Joe Truex makes his mark on Watershed (finally)

Plus Condesa, sandwiches and valet woes

Few restaurant closings have disturbed me as much as that of Repast last summer. Another victim of the economy, it was among my favorites in town. Beautiful, kind of kinky and chef-driven by the team of Joe Truex and wife Mihoko Obunai-Truex, it featured a blend of EuroAmerican and Japanese flavors.

Meanwhile, renowned Southern chef Scott Peacock left Watershed (406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-4900) in Decatur. Peacock, who was the governor's chef once upon a time, has returned to Alabama to work on a video project and to write a memoir of life with his mentor, the late Edna Lewis (for which he was apparently paid a $500,000 advance).

The twin losses found resolution when Truex assumed Peacock's position. Although I didn't view Truex as a Southern chef (despite his Louisiana roots and initial New Orleans training), I did think Watershed's menu, unchanged for several years, needed rejuvenation.

As soon as Truex was hired, the restaurant's owner, Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, assured its fanatical following that the menu was not going to change radically. The changes were so subtle, I didn't bother to visit. Now, though, Truex regularly adds new dishes, while Peacock's "signature classics" are noted on the menu.

During a recent visit, we did try to stick to Truex's dishes. A starter of empanada-like crawfish pies immediately revealed Truex's touch: pastry so flaky but dense and creamy that it really draws more attention than its filling. Our other starter was a messy, delicious Peacock classic — toast with bits of country ham in a blend of mascarpone, goat cheese and Parmesan. Topping that was a mound of button and shiitake mushrooms.

I ordered an entrée newbie — brisket braised in a wine-spiked tomato sauce, served with a purée of yellow turnips and braised cabbage. Like Peacock, Truex is devoted to quality sourcing, so the vegetable flavors were as clear as sunlight beside the tender brisket. Wayne chose the evening's fish — a magnificent grouper over root vegetables. It reminded me a lot of the fare at Repast.

Dessert was the new coconut cream pie, an oversized tart. Truex creates a Scotch cake crust that is like buttery shortbread, about as decadent as you can get with a custard filling.

Watershed is still hosting its Tuesday night fried chicken suppers. It has also added an afternoon tea served Thursday through Saturday, 3-5 p.m. You need a reservation and $15 for the latter.

In the Old Fourth Ward

Condesa (480 John Wesley Dobbs Ave., 404-524-5054), a café and espresso bar, has opened in the Old Fourth Ward. Its name, Spanish for "countess," is borrowed from an artsy neighborhood in Mexico City.

I've visited three times during its first week and recommend it strongly. The shop is serving highly awarded Intelligentsia coffee. I've ordered three espresso drinks. Although I can't describe the espresso as floridly as the Intelligentsia site does, it is definitely smoother and creamier than the usual around town. I'd compare it to Illy, actually. Maybe a bit more assertive. One criticism: The drinks are not served hot enough for my taste or maybe they cool too quickly in their paper cups.

As much as the espresso, I like the house-made sandwiches. The standout is a grilled Spanish-style sandwich with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese. It's big and it's $6, served over plantain chips. There's also one made with mozzarella, roasted tomato and basil. Breakfast is served daily. I've tried a house-made quiche that hit the spot.

The only pastry I've tasted is banana bread that made me nostalgic for my mother's.

Condesa offers free Wi-Fi and expects to serve beer and wine beginning next month. The address is a bit confusing. Condesa actually faces Boulevard, even though the address of its building is on John Wesley Dobbs. You should park on the latter or in the parking deck accessible there and walk to the Boulevard side.

Here and there

Recent sandwiches I've enjoyed: One of pimento cheese, roasted poblano, bacon and a slice of fried green tomato at Bocado in the Westside; a Vietnamese-style sandwich (banh mi) made with four huge strips of pork belly at Star Provisions, also in the Westside; and a burger with more bacon and pimento cheese at Young Augustine's in Grant Park. The latter's menu has been considerably dumbed-down. It's less adventurous, alas.

God help me. What is going on? I encounter valet parking everywhere I go now, no matter how empty and accessible the restaurant's parking lot is. The latest, as I reported last week, has been at the new Real Chow Baby on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Among recent visits where I've encountered it are R. Thomas, Sufi's, H. Harper Station and the Real Chow Baby. In subsequent visits to the first three, I was told by valets that I could park myself if I wanted.

But at Chow Baby, the valets told me I had to use their service, so — pissed off — I parked in the lot next door. When I entered the restaurant, I told the host that the parking lot was half empty and it was absurd to require people to valet-park. She told me that, contrary to what I was told, I could park myself.

Whatever ...

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