the better.
Brice (who has also run the friendly Bistro des Amis in Rice Village for years) has toned down the formerly buttoned-up bar area, which now includes plenty of pub-style tables and comfortable leather couches, making it a more attractive space in which to enjoy a few light snacks with beer or cocktails. And his kitchen team -- which includes executive chef Michael Hoffman (previously of Café Annie and Mockingbird Bistro) and chef Antoine Ware (fresh out of The Hay Merchant) -- has started serving an all-USDA Prime steak selection on its meat-friendly menu.
The whiskey and wine lists are as ambitious as ever, with a special section in the back devoted to a line-up of whiskey and bourbon flights rivaled only by the opulent lobby bar at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. When my girlfriend couldn't decide on a cocktail, our waiter gamely suggested that she give him some parameters and let his bartender whip something up.
A few minutes later, she was presented with her requested "tequila cocktail that's a little fruity but not too sweet." It was a beautiful thistle-colored drink with a base of muddled blackberries. A little pineapple juice gave it a velvety feel and lime juice gave it an acidic pop. It was pristine for something created on the fly.
"It's called the Brandi," our waiter smiled. "You can ask for it any time you come in. We've got it written down." Brandi liked her drink so much, she ordered a second one for dessert.
"You know how to get a repeat customer!" she laughed. Brice indicated that one of his goals in opening Federal American Grill was to provide old-school service -- a goal that's currently being met. Our waiter glided past the table throughout dinner with excellent wine recommendations, those fancy crumb-gathering contraptions that fascinated me as a child, with new silver and new napkins for each course, and always with a casual, friendly demeanor.
I really enjoy these types of hybrid restaurants -- the ones that allow patrons to come as they are, yet still provide them with an upscale, respectful dining experience -- and hope Federal American Grill (or just Federal Grill, as it seems to be calling itself on its Web site) continues in this vein.
Dinner, too, hit a succession of high notes.
I was inordinately pleased to see a dish called "eggplant napoleon" on the menu, and even more pleased when I tasted it. It's such a rarity to see a thoughtful vegetarian item on meat-heavy menus -- and even more rare to see one with South Asian subtext. Although the eggplant slices were stacked like a napoleon, the rest of the dish was Indian-inspired: the panko-crusted fried eggplant slices were covered with a dark yellow curry, and sandwiched between the three fat rounds was homemade saag paneer. On the side, a tart and tangy cucumber raita balanced it all out.
My friend's dinner, meanwhile, was a study in simplicity: a perfectly roasted chicken with perfectly crispy skin served over a few perfectly fluffy gnocchi and perfectly cooked spinach and carrots -- all of it tied together with a perfectly herbal thyme jus. I tend to judge a restaurant by how well it roasts a chicken -- how well it can get the basic things right, that is -- and Federal Grill didn't disappoint.
It all made me feel chagrin for having been so hard on Federal American Grill when the new name and concept were first announced. Admittedly, I still think the name is silly (and someone should have perhaps checked to see what the acronym would spell out) and doesn't fully express what the Grill is trying to be: a restaurant that oozes casual, old-school charm, that's a step above a bistro but not necessarily demanding of a suit and tie either.
Either way, the good news is that the improvements Brice has made have breathed new life into a beautiful space. They work hand-in-hand with the improvements that Grossman made to the restaurant, such as adding foam batting to the bottom of each table to ameliorate noise in the dining room and constructing a full-enclosed private dining room. Located at the end of the long, rectangular dining room, the private area helps the main dining room feel cozier but also improves the room's acoustics. Between that and the batting, what was once one of the noisier dining rooms in the city is now far calmer.
After an evening of pleasant surprises, the kitchen still had one more up its sleeve: A complimentary dessert of carrot cake, which I am still convinced had nothing to do with me and everything to do with Brandi's exuberance over her cocktail and roasted chicken -- a rare sight for someone usually reserved with her praise.
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"I don't even like carrot cake," she told me after she finished spearing the last moist crumb of cake off our shared plate. Next to it was another vestigial Branch Water specialty: housemade pistachio ice cream, this time accompanying a densely spiced carrot cake instead of Grossman's famous sticky toffee pudding.
In the months to come, I'm sure that more customers like the women seated across from us will come knocking on Federal Grill's door thinking that it's still Branch Water Tavern. They may be disappointed to find their old favorite gone, but I have a feeling Branch Water's fans will be anything but disappointed with its replacement.