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Review: Like Kimball House, Watchman’s excels at oysters and cocktails

When you slip into Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits, the salubrious new Krog Street Market seafood-and-cocktail bar from the crew behind the nationally regarded Kimball House in Decatur, you’ll want to take a seat at the bar and get down to business. You’ll want to order yourself a drink: something that lightens the load and ensures you glide out in a finer mood than when you entered.

Thanks to the genius of cocktail impresario Miles Macquarrie, whose thoughtful drinksmanship made Kimball House a 2018 James Beard finalist for Outstanding Bar Program, that’s not such a difficult task.

For that Gulf Coast vibe, enjoy Watchman’s crab fritters. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL (For the AJC)

Nor does it hurt that there’s a thoughtfully curated supply of pristine oysters from Southern waters lurking under ice in individual wire baskets at the raw bar. Nor that the kitchen, under executive chef Daniel Chance, excels at putting out hot and cold appetizers that evoke the comforts of Gulf Coast jaunts of days gone bye. If you long for feather-light crab fritters, smoky trout dip, peeled shrimp on ice, and steamed clams with sourdough and buttery broth, Watchman’s won’t blink.

It is a swell spot to contemplate briny treasures alone at the bar, or to hang with your posse in a booth under a ceiling dripping with hanging plants that evoke the golden age of fern bars and macramé.

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The interior of Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits winks at ’70s Panhandle style. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL (For the AJC)

The clever design, including wallpaper that evokes a mysterious, Magritte-worthy eye that riffs on the Watchman’s name, is by Atlanta’s Square Feet Studio. Here, the same firm that helped Kimball’s savvy quartet of owners imbue an old train depot with the opulence of a 19th-century hotel saloon winks at ’70s Panhandle tackiness. And yet it is deliciously satisfying to arrive at the golden hour, sip a classic daiquiri or Gibson, and be swept away by the magical shimmer of brass and tile, bentwood bar stools painted with turquoise enamel, and a mixologist’s tableau of blue and green glass bottles. For those in need of an immediate medicinal remedy, there’s even a handy-dandy machine dedicated to chilling and dispensing cold shots of Chartreuse.

Oysters are a specialty of Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits, the new restaurant in Krog Street Market from the Kimball House team. Hatteras Salts oysters from North Carolina are pictured here. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS (For the AJC)

If it concerns you that a single oyster at a fancy place like Watchman’s can cost about the same as a gallon of gas, stop by for the Monday-Friday happy hour, when bivalves are fetchingly priced at $1 each, or half off. Partner Bryan Rackley has long been a champion of the Southern oyster industry, and Watchman’s offers some of the best-slurping specimens around: E.L. McIntosh & Sons from Harris Neck, Ga.; Murder Points from Alabama; Hatteras Salts from North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The oysters may be pricey, but they are worth it.

But when it comes to dropping large coins for a multicourse dinner at Watchman’s, so far I’m not feeling it. (A poor man’s Kimball it ain’t.) I’ve had much better luck exploring the menu’s front page (i.e., the strong stuff) and orchestrating a dinner from a couple or three small plates. Sourcing sustainable seafood means that supply can change on a whim, so Chance makes subtle changes daily.

Watchman’s Ceviche Verde with shrimp, fish, corn nuts, cilantro puree, and citrus. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL (For the AJC)

Thankfully, he doesn’t mess with the classics too much.

He pairs his trout rillettes with delightfully crispy, house-made potato chips; his flaky, deep-fried crab balls with sweet pepper jelly; his raw-bar fare with a pickle-juice-zingy red sauce. An imaginative fish and shrimp ceviche is bathed in salsa verde and garnished with corn nuts and radish or turnip matchsticks, as if to remind us that the Gulf of Mexico is named that for a reason.

Watchman’s serves Fish & Chips at lunch on the weekends. Here, it’s shown with a thick slab of fried cod. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS (For the AJC)

A fish-and-chips special came with a puffy-battered plank of fluke (delicious), slaw and fried potato wedges (both pedestrian). I gilded the lily with hush puppies and found them more dense than fluffy, in a way that even a dab of chile-honey butter couldn’t fix. Don’t dare toddle off, though, without stuffing your face with one of Chance’s Sally Lunn rolls. The chubsters are squishy, buttery, salt-flecked, irresistible.

Fish cookery is an unforgiving craft, and Chance’s grouper entree (sometimes snapper) was a bit on the chewy side the night I sampled it. Maybe his team was too busy fussing over the many side touches: creamed kale; vinegar-glazed fennel and turnip; lemon beurre blanc speckled with droplets of red chile oil — as if a latte artist had decided to draw fish fins in the sauce.

Here, it’s red snapper served with creamed kale and lemon beurre blanc at Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS (For the AJC)

His take on Creole gumbo didn’t work, either: spice but no soul; a texture that left an odd mouthfeel. And yet, his garden salad was a pied and sprightly garland of immaculate greens and crunchy shaved radish and carrot, splashed with satsuma vinaigrette. Just the thing to usher us into the woods via a wintry dish of buttery browned potato gnocchi with potato espuma, mushroom broth plus actual mushrooms, Parm and pickled things.

To be frank, I wasn’t dazzled by my first meal at Watchman’s. I spent $165 total, and my date didn’t even have an adult beverage. But I have learned to have fun by steering away from the ambitious plates, basking in the details and indulging in dessert.

There are only three sweets, but the two I tried were pretty spectacular: coconut cake decorated with architectural ribbons of icing and a petite chocolate coconut “shell,” cracked open and filled with cream; a mini Key lime pie with zesty curd and toasted meringue. Both are classic fish-house desserts refashioned with contemporary panache, and Yesenia Justiniano is a pastry chef to watch.

I have yet to end a visit with a cocktail. Hey, that’s not a bad idea! Bartender, make me a Blood Orange Fix (from the January menu). Served in a tall crystal Collins glass, conjuring soda-fountain whimsy, it is concocted from Denizen Aged White Rum, Douglas-fir liqueur, blood-orange syrup, and a drizzle of bright-red Peychaud’s Bitters infused with bitter-orange zest. A snowball with a citrus kick, it’s guaranteed to make you bobble out of this gin joint all buoyant and mellow.

Just like you planned it.

WATCHMAN’S SEAFOOD & SPIRITS

Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)

Food: oyster bar, Southern seafood and cocktails

Service: ranges from debonair to loosey-goosey

Best dishes: The Watchman Cocktail, classic daiquiri, Blood Orange Fix. Raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, crab fritters, trout rillettes with house-made potato chips, Sally Lunn roll. Coconut-cream cake. Key lime pie.

Vegetarian selections: Garden salad. Gnocchi. Collard greens.

Price range: $$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 5-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Fridays; 12 p.m.-12 a.m. Saturdays; 12 p.m.-11 p.m. Sundays

Children: yes

Parking: limited free parking in dedicated lot or on the street; $5 valet on the property

MARTA station: King Memorial

Reservations: yes, via restaurant website

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: moderate

Patio: yes

Takeout: not recommended

Address, phone: Krog Street Market, 99 Krog St., Suite Y, Atlanta. 404-254-0141

Website: watchmansatl.com

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