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Fried oysters

Nation Builder

by By John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | August 27, 2013

When Matt Brice from Massachusetts and his Houston wife bought the chef-driven, comfort-food-savvy Branchwater Tavern in January, they kept more than the rustic-chic decor in its dining room and the small-batch bourbons in its bar. For two months, they kept Branchwater’s chef-owner in the kitchen.

Night after night, as adjustments were made, Chef David himself turned out versions of the dishes that had won Branchwater laudatory reviews and a small army of fans. During the transition—Grossman’s short-term sticking-around having been part of the deal—some diners must have doubted what they’d read in the media and then on the banner hanging outside on the wall: that Branchwater Tavern was becoming Federal American Grill. “It was unusual,” offers the lanky Matt, 37, with his shaved head and nonstop smile. (And after running Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Manhattan and relocating to Houston to help launch Mo’s… A Place for Steaks, he presumably knows “unusual” when he sees it.) “In the end, it worked out pretty well for everybody.”

Grossman got what he wanted: greener pastures. And the new kids got what they wanted: another restaurant to run.

Since leaving Mo’s, Matt and his pretty blond wife Jenny had been concentrating on a country French concept they co-own in Rice Village—Bistro des Amis. Yet something about Matt’s background in big restaurant companies and prime steaks wouldn’t let him be 100 percent satisfied dishing up coq au vin to boutique crowds. As an experienced chef himself, he was taken with the ways America’s long-stodgy steakhouse chains were spinning off progeny that were youth-oriented, bar-oriented, choice-oriented—and less expensive. If Del Frisco’s could do Del Frisco’s Grille, for instance, couldn’t Matt go forth and do likewise? He talked to Grossman, tapped him temporarily, and Federal American Grill was up and running.

The new name can be understood in two parts. The latter two words place it within that least restrictive of culinary categories—offering food that is, or at least might be, “American.” The first word, Federal, however, refers not to the country’s system of government, but instead to a company started in Houston decades ago by Jenny’s late grandfather; Tom Lyons III started Federal Flange in the 1960s.

Decor-wise, much of Branchwater Tavern remains. The rectangular dining room of booths and tables set amidst dark wood and old brick is almost untouched, and the kitchen is still open. But the new owners are making changes. The collection of bourbons, for example, has been expanded to more than 100. And Jenny and Matt themselves, as the mom and pop who’ll welcome you more times than not, bring their own personal new energy.

On this weekday night, the space is less packed than it is on weekends, yet Matt himself is totally “on.” He visits all the tables, joking with strangers as though they were his new best friends. And when you don’t see him doing that at Federal, he’s probably slipped away to do much the same at Bistro des Amis. At both restaurants, either he or Jenny is usually visible.

When the Brices took over, Matt was clear about avoiding the usual hip-Houston-restaurant trap: hiring a talented and ambitious chef, letting him or her create some seasonal farm-to-table menu, and then making managers deal with irate customers when their favorite dish was too “seasonal” to be on the menu anymore. Matt told his chefs, “Here’s the menu. These dishes will sell all year long. And here’s how you’ll make them.”

True to his background, there’s a collection of USDA prime steaks and chops described inside a black box on the menu. There’s an unexpected 4-ounce filet mignon, often called a ladies cut but welcomed by anyone wanting less than the Texas-typical side of beef. The filet shows up with Tuscan kale, truffle mac and cheese and a lush, savory bordelaise—unlike steaks in the high-end joints where Matt used to hang his hat, which come with approximately nothing. Another surprise is Federal’s smoked pork chop, plated with the Deep South’s dynamic duo of braised greens and cornbread pudding. There are excellent à la carte sides offered, too, including carrots roasted in duck fat and crispy Brussels sprouts.

I also loved the fried oyster appetizer. These feature a Hoffman sauce—named after Matt’s Exec Chef Michael Hoffmam—that incorporates bleu cheese and a slaw of spicy sprouts. Other terrific ways to start here include the jumbo lump crabcake with asparagus and Champagne beurre blanc, and either the iceberg wedge salad with crispy prosciutto topped with bleu cheese and buttermilk dressing, or the roasted beet salad with candied pistachios and goat cheese.

Some entrees are wildly new, such as the sesame-crusted eggplant Napoleon crafted by Grossman during that transition period—Indian-esque with layers of spinach-cheese saag paneer, raita and cucumber salad—while others are fresh spins on classics. Instead of Carolina-style shrimp and grits, Federal serves grits topped with Gulf shrimp wrapped in bacon, which themselves get topped with a fried egg.

After all that, you obviously need dessert, and Federal knows its Houston clientele well enough to please. Many tables succumb to the warm chocolate fondant, a kind of gooey cake-meets-pudding-meets-candy-bar filled with “marshmallow fluff” and accompanied with Gianduja chocolate gelato. The resto also turns out some fine cheesecake, its crème fraiche and cream cheese ending up lighter and airier than most, just barely holding onto its shape beneath a couple spoonfuls of blueberry compote.

Familiar-seeming delights, tweaked and made new—at a restaurant where freshening up the familiar has become, ahem, a Federal case.

Federal American Grill
510 Shepherd Dr.
713.863.7777

Hours: Lunch and dinner Mon.-Thurs. 11am-10pm, and Fri. 11am-11pm; dinner Sat. 5-11pm and Sun. 5-9pm; brunch Sat.-Sun. 11am-3pm

Appetizers $12-$18; soups and salads $9-$12; entrees $17-$45; sides $4-$9, desserts $3-$8

Why Go?
The food veterans here know how to make you happy, with casual flair, good drinks and comfort-friendly food.

Attire
Completely come-as-you-are. Federal and its spirited staff care about food and drink, not what you’re wearing.

Spirits
Continuing the obsession that gave predecessor Branchwater its name, Federal has expanded its inventory of whiskeys—especially those from Kentucky and Tennessee, but also from the motherlands of Scotland and Ireland.

Brunch
Weekend morning lapses into midday here with most dinner appetizers and entrees available, plus the likes of brioche French toast with crème royale and apple-blueberry compote, and braised veal Benedict with jalapeno cornbread.