First Look at Federal American Grill, the Reincarnation of Branch Water Tavern
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.
Beef carpaccio and tuna tartare with crispy shallots: a pair of well-executed appetizers.
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.
"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.
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