A new era at Watershed

The matchbooks at Watershed on Peachtree are printed with a recipe for fried chicken. The recipe is Zen-like, simple enough to fit on the back of a matchbook and yet requiring three days of prep. I mention it because the matchbooks at most restaurants are meaningless. Watershed is the kind of place where even the matchbooks tell a story.

That recipe for fried chicken belonged to Edna Lewis, an iconic culinary figure that this paper described as “the South’s answer to Julia Child” in her 2006 obituary. Her later-life companionship with chef Scott Peacock became the defining story of his tenure at Watershed when it was in Decatur in the years before and after her death. It was a story of food that could cross the complicated boundaries of race, age and sexual orientation. It was the story of the big table of Southern food.

Lewis’ fried chicken is still served every Wednesday, though Watershed on Peachtree is a very different place.

Once housed in a converted garage, Watershed is now the ground floor anchor tenant in a tall residential tower in Buckhead. A large, rectangular bar functions as a neighborhood watering hole for residents of the posh condominiums above. The dining room is cushioned and curtained for maximum comfort.

And in the kitchen is a new chef, Zeb Stevenson, whose previous career at the Livingston and a few other restaurants around Atlanta was notable for a precocious style of ambition. He made a splash a few years ago by organizing a multi-course dinner where each dish quite visibly contained blood. By that measure, he’s much more reserved these days.

Stevenson’s tenure at Watershed promises to be a very good one. For the neighbors who frequent the bar, he has written a short menu of crowd-pleaser snacks: a simple burger, a roll of pimiento cheese, deviled eggs and ham, pork rinds and hot sauce. Tucked among those is Stevenson’s pickle plate, an unusual and delicate collection of curiosities like garlic flowers and coriander seeds, bamboo sections, ramps, and so on. I leaned over the plate, oohing and aahing over each fun, bright little taste. Pickles rarely get this kind of attention to detail.

Stevenson is at his best, in fact, when he is being a bit fussy. A plate of grilled peaches wrapped in paper-thin slices of lardo would be pleasure enough, but Stevenson delivers the dish plated with rounds of cucumber, smears of mint yogurt, a quenelle of savory rice pudding and a miniature bouquet’s worth of edible flowers that have been artfully set in place with, one must assume, a pair of tweezers. It is a summer stunner.

Stevenson has a particular talent for working the flavors of fruits into savory dishes. At dinner, he serves a biscuit split in half, smeared with broiled, soft, salty homemade cheese, a pile of baby kale, strings of shaved onion and a dollop of rosemary strawberry preserves. It is a rustic composition, much the opposite of those tweezered flowers, but the result is a similar bull’s-eye of flavor: bitter balanced by sweet, light in the hand but decadent on the tongue.

The menu does not always live up to these highlights. There are duds like gummy, bland duck hush puppies or an unfortunate recent attempt at rethinking Waldorf salad.

The service could use a little tightening, too. At lunch recently, a server sold my companion a “flounder special” and delivered a fish and chips sandwich. Simple misunderstanding? Maybe, but knowledgeable, precise service prevents misunderstandings.

These points distract a little from the fact that Stevenson’s Watershed is plainly a very good restaurant.

The pork chop is thick and juicy and served with hearty cider beans and buttery bread crumbs. The pressed lamb shoulder falls apart at the touch of a fork and pairs wonderfully with leafy greens and soft cheese. The chicken and dumplings is simple and lovely, a bowl of pillowy dumplings and rich strands of dark chicken meat. Order the vegetable plate and Stevenson’s careful touch with his mélange of market-fresh goods will make you the envy of the table.

Finally, if the pleasures of the hot milk cake or tres leches desserts do not satisfy you, you cannot be helped.

At any other restaurant, Stevenson might be expected to fix a few problems and be satisfied with running a nice place. I hope he doesn’t stop there.

Watershed is a place, as I mentioned before, that has both the privilege and burden of telling personal stories about our Southern food. Watershed’s chef before Stevenson, Joe Truex, struggled for a time to find a way to do that after Peacock left. When Truex finally found his way, he wrote a menu that told a bold, boozy, spicy story of his Louisiana upbringing. His nouveau jambalaya was a revelation, a dish that told us something new about him and the cuisine.

Stevenson is not struggling. His menu shows a chef with an admirable dedication to good ingredients, a fine hand with interesting flavors, but one that hasn’t yet given us a great answer to his story of Southern food.

Maybe that’s a lot to ask, maybe it sounds like a burden, but I say it because I think Stevenson is a chef capable of greatness. I look forward to eating his progress.

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