Review: Watershed

Joe Truex pens the latest chapter at Decatur’s temple to Southern cooking

The story of Watershed has been one based more in the comfort of a predictable old yarn than in the truth of the restaurant itself. The Cliff Notes version of the accepted narrative would go something like this:

Watershed is the restaurant where Atlanta first tasted Southern food in its new, elevated status. Thanks to chef Scott Peacock and the influence of legendary Southern chef Edna Lewis, as well as the vision of owners Ross Jones and Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, we got our first true, honest, upscale Southern restaurant. The restaurant — and Peacock in particular — became media darlings, earning Decatur glowing national press, and Peacock a James Beard award. Then, in February 2010, Peacock announced he was leaving to work on some oral history projects and write a memoir of his life with Lewis. A new chef was brought on — Joe Truex, who was known for his modern American food at his restaurant Repast. At first, Truex failed to change the food much at all, sticking very closely to Peacock’s menu. And that menu — the legendary fried chicken, available on Tuesdays only, the pimento cheese, the homestyle comfort dishes (meatloaf, beef stroganoff) — has lost something.

In a town where upscale Southern and farm-to-table have become de rigueur, the original temple of simple Southern food seems to have lost its way.

That’s a nice, neat account. It follows a familiar story line. But it’s not exactly the truth.

I never ate at Watershed in its heyday. My initial encounters were passing, and I didn’t get down to the job of truly evaluating the place until after the 2007 James Beard award; after Peacock’s most ardent work had come and — it seemed to me — gone. This isn’t to say that I disliked the restaurant, or that I thought the cooking was particularly lazy or poor. I felt there were some issues with quality control, price and execution. It seemed to me that Peacock’s deep dedication to the food at Watershed was overshadowed by other things — things that eventually took him from the restaurant altogether.

It does seem as though it has taken Truex and Saliers some time to figure out what the next step should be. The menu changed very little for many months, and now is divided, with dishes from the Peacock era highlighted as “signature classics.” The division seems odd — as if the owners are so afraid of losing their base that they need to point out the things that haven’t changed. This, of course, only serves to draw more attention to the “then” and “now” distinction, which is unfortunate. At this juncture, the focus and direction of Watershed should feel fresh, and clinging to the past only hurts that trajectory.

What does feel fresh is Truex’s cooking when it’s unencumbered by nostalgia. Take his crawfish pies: Three buttery half-moon pastries break open to reveal creamy crawfish and okra funk, an utterly enchanting kind of swampy decadence. Likewise, fried boudin balls served with pickled veggies and cane syrup are a welcome step forward into a vision of Southern cooking that feels both classic and modern.

Truex uses cane syrup with great effect on a duck entrée, turning it here into a gastrique. The sweet/tart sauce works wonders over a jumble of Brussels sprouts, crunchy almonds and sweet dates. This is the Truex we came to love at Repast, rethinking expected dishes and turning them intriguing. His expression here is different, but his style, when he’s allowed to fully explore it, is still recognizable.

I still take umbrage with some of Watershed’s prices. Littleneck clams swim in a big bowl of white wine broth, made seductively smoky by bacon. The $15 dish, served with a hunk of crusty bread, is undoubtedly delicious, but would be far more pleasurable if it were $11. I’ve never understood why the pimento cheese is $9 and I still don’t.

The classics have, as promised, changed little. Salmon croquettes hearken back to a time when dinner was less flashy and more comforting. The moist disks of fish are lovely, light, almost lemony, and not quite intriguing enough to keep my interest through a whole entrée portion.

There are no doubt dishes from the Peacock era that deserve real estate on this menu, not because they comfort longtime customers, but because Truex loves them so much he can’t bear to see them go. Or even better, because he wants to make them his own in some way. I simply don’t get that feeling with much of this food. The collection-of-sides veggie plate could clearly be better with some Truex flair thrown in. But no, it’s tied to its format in case we revolt at the notion something Peacock once did well could perhaps be improved upon with a little innovation.

The dining room, with its shades of blue and beige and seafoam green, is still soothing, its South-meets-chic aesthetic timeless in its appeal. Service, as always, walks the appropriate line between friendly and professional. The wine list is stronger than ever, with more subtle and European selections than before. Cocktails could use improvement — girly concoctions are fine, but for a restaurant of this caliber I expect a touch more refinement in the booze department.

As far as the food goes, refinement is not a problem. Evolution is the issue.

Peacock is gone. This is sad, but we all need to move on. Watershed is not what it once was, and it probably never will be again. But that may not be such a bad thing — the food Truex has brought to the table is by far the most intriguing story line in this restaurant’s latest chapter.