Newcomer brings Southern comfort to the Short North
Initially, Biscuit & Branch might seem to have one of those names that aims to sound hip and sophisticated by conjoining randomly chosen nouns. Turns out, it's a fitting moniker for an establishment offering indulgent Southern comfort foods, plus an excellent bourbon selection — “branch” refers to the water blended with bourbon.
Considering Biscuit & Branch also offers 30 draft beers, good cocktails and all-day brunch fare, “Booze & Breakfast” might've been a catchier title for the Short North newcomer.
Sharing owners with Westies Gastropub and employing Westies' veteran culinary director — Paul Yow, previously of Barcelona and The Refectory — Biscuit & Branch occupies a big, sleek, modern and predominantly gray space with multiple TVs and a prominent bar. While its menu has been routinely tweaked since debuting in January, which can be frustrating for a restaurant reviewer, most of the food I've tried over the last few weeks has ranged from solid to quite good.
A recently revamped happy hour (4 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday) has brought about terrific specials such as half-off cocktails regularly priced at $11. One standout among these is the strong yet incredibly smooth Bourbon and Branch — Old Forester significantly enhanced by sweet rose water, a handsome cut-glass tumbler plus an ice cube embedded with flower petals. Another recommended libation available for $5.50 during happy hour is the Flytown, which tastes like peach tea with refreshing lime and chili accents.
To soak up the liquor, try the addictive Loaded Fries ($5 at happy hour) — a nacho-style spin on French fries — and the likewise irresistible Nashville Honey Hot Chicken Bites ($5 at happy hour), honey-kissed boneless strips with a sauce that tasted more like it came from Buffalo than Tennessee, plus house slaw. An order of bites is a great introduction to some of the restaurant's mainstays: crackly battered, tender fried chicken thighs and coleslaw spiked with coarse mustard.
Moving to the just-retooled-again main menu, Bourbon & Branch has jettisoned its one-note gumbo but wisely kept the homey, tomato-based Vegetable Dumpling Soup ($4), which uses a biscuit-type roll for the dough component. The Flytown Hot Brown is gone now too, but the first-rate Mac & Cheese that replaced toast in the reimagined classic open-faced turkey sandwich (native to Louisville) remains as a recommended side dish ($4).
I'm glad the Tractor Wheel ($8.50), an appetizer likely inspired by one of Yow's previous eateries — Hae-Paul's, an interesting Korean-American experiment — survived the latest menu revision. Floppy yet crisp-edged and somewhere between a crepe and a frittata, it resembles a Korean pancake studded with sweet potatoes; sauce lashings contribute to its smoky, tangy, sweet and slightly spicy flavors.
Given this restaurant's title, you'd expect it to get the biscuits right — and it does. They're sturdy yet soft and flaky, and they pop up in several dishes such as Paul's Nasty ($9.50): a split, golden-brown biscuit topped with peppery fried chicken, grated cheddar and good sausage gravy. Even though my order arrived just-warm, it still tasted much better than its name (which is borrowed from a famous sandwich invented in Charleston, South Carolina) — especially when paired with a rich-and-thick Spicy Bloody Mary ($10) garnished with an olive, house pickle, pickled okra and a hunk of summer sausage.
Menu items like the Charleston Paella ($19) — a saucy, low-country twist on a classic Spanish dish with shredded crab, sweet-and-plump shrimp, fried chicken, Carolina gold rice and heirloom “sea island red peas” — represent how appealing the cooking here can be. By linking Hoppin' John to paella (although I think it's more like paella's cousin, jambalaya) the huge entree intriguingly demonstrates how seemingly disparate cuisines and cultures can actually be related — and, when fused together, can produce something new and delicious.