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Decatur’s rock star restaurant grapples with an identity crisis
You can imagine Watershed’s converted gas station location, in its original form, as a setting for a Carson McCullers story. The crowd in the sea-green dining room is vintage Decatur: Emory professors, a well-behaved child with her two moms, cackling women who ordered identical plates of white truffle chicken salad for lunch, and tourists drawn by the kudos amassed over the last decade.
Unlike the hackneyed, isn’t-another-stick-of-butter-fun interpretation of Southern food too often peddled on TV, these dishes are the culinary equivalent of one-act plays: Each tells a moving story about our region. They made Watershed famous. On Peacock’s watch, the kitchen also fostered some of the finest talent among the next wave of star chefs, including Billy Allin of Cakes & Ale and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union.
The choice made sense. Truex knew the owners, lived in Decatur, and hailed from Louisiana. He would deliver his own brand of Southern finesse. And Watershed was no stranger to evolution. It started life as a salmagundi of concepts: a boutique selling cards, soaps, and soy-based candles; a wine shop–wine bar hybrid; and a delicatessen that doled out small, expensive, ambrosial sandwiches. The Southern motif came later. Decatur would adapt again to whatever changes Truex brought.
Not enough of this acumen shows up at Watershed. His new menu items taste like he’s striving to fit his cooking into a form he doesn’t really enjoy. A fried seafood basket appetizer was one of the strangest mishmashes I’ve ever seen. It featured flounder, shrimp, and french fries but also included mushrooms, lemon slices, bell peppers, jalapeños, and celery—all battered and deep-fried. Yes, even the celery sticks. To compound the odd choice of ingredients, the dish came in a bowl with high sides that insulated the heat and steamed all those fried morsels into wilted brown nubs.
Speaking of defining dishes, the Peacock standbys are still here, now labeled as Signature Classics. It’s astonishing how faithful they remain to the originals: I could bury my head in the shrimp grits, pimento cheese with celery sticks, salmon croquettes with grits and sauteed spinach, and grilled pork chop with ethereal mac and cheese and greens and barely know major changes had shaken up the kitchen. I love that the standards remain so beautifully preserved, but I’m also ready for the rest of the food to express the mind and heart of another charismatic cook.
Truex might start with brunch. Sundays were once a phenomenon at Watershed, and I was among the devoted who came weekly for country ham steak, breakfast shrimp on rice, and corn griddle cakes. (As a past regular, the staff knows me on sight, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the quality of the restaurant’s service.) Honestly, brunch has been declining for the past couple years, and the poached eggs with hardened yolks next to flabby corn griddle cakes on a recent visit won’t inspire me to rush back soon.
The dictionary offers the second definition of watershed as “a crucial dividing point.” I’d say the restaurant’s name has never been more apt. Its sense of community abides, but the kitchen’s split personality confuses, particularly when one identity seems half-formed. Peacock’s recipes endure because they reflect who he truly is as a cook. Truex needs to decide on his own path and commit if he doesn’t want his cooking—and Watershed’s reputation—to remain in the shadows of his predecessor. —Bill Addison
406 West Ponce de Leon Avenue, Decatur
Photograph by Alex Martinez. This review originally appeared in our February 2011 issue.