The story of Watershed and its move from Decatur to Buckhead calls to mind the classic question of nature versus nurture. Would Watershed's nature, its simple Southern roots, prevail? Or would its new neighborhood nurture it into something entirely new? It's been almost nine months since Watershed was reborn, and the nurture side is winning.
In the 2000s, Watershed flourished thanks to chef Scott Peacock's sophisticated, contemporary take on Southern classics. It was the jewel of Decatur's casual but increasingly ambitious dining scene.
But now, Watershed has literally moved on up, to a high-rise condo building on Peachtree Road. The Buckhead transformation encompasses almost every aspect of the dining experience. In place of the chaotic little Decatur parking lot, there's a sleek corporate valet. Instead of a homey feel, there are vast street-facing windows, expansive dining spaces, and stark elegance. It's now Brooks Brothers instead of Birkenstocks, Westminster rather than Paideia, and, well, Peachtree instead of Ponce.
That's not to say Watershed's past is entirely forgotten. While executive chef Joe Truex and chef de cuisine Julia LeRoy have mostly done away with the vestiges of the old Watershed, there is still no breaking free from its famous fried chicken. The recipe is literally written on both a quilt on the wall and on the matchbooks handed out at the hostess stand. But if you want actual fried chicken, good luck. As always, it sells out quickly on the one night a week it's offered, by 6:30 p.m. on my most recent Wednesday visit.
These days, Watershed's menu extends far beyond the South. Among the array of starters, there are those with clear inspiration from Spain or Japan or France. The "South" shows up only in the form of buttery pimento cheese toast.
Other dishes play off our regional heritage more discreetly. The duck confit, for example, sits atop a soft corn griddle cake, but is paired with a bitter and crisp radicchio slaw. Sure, the South is there, but it doesn't shout with a Southern accent. Creole arancine, Italian rice balls spiked with smoky tasso pork, shrimp, and a gentle yee-haw of Creole spice, are a delightful nod to Truex's Louisiana roots. A few starters eschew the South altogether, such as the requisite oysters on the half shell or steak tartare (this is Buckhead after all).
Watershed pushes into more playful territory with dishes like a sea scallop schnitzel. It's an unexpected pileup of thinly pounded and fried ocean sweetness over a salty sprinkling of anchovy and capers all topped with a fried quail egg. A crab and shrimp cake could have gone the traditional Baltimore crab cake route, but instead looks boldly east, with a spongy, finely minced texture that screams dim sum and salty Japanese seaweed seasoning instead of Old Bay.
The entrées aren't quite as globe-trotting, and tend to play it safe. There's the simple comfort of braised brisket over a potato purée, and a straightforward pan-roasted grouper, but neither rise to their elegant surroundings or justify Watershed's often lofty prices (entrées average about $30). The steak frites at least manage to rise above typical renditions of that bistro staple, thanks to a nice char, a juicy interior, and just enough chimichurri sauce to add an herbal, acidic kick. And a perfect winter dish like the earthy lamb shank ragoût over house-made pappardelle finally let me know that the kitchen is indeed aiming for excellence.
Better still are those signature dishes that draw on Truex's Louisiana roots. The masterpiece among them is Joe's jambalaya. Truex cooks each component separately — grilled andouille sausage, seared scallops, fried oysters, butter-poached shrimp — before arranging them seamlessly over a jambalaya stock with sea-salty depth. Likewise, a firm and flaky Acadian redfish gets the full-on Louisiana treatment with a pile of sweet lump crab meat and shrimp, then a spread of crawfish hollandaise sauce that adds a lemony, nuanced spice.
Since reopening, Watershed's drinks menu has evolved slightly, keeping the focus on an eclectic-but-pricey wine list. A prominently placed cocktail bar focusing on artisan spirits also shows a conscious effort to cater to the Buckhead cocktail hour crowd. If I'm choosing my vices carefully, though, I'm opting for cake instead of cocktails here. Dark and dangerously moist chocolate cake served in a jar, coconut cake, and, especially, hot milk cake drenched in caramel and flaked with salt.
Other desserts prove far less worthy. A sweet potato crème brûlée, for example, tastes too much of jarred baby food, with not enough torched top to offset the mush. And coconut macaroons land with a dry, heavy thud. Maybe Watershed should institute a cake-only dessert policy.
After the last bite of cake, the last sip of coffee or wine, the final thing delivered to your table might come as a slight shock. The bill. On more than one visit, as the price per person climbed up and over $100, I couldn't help but think, "Holy andouille, that added up fast." That's not to say that the food and wine and atmosphere can't deliver a $100 experience, just that I was left wondering how much of my bill went to pay the Peachtree Road rent. When my meals centered on Truex's refined bayou cuisine, I didn't mind the price tag at all. It was worth it. But when I stuck to the safer side of the menu, I couldn't help but lament that Buckhead might be nurturing Watershed into something less than what it was meant to be.
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