First Look at Federal American Grill, the Reincarnation of Branch Water Tavern
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.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt A thoughtful vegetarian entree on a meat-heavy menu was the first of a few pleasant surprises at the new Federal American Grill.
"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 buttery housemade biscuits are still served to every table.
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.
The wine by the glass list is comprehensive and wide-ranging.
"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.