When researching new restaurants in Houston, the name Branch Water Tavern kept popping up but with mixed reviews. Diners fawned over the extensive bourbon list and quality of desserts, particularly the sticky toffee, but there were just as many negative reports of missing dishes, sub par service, and poor preparation. As a result I was on the fence about dining at Branch Water Tavern. However, I quickly forgot the negative comments when I saw their popcorn. This wasn’t just any popcorn, it was duck fat popcorn. Imagine, the humble snack of popcorn, elevated to new heights with the avian goodness of duck fat, it might even be better than Holeman & Finch's bacon caramel popcorn. With that as an impetus did I really need another reason to visit Branch Water Tavern?
Once our party of three settled into our seats at Branch Water Tavern, we were able to take in our surroundings. From the impressive selection of liquor to the open kitchen, there was something to catch your eye wherever you looked. Oddly enough, once I started looking at the menu I reached a strangle conclusion; while I was enticed by the idea of a Kobe cheeseburger and Berkshire pork chop, the “snacks” & “to share” sections of the menu had much more to offer me. In the spirit of compromise, our small group decided to focus on the first few sections of the menu and leave the mains for another trip.
Right away there were mixed opinions. Don’t get me wrong, this was nicely popped, well-salted popcorn, it was just anticlimactic.
Instead of the rich, roasted duck flavor I was expecting, this was just a greasy albeit strangely satisfying popcorn.
Never missing the opportunity for quality cured beef, the Reuben Sliders snack was our next plate.
In lieu of the classic rye bread, this three-part monster of an appetizer was served on crispy, well-toasted white bread that concealed a filling of pastrami, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.
Focusing on the filling, it was a sublime balance of fatty, peppery pastrami, creamy Russian dressing, and just enough sauerkraut to keep things interesting. This sandwich was perfectly sized to share but I can’t imagine eating this on my own; it really was a meal unto itself.
Moving on to the “to share” section of the menu, everyone was intrigued by the idea of Chicken Fried Oysters.
Although these oysters were very well fried, any subtle brininess they may have had was completely obscured by the wing sauce.
The celery root slaw was a welcome addition of texture, but the idea of chicken fried oysters and wing sauce simply didn’t seem to work that well.
The next dish from the “to share” section was the charcuterie plate.
It took a few questions with our waiter, but I finally learned this to be marcillo, a Spanish blood sausage. Far from the expected iron flavor overload, this was rich & spicy with just enough iron taste to let you know this isn’t your average sausage.
Next was the coppa and it had a very smoky flavor, very similar to bacon cured with sugar and salt. Behind the coppa was the lomo and I was surprised. This lomo was like a roughly cut, thicker prosciutto, very salty and very porky.
At first I thought this looked like any old pork terrine but imagine my surprise when I was told it was a venison terrine. Speckled with chunks of pork fat and fruit, this was an oddly sweet terrine. I’ve never really associated venison with cherries or cranberries but they work beautifully in this smooth, meaty terrine.
Somewhere between my return to the “snacks” section of the menu and everyone else finding an entrée, I managed to sneak a bite or two of somebody's gnocchi with parmesan side dish.
Pillow soft and thick, these potato dumplings just needed a little salt to be excellent.
In a halfhearted effort to save room for dessert, I decided to skip “appetizers” and “mains” section of the menu, and retreat to the “snacks” for an order of the duck liver mousse with onion jam.
Seeing a jar sealed with a layer of fat makes my heart skip a beat; whether that’s the result of joyful anticipation of deliciousness or fear of cholesterol is up for debate.
Abandoning any sense of self-restraint, the three of us began scanning the dessert menu. I’d read that Alan Richman had called the sticky toffee pudding one of “the five best desserts of the year” back in January, but ever since his tirade against New Orleans I’ve taken his columns with a grain of salt. Regardless of his endorsement we wanted to try the sticky pudding but we were also enticed by the crème fraiche cheesecake. I thought I told the waiter we would try the sticky toffee and the cheesecake but one communication breakdown later we had four desserts in front of us.
Topped with pistachio ice cream and a piece of brittle, this was a rich caramel infused pudding.
Drier than the sticky toffee pudding at Feast, this date laced pudding was still an excellent dessert, especially with the addition of the pistachio ice cream. Even with a solid showing, I still prefer the sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream from Feast.
Served with blueberry compote, the crème fraiche cheesecake was another fine choice.
With a wobbly, panna cotta like texture, this cheesecake wasn’t as firm as I would have liked but the tart flavor of crème fraiche and the sweetness of blueberries was a dynamic combination.
Next was the apple tart tatin with bourbon ice cream.
What better way to finish than with an overdose of chocolate?
Despite a dessert overload, the three of us left Branch Water Tavern feeling this had been a worthwhile meal. While the original reason for our visit, the duck fat popcorn, had been a bit of a let down, the rest of the menu stepped up to deliver a well rounded & excessive meal. Even after leaving out large parts of the menu, i.e. the appetizers and the mains sections, I was perfectly content to eat my way through the snacks and to share portion of the menu. Maybe next time, we’ll have the foresight and proper communication to try the rest of the menu, but I’d be just as satisfied to sift through Branch Water Tavern’s excellent selection of liquors with a snack or two on the side.
Branch Water Tavern Address & Information