When chef Matt Marcus took ownership of Watershed last April and put $350 fries on the menu, I wondered if it signaled the beginning of the end.
The beginning would be before my time, back in 1998, with Scott Peacock at the helm. Out of a kitchen in Decatur, Peacock elevated down-home Southern cooking to fine-dining status. It was a moment to remember, I’m told.
Gimmicky $350 french fries that come with a 750-milliliter bottle of Krug Brut Rose weren’t on that menu.
But fried chicken was, the bird prepared in a humble cast-iron skillet. Fried chicken happens to be the only item on the Watershed menu that Marcus hasn’t nixed or remixed.
Some nine months since the restaurant changed hands, the attention-grabbing $350 fries have come and gone. Tradition remains with the fried chicken. How was it? In a word: Fine. Though nicely fried, the skin wonderfully crunchy and flaky, and the meat juicy, the bird lacked seasoning.
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Far superior among regional delights was the shrimp and grits. The swimmers were bulky in size. A dining partner was intensely pleased by the substantial portion of seafood (eight!). I was pleased by the grits, cooked to a texture that lies in the middle ground between toothsome and gruel.
The Watershed of today is not boxed in by Southern classics. Mainstays are served up their way, as in the Southern Bento Box. This is a filling lunch, easily split among two. Mine included a fried chicken drumstick, shredded beef rib, macaroni salad, a deviled egg, a trio of baked beans (yum!), collard coleslaw (double yum!), house pickles and a biscuit. But as a bento? The kitchen has an Asian inclination that I haven’t figured out or been able to embrace.
Dinner is when Watershed most pushes the boundaries. Take, for example, a highly composed dish dubbed Dope Beets. The root veggies rest on a horseradish creme and are surrounded by the unexpected combination of smoked mackerel rillettes, grapefruit wedges, radish slices and rye lavash points that stand on end.
Other salads were less heady and more satisfying. A green goddess dressing melded the flavors of a Brussels “Caesar” with thinly shaved sprouts, fatty guanciale, pistachios and crispy shallots draped with white anchovies. Grilled romaine, available during Sunday brunch, is not to be missed either. That brought the locally grown lettuce — root and all — with an artfully plated mélange of baked ricotta, satsuma wedges, thin radish discs, almond slivers and dill atop a ranch dressing with the earthy essence of Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar.
The charcuterie board, an arrangement of house-made nibbles plus stuff for dabbing and smearing, perhaps best demonstrates the ambition and know-how of this kitchen. A charcuterie program is its own beast. The zenith is dry-cured meats, of which a chef once told me, “the hardest part is that it can take 18 months to learn a lesson.” There are still lessons to be learned about the salumi-curing process at Watershed, but that little pile of round slivers was the first to empty on a wooden plate also crammed with lonzino (dry-cured pork loin), a terrine of hog’s head (texturally enjoyable but one-dimensional in flavor), corned beef heart and a divine short rib marmalade. A side of grilled bread slices — the tool for scooping up the meaty marmalade — was forgotten, but quickly remedied upon request.
While the corned beef heart didn’t stand out on its own, it pumped and thumped in a lunchtime Reuben sandwich. The grilled slices of rye overflowed with corned beef, gooey raclette cheese, tangy kraut, cornichons and a zippy comeback sauce. It was a highly satisfying hand-held mess.
The dishes I would come back for, though, are ones that offer a tasty spin on the South while exhibiting the kitchen’s playful personality. This would be Pimento Cheese Fritters — small, gently fried orbs with a soft filling that holds the flavors of Swiss and cheddar cheeses, and that begs to be swiped in the dabs of pepper jelly. This would also be deviled eggs, each airy filling gussied up with a duo of roe, a nub of crisped chicken skin, a radish sliver and a single micro green.
You’ll find these during Sunday brunch, the meal I most enjoyed at Watershed (a Benedict bearing smoked salmon and two perfectly poached wobbly eggs would have been wholly satisfying if the English muffin had been toasted to any degree of doneness). Wash it down with the Watershed Hangover Cure, a creative michelada that’s as pampering as any Italian aperitif service. Delivered on a wooden paddle come a can of Miller High Life, ready to be poured into an Old-Fashioned glass rimmed with Creole salt and holding a large frozen cube of house-made bloody mary mix; a lime wedge; a few sticks of fresh cornbread; and hot sauce. Though the viscosity of the bloody puree needs to be remedied — the bloody and beer require constant stirring to keep them combined — the essential flavors of this hair of the dog are all-present, and the presentation brings a smile on a Sunday morning.
I preferred the Hangover Cure to dinner drinks like the aptly named Boozy, a whiskey hard-hitter that could benefit from a melting cube or at least a chilled glass. A dinner companion downed a gin-grapefruit guzzler, served in a narrow Collins glass, in about four swallows. I took three sips of the exceedingly bitter Bitter Orange and set it aside.
A global wine list has a finger on the pulse, but verbal explanations from staff could go a long way in helping the uninitiated but adventurous to find a vino to suit.
Speaking up, in fact, is the area where this friendly waitstaff could most improve. Do the majority of diners know what yaka mein is? (Despite all the fuss they give to this NOLA-born beef noodle soup with 48-hour short rib swimming in shiro dashi, the flavors of the broth were muddied.) Runners hurriedly dropped off plates with nary an explanation, something that would be helpful when delivering multi-component plates like the Southern Bento Box or the charcuterie board. During a lunch visit, the meal when diners are most pressed for time, nearly 30 minutes ticked by with no food in sight. Reassurance that our order hadn’t been forgotten never came until I finally inquired.
Mainly, as a new act begins at the restaurant, this inquiring mind wonders whether the old Watershed and the new need to come to better terms for the dining script to play out more smoothly.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Southern with global influences
Service: friendly, uneven at times
Best dishes: Shrimp and grits. Brussels Caesar. Southern Bento Box. Pimento Cheese Fritter.
Vegetarian selections: Squash bisque. Pimento Cheese Fritter. Numerous salads and sides.
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; brunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Parking: free lot parking
MARTA station: Arts Center
Reservations: accepted, but not necessary
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: controlled
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 1820 Peachtree Road NW, Atlanta. 404-809-3561