Chef Chat, Part 2: David Grossman of Branch Water Tavern on the Restaurant's Name, Modern Cuisine and His Epic Last Meal
Branch Water Tavern
Photos by Mai Pham Chef David Grossman
This is Part 2 of a three-part chef chat series. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space on Friday.
Yesterday, we chatted with Chef David Grossman about the beginnings of his rise to chef-dom. Today, he explains the meaning of Branch Water and what Modern Cuisine means to him, and he tells us his wishes for a last meal (one of the best we've heard to date).
EOW: On the sign outside, it says Branch Water Tavern, and underneath it, "Modern Cuisine." How much of your externship or time at the country club, how much does that influence what you're doing here, and what's your definition of modern cuisine?
DG: First of all, I would say, definition-wise, I don't need to classify my cuisine like that, or whatever. I just think that people need that, so that's why I have the sign like that. I thought the idea of the tavern would be enough, and people would understand it. But for some reason in this town, people think of a tavern as purely a drinking establishment.
EOW: So were you shooting for more of a gastro-pub, a more English-style eatery?
DG: More like that. Not really a gastro-pub. It's an upscale tavern. If you're talking historically, it would be more of a social hub. In the early days of the New World, in the small settlements, the tavern would be there, and people wouldn't be like, "Let's go to city hall and have a meeting," it would be like, "Let's go to the tavern, let's discuss business there."
EOW: How about this: When you're thinking of doing a tavern, did you have some place in mind? Were there places that you'd gone, and thought, "Okay, I want something like that"?
DG: I would say that I liked the unpretentiousness of it -- is what drew me to that name. Nowhere in particular. Of course, there's Gramercy Tavern.
EOW: What about the "Branch Water" part of the name?
DG: When I opened this, I'm a lover of all things bourbon, American whiskey, I love scotch, too. Our goal was to have the broadest selection of American-produced whiskeys. So Branch Water is a term to describe the water coming from the stream or the distillery. So it has to do with the whiskey-making process, basically.
EOW: Let's talk a bit about the feel of this place. The exterior is very modern, clean lines. Especially the planks. It has this very haute-architectural feel, and then inside there's this sort of English -- I don't want to say grungy -- but lounge-y feel. What you would think of as a gastro-pub, kind of kicked-back and chill.
This dark-green, velour-tufted wallpaper drove the design of BWT
DG: The idea of a gastro-pub is definitely something that I enjoy. A gastro-pub is by definition a pub that serves elevated pub food, so it's very specific in that respect....Before I opened this place, I spent a month touring Europe, absorbing ideas.
EOW: Where'd you go?
DG: I went to London. I was in Barcelona, Spain, and traveled a little bit outside of there. I was in Italy, some smaller villages and Florence. And Paris, too.
EOW: But this has more of an English, Scottish, Irish sort of feel.
DG: Certainly, I would say so, most definitely -- the wallpaper, and the flocking of the wallpaper is English, and that was made in England. I saw that wallpaper and I wanted it. I told our designer I want that wallpaper, so there's definitely an English sensibility, but we don't serve English food.
EOW: So getting back to modern cuisine.
DG: Okay, so modern cuisine, I think it's just a way of interpreting or making whatever it is you're making. Using modern techniques, we bring what we know into a more contemporary framework, because we don't want our food to be old or tired.
EOW: Let's just talk about your menu, then. I don't want to sandwich you into anything, but I'm trying to paint the picture of what you're doing here. You've got chicken-fried oysters, chicken liver mousse, salmon tartare...
DG: In terms of the menu, I would say that the broadest category we would fit into is "New American," but that encompasses everything, so I would say, "New American with Gulf Coast and European influences." You've got the chicken-fried oysters, that's almost like a barbecued oyster. Mussels, it's sort of Mediterranean, with harissa, that's a little South African. Charcuterie, more French. Malpeque oysters, that's just oysters, I love oysters. The braised short rib, that's more Italian with the mushroom risotto. Then there's the fazoletti, it's handkerchief pasta that we roll the herbs into, and then we do a ragout of oyster mushrooms, and garnish with aromatic vegetables, and a broth made of parmesan.
EOW: So your friends are coming into town, and they call you up and say, "Hey, David, hook me up" -- what's the perfect meal?
DG: If they haven't been here before, I want them to have the oysters, because I know they're going to like them. I think the duck liver mousse is awesome. If they want a soup, the tomato bisque we're doing with a puff pastry is delicious. As far as entrées, I think the pork chop is probably one of my favorites.
EOW: How often are you rotating the menu?
DG: We switch out my ingredients seasonally, so we change up several of the dishes every four months or so.
EOW: And then drinks-wise? What are we drinking?
DG: I would say, order everything. Some cocktails to start, wine with dinner, and some bourbon or whiskey as an after-dinner drink.
EOW: So a little bit about you. What do you do in your spare time?
DG: I wish I had spare time. Not since I opened this restaurant, but I've always liked adventure sports. I used to live or die for whitewater rafting. I lived in Colorado for six months, and I was a whitewater rafting guide, and I was into rock climbing.
EOW: The Houston culinary scene is exploding. Do you have time to go out and eat?
DG: I eat out a lot, but mostly ethnic food. It's either going to be some hole in the wall in Chinatown or the latest new restaurant like an Uchi or Underbelly, or The Pass and Provisions. Or somewhere easy and comfortable, like Houston's or the original Carrabba's on Kirby.
EOW: Okay, so your last meal. What would it be? Who would make it?
DG: That's a good one. I was actually thinking about this. (long pause...) What would it be? (long pause...) That's not an easy question. I would have to say...(hesitates)
EOW: You're going to die tomorrow. Nothing automatically jumps into your mind?
DG: If I knew I was going to go, it would be all my favorite foods. A perfectly made pizza, the classic DOC pizza fresh right out of the oven, I'd definitely want one of those. I'd also want a really thick-cut, 90- or 120-day dry-aged Kobe beef from Japan, cooked about medium-rare. I'd want a New York strip. Caviar. A whole thing of Beluga caviar. Like, a big one. With blinis and crème fraîche.
EOW: (laughing) Keep on going, you're dying tomorrow, your budget's limitless!
DG: Blue fin toro on rice, and some uni. I want to eat it right out of the sea...I don't want to mess with the rice. Vegetable-wise, I love heirloom tomatoes. And I would want to eat the most, the most in-season, sweet, warm, from-the-field heirloom tomato, just with salt and lemon juice and olive. For dessert, that's a tough one. I'm honestly a frozen-dessert type of guy myself. So there's definitely some ice cream involved, I'm not sure what flavor. You know what? A baked Alaska, because it's got a little bit of everything in there; there's the ice cream, the fruit. Yeah, I want the baked Alaska. And I would want to have with my meal Grand Cru grower's Champagne from France to start. And I think I'd like a really old Amarone. And then I'd finish it off with a Highland Scotch. And I'd call it a day.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Grossman's food.
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