Watershed Moment

Art of the Meal

Like its name, this small restaurant represents a turning point. Like its cuisine, Watershed intersects Southern culture’s classic tenets — black and white, city and country, tradition and progress.

Even its environment references Old and New South — a former gas station near downtown Decatur is reincarnated as a sleek, elegantly contemporary dining space, with the hardwood floors and airy feel of a front porch. For all its modernity, Watershed pays homage to Southerners’ collective unconscious: taste memories earned on farms struggling through hard times with skill, green beans and a sense of humor.

The food is the vision of executive chef Scott Peacock, in a venture underwritten in part by Emily Saliers, one-half of the acoustic duo the Indigo Girls. Peacock, founding chef of the Horseradish Grill and a onetime 20-something prodigy cooking at the Georgia governor’s mansion, this year won two James Beard Award nominations, as best chef in the Southeast, and for the cookbook he co-authored with mentor Edna Lewis.

Their story is Faulkneresque: Lewis, now in her 80s and in frail health, grew up in the African-American community of Freetown, Va., and helped pave the way for traditional Southern cooking as a serious, nationally respected endeavor. Peacock, white and less than half her age, also was raised in a culture of subsistence farming, in Alabama. The two formed a lifelong friendship that began in 1988 at the peak of her fame and beginning of his; since 1996, they’ve shared a house.

Watershed celebrates their serious devotion to Southern food, and the best ingredients. The vegetables are often local and organic — the restaurant’s touchstone is the healthy, fresh flavor of seasonal foods cooked without a lot of fuss, with a witty, inexpensive wine list that rivals some of the best in town.

Watershed is one of my favorite places for drinks and appetizers. I like perching at the birchwood bar — ordering a slim flute of champagne and a bite of something that makes the best use of the season’s peak, like heirloom tomatoes, or soft-shell crab, or immaculate, tender celery stalks with a heap of the best pimento cheese you’ve ever tasted. My new favorite: butter-bean hummus with crudite and homemade pita. Like the South itself, Watershed feels summery even in winter; cool-weather entrees such as whole herb-roasted chicken with grits and wild mushrooms are so tender-cooked and lightly seasoned that they never feel heavy.

Watershed’s menu is chock-full of inexpensive sandwiches and simple supper dishes that allow you to return often. A friend is sadly addicted to the chicken salad with white truffles on butter-toasted bread; others arrive promptly at 5:30 on Tuesdays for fried chicken night (it often runs out early). The spaghetti with shrimp and garlic is a big bowl you might envision eating in front of the tube in your rec room. I can never resist the vegetable plate — a heaping platter of just-simmered offerings from the nearest green acre. Recently, that included limas, pole beans, gingered beets and turnip greens. The menu often balances upscale ingredients like goat cheese, fig conserve and duck with New Deal dishes like pork chops with “mac-n-cheese” or fried catfish.

The desserts are similarly balanced — the irresistible and aptly named Really Good Chocolate Cake, a dense, delicious, near-black layer cake, for example, plays against organic Georgia pecan tart with shortbread crust.

Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.

Categories: Art of the Meal