It's 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, and without a reservation the wait for a table at Watershed is already more than an hour. It's fried chicken night, the one night of the week when chef Scott Peacock and his staff turn out hundreds of plates of some of the most celebrated chicken in the country. In the waiting and lounge area, families and groups of older ladies wait happily for their tables. The women gossip and chatter, their hair perfect, their accents thickly Southern. One group recognizes another. "Well, Candice, how are you?" a woman sings over the heads of her friends. Amid the bustle of the dinner crowd, this is a scene from a smaller town, a bygone era. It's part of what makes Watershed so irresistible. It makes you feel as though you're in the South again.
Over the years, Watershed has come to stand for something important. Peacock's friendship and collaboration with legendary Southern cook Edna Lewis is one of American cookery's great stories, and for those of us who wish to preserve our region's gastronomic knowledge, Watershed represents what's possible when energy and love meet success over a plate of simple fried chicken.
Now, more than ever, Watershed has become that same symbol of Southern greatness on the national stage. Last year, the James Beard Foundation named Peacock the best chef in the Southeast. Over recent months, the restaurant has been heavily featured in Southern-themed issues of Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines.
But also in recent months, I have heard whispers spoken with the guilt of the blasphemer, that the food isn't as good as it once was, that perhaps Peacock isn't in the kitchen often enough, that somehow, the reality is no longer as good as the reputation.
I'm not sure I ever ate at Watershed in its heyday – to me, it is what it is, and the problem here is mainly a philosophical one. To me, it boils down to one question: What does one expect when one pays $8 for pimento cheese?
At Watershed, what you get is the height of authenticity and nostalgia. It's what you would have grown up with if you had a Southern mother: a small bowl of pimento cheese accompanied by roughly chopped celery. And since the first day I set foot in Watershed, I've been torn. I'm utterly charmed by the restaurant; I'm as seduced by the sage and cream-colored former gas station as anyone else. And yet, that pimento cheese leaves me with a nagging feeling. I'm not suggesting that Peacock should add shaved truffles to his pimento cheese or fancify his food in some modern fine-dining adaptation of Southern cooking. Part of Watershed's charm is its purity. But I do wonder – are we that starved for simple food that we're ready to pay that much for a scoop of unremarkable pimento cheese? What's next, the $12 PB&J?
When contemplating the role of Southern food and its place in the high-end restaurant world, there are really two ways to go. One is to gussy the food up, to add some of the trappings of fine dining to Southern ingredients and preparations. This is being done with great success around the South, from Frank Stitt's Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham to restaurants in Charleston, Durham, N.C., and here in Atlanta at Restaurant Eugene. Watershed goes the other way, presenting Southern food as it has always been cooked – a few steps up from the meat-and-three, but only in atmosphere, wine list, and quality of raw materials. The problem is that occasionally, the simplicity becomes too simple, and we wonder what we're paying for. Watershed's beef stroganoff is just a large bowl of egg noodles with some small bits of tender beef and a few mushrooms. I'm sure that to someone, this tastes just like what mom made, but to me it tastes barely a notch above dorm-room cooking. The stone-ground "shrimp grits" appetizer is a tasty small dish of grits mixed with shrimp paste. It's more like a rich side than a $9 appetizer.
For much of Watershed's menu, the simple aesthetic works, especially where the quality of ingredients is the main attraction. Fresh oysters are lightly fried and presented still tasting of brine and just enough grease, with a tangy homemade ketchup. The thick pork chop served with soufflé-like mac-and-cheese and substantial collards is a shining example of what honest Southern cooking can be. The vegetable plate often puts familiar veggies in a whole new light: flavorful butter beans with integrity, sweet and buttery rutabaga. And that fried chicken is masterful, the crust crunchy and savory, hugging the meat tightly rather than standing back as a stiff separate entity.
But there have been nights when that fried chicken arrived at my table lukewarm. I've had wooden, miserable tomatoes on the vegetable plate in mid-August. Disappointments like these are all the more painful at a place that seems so driven by love of cuisine and produce. I'm also baffled by the price tags on some of the dishes. $17 for mussels (as an appetizer)? Are they using vintage Champagne for the (admittedly delicious) broth?
Watershed's cookies and milk dessert goes a long way toward curing all ills. Three warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies arrive just out of the oven with a small, ice-cold glass of milk. There's nothing revolutionary here, and sure, we could do this ourselves if we wanted to at home, but who among us will quibble with the utter comfort and pure delight of a few melting cookies? The rest of the dessert menu is just as irresistible, with a peerless, buttery rich pecan tart, and the aptly named "very good chocolate cake," which has no tricks under its coffee-spiked icing except to be cake at its most honest.
Peacock's cooking has a certain egoless-ness. He allows the food to speak through him rather than exerting his vision over the food. I respect his dedication to a cuisine that deserves this kind of singular attention. But I do think the rate of disappointment here is too high. Simple comes across as plain or lazy in some cases and there needs to be a sharper eye on quality control. Sometimes accolades can breed complacence – I'd hate to see that happen here. Because when it hits its mark, Watershed is still the most soul-satisfying upscale Southern food in town.