I love it when my expectations are foiled. A few weeks ago I walked into four-month-old Branch Water Tavern and took a look around. In every direction, I saw brown, brown, brown—a sea of predictable, monotonous brown, in walls, booths, and floor. Boring, boring, bor-ing. And a bad sign: If the restaurant’s principals were this indifferent to design, would that attitude spill over to the food? Still, advance notice from street and Tweet had been full of praise for chef-owner David Grossman, so I vowed to keep an open mind. And by the time I concluded my visit, I’d done a one-eighty. With a wide-ranging American bistro menu, BWT might be the most interesting place to have emerged from the tsunami of new restaurants that hit Houston late last year.
What initiated my change of heart? Let’s start with the ceviche s’mores. That’s not the real name of the dish, but it could be. Deliberately approachable, the appetizer consisted of impeccably fresh raw fish (red snapper on our visit) moistened with miso and paired with satsuma orange sections. The duo was then layered between sesame crackers and accented with wasabi-spiked fish roe. Striking contrasts in texture and flavor made the unexpected combo a roaring success. Utterly different but almost as engaging was the creamy butternut squash soup swirled with a sage-almond pistou and adorned with a fat duck-confit raviolo.
If the Tavern’s appetizers make variety a virtue, the main courses redouble that ethic. Grossman (who had stints at Reef and Gravitas) is fond of seafood, but he gives meat eaters their fair share of attention; witness the flavorful, he-man-size braised short ribs, described as “Flintstones-style” and served on a bone so large it could have belonged to a dinosaur (nooo, not Dino!). Still, you might as well go with the kitchen’s strength, and in that maritime milieu, the choices are legion. We loved the red snapper filet under a crunchy brioche crust, sided by small trumpet mushrooms and allegedly by a blood orange–butter sauce (which was hardly evident on the plate). If you don’t fancy fish, you can always have the beautifully cooked sea scallops seasoned with a rub of sea salt and mild Espelette chiles and served with black-truffle sauce, which for some reason the menu calls a vinaigrette (note to kitchen: customers get confused when familiar terms are used in arbitrary ways).
By the time dessert rolled around, the food had so altered my mood that I was actually reveling in the decor I’d previously sneered at. And that, ahem, admission might have had something to do with my difficulty in settling on a favorite dessert. At first I was leaning toward the fabulously light crème fraîche cheesecake with blueberry compote, but upon further reflection, I found myself drawn to the pistachio ice cream and traditional English sticky toffee pudding (pictured), a dense spice cake enriched with dates and resplendent in tones of—you guessed it—warm, wonderful, welcoming brown. Bar (opens at 4). 510 Shepherd Dr, at Gibson (713-863-7777). Lunch Tue–Fri 11–3. Dinner Tue & Wed 5–11, Thur 5–midnight, Fri & Sat 5–1, Sun 5–9. Brunch Sun 11–3. Closed Mon. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+
Try this recipe of Mussels Steamed in Riesling With Grilled Country Bread from David Grossman, Branch Water Tavern, Houston