David Grossman, executive chef at Branch Water Tavern, looks far younger than his 31 years, even when manning the large stoves on the line and expediting food with steely determination. And when he starts talking excitedly about his favorite project at the restaurant -- the in-house charcuterie program -- his boyish grin makes him look even younger: a sausage wunderkind, if you will.
A plate of his housemade charcuterie was in front of me last night as he spoke and it was difficult to concentrate on anything else -- even Chef Grossman's engrossing story of how he came to cure meats or where he obtains his pork -- with thin, glistening strips of bresaola and a meaty hunk of headcheese beckoning up from the table.
"We use Texas wagyu beef for the bresaola," he smiled as he indicated the dark red strips, sliced so finely that they were almost translucent. "You can almost taste the terroir in the meat. It's amazing."
And he was right. Notes of bright, fresh grass and rocky soil came through the taste of the bresaola almost as much as the meat and delicately flavored fat, an odd but remarkable combination of flavors. Memorable, for certain.
In fact, memorable is an adjective that can be applied to all of the hard-cured meats that Grossman and his team are serving up at Branch Water Tavern right now.
Thanks to his CIA education, Grossman already had a solid background in cooked charcuterie, pates and such, before starting as the sous chef at Gravitas. There, he began to experiment with the more difficult end of the charcuterie spectrum: hard cured meats.
"Environmental control was the most difficult aspect," he explained. "We tried keeping meat in the wine closet at first, but it was too dry in there and the temperature changed every time someone opened the doors and walked in."
At Branch Water Tavern, Grossman finally hit upon a formula for success: a temperature- and humidity-controlled refrigerator that's kept between 55 and 60 degrees and two sous chefs who were already familiar with hard cured meats and were more than willing to help Grossman create a charcuterie program at the new restaurant.
While he doesn't have the room to break down whole pigs -- "We rarely get a whole hog in the kitchen," he says with a slight frown -- he was proud of the recent acquisition of half a Mangalitsa pig from Revival Meats. The extremely fatty pig was used primarily to make lardo -- which Grossman serves as its own item, the gossamer slices draped sensually across pieces of fresh bread -- as well as fat to make other sausage with, like the peppery soppressata served on the assorted charcuterie plate.
Most of the meat that Grossman buys for his hard cured stuff is heritage pork, although it's not always feasible or budget-friendly to buy expensive animals like the Mangalitsa. In that case, Grossman has found Niman Ranch to be a dependable purveyor and a happy medium between heritage pork and commercially raised pigs.
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"You don't want to make charcuterie with commercial meat, because you're condensing those flavors," he points out. "And sometimes those flavors -- in commercial meat -- are really bad."
Grossman is very proud of his charcuterie -- and the constantly changing rotation of fresh garnishes prepared by his creative kitchen team -- but with characteristic humility, he will only say this: "It's almost as good as what I used to eat in Italy. But not quite."
I've never been to Italy, so I can say this: Grossman's charcuterie is as good as it gets, especially in Houston.
To read more on the charcuterie trend in Houston, check out our feature: Designer Meats.