I have baggage at Watershed. Left luggage, you might call it. The one local restaurant I really knew before moving here last year was the Decatur Watershed of Scott Peacock, whose quietly vibrant food defined what I thought could be Southern. At the converted gas station—its semi-funky folk roots deeply planted by the restaurant’s founders, including Ross Jones and Indigo Girl Emily Saliers—Peacock brought a spiritual affinity with the seminal chronicler of Southern cooking Edna Lewis, whose live-in student and helpmeet he became.
Lewis was much more than an elegant and imperious grande dame. Her Taste of Country Cooking, about the wild and foraged and homegrown food of her rural Virginia childhood, is one of the great American cookbooks of the 20th century, a classic alongside Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking and John Egerton’s Southern Food. (It bears repeating: It would be good to see more African American chefs working in high-end restaurants, particularly ones specializing in Southern food.) In his simple plates, Peacock translated the lyricism of Lewis’s writing about a cuisine born, as great cuisines are, of poverty, resourcefulness, hard work, and love. His bread-and-butter pickles, his biscuits, his okra and tomatoes, his Tuesday night fried chicken (now available on Wednesdays)—I somehow expected to find their like, if not their equal, all over town.
Well, I haven’t. Lewis died in 2006, Peacock moved away a few years later, and the Watershed owners decamped in 2012 to an airy and impersonal building on the Midtown-Buckhead border. They needed to evolve. And Joe Truex, the chef Saliers and Jones hired, needed to establish his own identity; during his five years at Watershed on Peachtree (its amended name), he brought touches of other parts of the South, including his native Louisiana, to the menu. But now he’s moved on, and the owners have tapped Zeb Stevenson to take his place.
Given the Watershed legacy, the choice facing Stevenson—hired from Parish in Inman Park—is whether he will be, as Peacock brilliantly was, a curator or, as Truex tried to be, a creator. From what I tasted at Watershed, Stevenson’s talents are better served as curator, but that might be because he seems to save his perfectionist streak for regional classics—and not for the original dishes he impatiently discards rather than working out the bugs.
Stevenson, a former art student from northern Indiana who learned in the kitchen of national star Jean-Georges Vongerichten, is certainly dedicated to the South—to its dishes and particularly to its growers. He told me he finds a use for every bit of seasonal produce that comes in the back door. When discussing what I found to be his single best effort, chicken and dumplings, he said he took the attitude with which he approaches most classics: “Stop messing with it!”
Words to live by. And certainly he lives by them with that dish, whose dark and flavorful strips of chicken breast and thigh float in a rich, thick chicken broth, which soaks into the plain dumplings made with Stevenson’s own self-rising White Lily mix. The shrimp and grits is distinguished by its own careful sauce, this one thickened with a dark roux and flavored with grilled shrimp heads (don’t worry, you won’t see them). Stevenson especially triumphs with the moist and marvelously light corn sticks, served alongside softened cultured Banner butter—the kind with real flavor—and chunks of light-gold honeycomb honey from another longtime supplier, Phil and Patricia Bennet. The corn sticks are the result of a hard-won battle that involved 10 tries one Friday night when, Stevenson said, “the staff thought I’d lost my damn mind.”
In dishes like these and others—such as crumbly biscuits halved and thickly spread with mild homemade farmer’s cheese, topped with shaved raw sweet white onions and served with thick strawberry-rosemary jam—Stevenson shows himself to be a dedicated student of the simplicity of the South. He’s alive to the fundamentals of the country cooking Watershed celebrated: carefully slow-cooked vegetables; bacon, country ham, and pork skin as flavorings. (Plus, he’s a USDA-certified pickler.)
But he’s also a restless and impatient cook. His propensity for frequent changes—because he’s no longer hungry for a dish or has grown tired of it—seems to explain the unevenness I found across my four meals. A surprising lack of subtlety characterized many of the dishes, like the pool of lemon juice and one-note Thai chile in a barbecue shrimp appetizer—one of the dishes Stevenson told me he got sick of and took off the menu. There’s also an over-reliance on sugar, an occupational hazard of Southern food. The dollop of homemade yogurt couldn’t counter the candied sweetness of the beet soup. Smoked-trout “Waldorf” salad was thickened with homemade pistachio mayonnaise—an interesting idea—but the flavor was domineered by the golden raisins. Bacon jam is piped below the yolk mixture of deviled eggs topped with shards of crisped country ham, and the same jam appears too strongly in the dressing on pan-roasted trout, otherwise one of the most successful main dishes (this one at lunch).
An expert touch with the fry basket is a necessity in any restaurant that features deep-frying, particularly a Southern restaurant. But it’s not one the kitchen has mastered. Thick, doughy coats of beer batter hid the crunch of soft-shells on a special one day and overwhelmed the mushrooms or okra that appeared on the constantly changing “veg plate” entree. The duck in duck hushpuppies—served too cool, as were the deviled eggs—was impossible to taste. The best thing on the plate was a streak of tangy, nubbly homemade tartar sauce with little bits of pickled rhubarb.
The breadth of the menu is so great—eight snacks, nine starters, and nine mains on a recent dinner menu, for instance—that it doubtless forces the kitchen to rush, and so dishes can end up sloppy. Side vegetables, for instance, seemed much more consistent and satisfying than the daily veg plate, which one day featured undercooked sauteed turnip halves and, on another day, stringy, too-al-dente haricots verts.
But when Stevenson focuses, as with the chicken and dumplings and corn sticks, you want to finish everything. I was a predictable pushover for the holdover dishes from Watershed’s Decatur days, like a pimento log distinguished by local Hook’s five-year cheddar; Stevenson’s own homemade mayo; peppers and pecans he slow-roasts himself; and terrific fresh benne wafers (a flaky cross between crackers and beaten biscuits) to spread it on—a lot of effort, he says, “for a little cheese log,” and worth it. But happily, two of the best dishes, apart from the chicken and dumplings, were all Stevenson’s. A chicken liver emulsified with pork fat, which the chef told me was the “least Southern thing on the menu,” had been handed down through generations of chef-mentors. It demonstrated superb technique—utterly smooth, with balanced flavors that let the liver star. Unexpectedly, a baby kale salad that sounded like an annoying cliche featured griddled pressed chicken breast that was hot, fresh, and full of flavor, the greens still crisp and well dressed in a buttermilk vinaigrette with fried shallots and sieved egg.
I was also a pushover for the holdover hot milk cake, a moist ingot of golden sponge covered with the thick caramel icing I can never get enough of in the South. But, happily again, the best dessert was Stevenson’s: a strawberry tres leches cake moistened with homemade crème fraîche, which managed to seem light and delicately dominated by seasonal berries.
I’m glad Watershed is still open, even if I miss the old gas station. It’s hard to see this room warming up or getting more intimate or funky. But it’s pleasant. And nostalgia doesn’t move you to the future. If Stevenson spends a bit more time obsessing over getting dishes right and grows more patient with his own creations, Watershed can build a new, strong identity in his care. And I’ll keep searching for the True South while staying alive to the New South that Atlanta chefs are inventing today.
★★ (very good)
Good to know
The fried chicken made famous by Scott Peacock is still here (but only on Wednesdays). Classic dishes also include the hot milk cake.
1820 Peachtree Road
This article originally appeared in our August 2015 issue.