Branch works hard to be approachable. Its website stresses that it is an upscale restaurant “without pretension,” a philosophy applied to everything from menu to decor. Located in a huge Art Deco building from the 1920s that once housed a branch of the Central Trust Bank, the restaurant has taken this potentially cavernous and impersonal space and made it intimate. Rather than using the entire building, they have arranged one long row of tables and, in general, made the space feel friendly instead of institutional—a better spot to get a drink than a car loan. The single corridor of tables also means that servers are constantly passing by, and we had good, attentive service.
Diners might recognize the vibe at Branch from this restaurant group’s first venture, Northside’s The Littlefield, a bourbon bar that turned out to be an equally good place for a bite. The chef, Shoshannah Anderson, cooks in a mode that I would call “international home-style,” taking inspiration from the comfort food of many cultures. Branch’s challenge is adapting Anderson’s cooking style to a higher price point and creating an atmosphere of refinement without losing the informal neighborhood feel. Dishes are described with fancy foreign words like brodo, laksa, and cachoomar, but the menu also features fries and smoked wings.
Branch does a good job maintaining this balance. The menu is inventive without being intimidating, and it is the sort of restaurant that most of us wish was around the corner: reliable, friendly, but still nice enough for an occasion. The kitchen happily accommodated a handful of different dietary needs (we were the annoying table) without losing its stride. Like The Littlefield, the menu is eclectic and international, but as a general rule, the closer Branch stays to its homey American roots, the better the food tends to be.
One of the most notable items, for example, is a dish that would normally not even get a mention in a review: the french fries. From cutting them to the right size to retain just enough inner starchiness to frying and blotting to a not-too-greasy point of perfection, a lot of care has gone into these crispy, faintly blistered wonders. Served with a wonderful sage brown butter aioli (and a pretty good ketchup-like sauce), Branch’s fries demonstrate that food that is usually mindlessly inhaled can be worth savoring if it is made with enough love. (Something Anderson proved once before with her fries at her former Northside restaurant Honey.)
The shrimp and grits are another home-style dish taken to surprising heights. The old warhorse dish, on the brunch menu, is served soupy in a big bowl with an addictively sweet-and-sour green tomato marmalade swirled into the creamy grits, and marinated mushrooms contribute a separate umami bass note. It hits every flavor note on the register, succeeding in the difficult trick of making a classic new and complex without destroying its original pleasures.
Dishes from every corner of the globe are represented at Branch, from India to Italy to the Middle East to Southeast Asia, and it made me wonder: How possible is it for one kitchen and one chef to produce extraordinary dishes from this many culinary traditions? The answer in this case, unfortunately, is not very. Most of the international dishes top out at pretty good. The Israeli chickpea salad, for example, is a totally straight-ahead version of the old parsley-lemon-garlic classic—good enough, but very easy to make at home, and nothing about Branch’s version distinguishes it from a hundred others. Other dishes have changed so much from the originals that they are confusing when they arrive at the table. Gnudi is generally a light ricotta dumpling, softer and less chewy than gnocchi. Branch’s version appears to be deep fried like arancini, making the dumplings much heavier and denser than they should be. Immersed in a sour, one-dimensional broth, it was one of the weakest entrée offerings.
The Asian-inspired dishes, meanwhile, often felt like the tame offspring of much livelier parent cuisines. The curry roasted cauliflower cried out for a penetrating roast on the florets, rather than being barely cooked through, and for something beyond a light dusting of curry powder. In the same way, lentil kofta is normally filled with ginger, spices, and herbs, but the flavor in Branch’s fritters is low-key to a fault. Even the laksa, served as a sauce with salmon, is tasty enough but feels cautious. If you want to make a Thai- or Indian-inspired dish, there is no need to pull your punches to this extent. A restaurant can be approachable without entirely losing the intensity that certain traditions demand.
Although I sometimes longed for this boldness of execution, mostly the food at Branch is solid, and there are bright touches throughout the menu, from the nice bite in the cheddar biscuits to little pickled biquinho peppers at brunch to the pop of fresh grated horseradish on the flank steak. There is a special energy in the room from voices echoing around the high ceilings of a building that sat empty for half a century and is now coming alive again. Order like you’re at a neighborhood joint, rather than some fancy downtown hotel, and you will go home satisfied.
Branch, 1535 Madison Rd., East Walnut Hills, (513) 221-2702, eatatbranch.com