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Culinary Icon Still Has Folks Raving

by ws-admin on August 2, 2012 , Comments Off

AJC : by Jenny Turknett : View article on blogs.ajc.com

Every restaurant has a story. But Watershed has a whopper of a tale that includes celebrities, ghosts of culinary icons past and a twist — a story 14 years in the making.

In its original Decatur location, Watershed cultivated a following for its Edna Lewis/Scott Peacock brand of Southern cooking. Watershed carved out a niche as an upscale Southern farm-to-table restaurant before such spots were trendy. Throw in the celebrity status of co-owner Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and Watershed quickly cemented its place in the hearts of Atlanta diners.

When Peacock resigned his post after 11 years in favor of other pursuits, the restaurant was faced with replacing a chef who had become a Southern culinary icon. It had the challenge of preserving a brand and a proven formula for success.

Watershed hired Joe Truex, a Lousiana-born chef who trained with culinary legend Daniel Boulud and who was making a name for himself at his own local restaurant, Repast. Yet, marrying Truex’s French- and Japanese-influenced style with Peacock’s traditional Southern menu proved to be a puzzle. Truex says, “We were unprepared for the response we received.” Watershed regulars expected its traditional menu. Repast fans pined for fare that reflected Truex’s style.

In a bold move, Watershed permanently closed its Decatur location last summer, shutting the door on Watershed as we knew it. When the restaurant reopened in May, with it came a new name: Watershed on Peachtree. New name, new vibe, new menu, new chapter.

This restaurant, now located in Brookwood Hills, is decidedly different from the original. Large wooden doors open into a room dominated by a four-sided bar just ahead of the smaller dining rooms. The Smith-Hanes designed decor still feels like Watershed with its soft and neutral color palette and Martha Stewart-style touches like the bell-jar lighting. The difference here is the vibe. On busy evenings, the restaurant hums with an energy (and a din) unique to this location.

I’m drawn to the bar, as inviting as any around (maybe more so) and I’m not the only one. The younger set crowds three and four people deep to sip signature cocktails like the organic cuke ($11), a summery fresh concoction of Journeyman organic vodka, Uncle Val’s Botanical gin, cucumber, lime and house-made bitters.

I’m also drawn to the bar snacks, which, like many menu items, whisper the tale of their creator. Take the goujonettes of catfish with the could-be-hotter pepper slaw ($6.50), a play on the goujonettes of sole Truex prepared at Le Cirque in the late ’80s. These salty fried fingers of North Carolina catfish, so tender and clean-tasting with none of the catfish muddiness leave not a speck of grease on my fingers as I greedily snatch more than my share. Watershed on Peachtree, you had me at goujonettes.

If you actually want to converse with your dining partners, you’ll have to vacate your coveted seat at the bar. Heavy curtain panels and carpet tiles in the rear dining room absorb some of the energy radiating from the front, making it possible to hear your companions as you discuss the widely appealing menu.

Here’s where you’ll see the new Watershed. No longer cooking under the shadow of his predecessor (except maybe on Wednesday fried chicken nights) Truex strays from the traditional by presenting fresh takes on classics and infusing international influences. For example, he gives us another look at the jambalaya of his home state with his deconstructed rendition ($25). Why deconstructed? Of traditional jambalaya, he says, “After the third bite you’ve seen the whole show and you’re left with more… show.”

To keep it interesting, each ingredient receives a different treatment. The smoky rich andouille gets grilled, plump oysters fried, shrimp butter poached all layered over a puddle of soulful etouffee with crab and crawfish tails. It’s a create-your-own-jambalaya experience.

You can also create your own pork belly wrap ($10) — another opportunity to play with your food. Roll up the sumptuous pork belly swathed in a zingy dijon mustard with the vinegary pepper slaw with strips of pickled daikon radish, perfect counterpoints to the deliciously fatty pork.

If you’re yearning for the Watershed of old, you can still order the seasonal vegetable plate ($18) with five veggies, each prepared using a different cooking technique. The vegetable plate, however, is now truly vegetarian with nary a ham hock in sight. Instead of meat, for example, the lady peas receive a flavor boost from mushroom broth, cream and smoked paprika. The peas are a dead ringer for mac and cheese and perfectly gluten free. The vegetable plate also comes with a cakey (but not sweet!) pimento-cheese crusted cornbread, made with cornmeal and rice flour, which also happens to be gluten free.

Another dish reminiscent of the original Watershed is the chicken-fried steak ($24) of Truex’s youth, his mom’s Sunday specialty. He uses the well-marbled spinalis dorsi (cap of ribeye) and pounds it out with a rolling pin. From there, it gets the Watershed-fried-chicken treatment: buttermilk bath, seasoned-flour dip and a swim in the country ham-infused lard. My friend found the meat too chewy, but I was smitten enough with the meaty-rich breading to continue spearing bite after bite until the steak disappeared.

I am equally smitten with Watershed on Peachtree, so much so that I want to sample every morsel issued from the kitchen. Yet, some dishes might benefit from a little editing like the fresh heart of palm salad ($11.25), which has an earthy black-speckled truffle vinaigrette paired with a paper-thin slice of salt-lick-worthy country ham (yes!) and a chunky egg salad. While each ingredient stands on its own merit, put them all together and the effect is less than harmonious. Several dishes had this feel — too many components without a unifier. Granted, I have no quarrel with this in the choose-your-own-adventure style dishes.

Nor do I have a quarrel with “the mess” ($8), a dessert with an endearing name. The mess turns out to be a miniature trifle-style dessert with brandy-soaked cherries that burst with flavor, red-wine marinated sponge cake, pecans and little meringue crunchies all layered with a custard cream. That’s some mess of good, is all I can say. Admittedly, it was hard to pass up Watershed’s very good chocolate cake ($8), now served in a jar (to improve the icing-to-cake ratio, I’m told).

When Watershed shut its doors last August, many feared the restaurant’s story had reached its conclusion. Fret not, it appears that Watershed on Peachtree and Truex have many more tales to tell. And, I’d be willing to bet my goujonettes the best are yet to come.

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