The East Coast Seafood Gumbo pairs nicely with the housemade hot sauce. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Restaurants started by celebrity chefs have become almost as common as Cheesecake Factories. Visit enough of them and you’ll know that the real test of such a place comes around the half-year mark. By that point, the reviews are framed on the wall, the superstar general manager has flown back to LA or New York, and the kitchen is operating without much attention from the big name whose signature is over the door. Some places, such as Wolfgang Puck’s the Source, have maintained their high quality; others, like Alain Ducasse’s Adour, have even improved. But in many cases, time diminishes the polish of the service and the dazzle on the plate.
Watershed might have name recognition—it’s run by Equinox restaurateurs Todd and Ellen Gray—but it also has challenges. One big one: its location. Unlike Equinox, which sits near the White House and draws New York Times columnists and Obama appointees, Watershed is in what’s sold as Northeast DC’s NoMa neighborhood—north of Massachusetts Avenue—on a desolate block. Another hurdle: It’s in a Hilton Garden Inn. Instead of the Bono sightings you might catch at the Four Seasons or the W, here you’ll likely find tipsy conventioneers looking to live out their own version of Up in the Air.
The dining room, with its chocolate-brown-and-pale-blue decor and office-like carpeting, doesn’t help you forget where you are. In many cases, neither does the food.
Chef Todd Gray, an acolyte of Roberto Donna, has built his deserved reputation as a pioneer of season-focused American cooking and a champion of Mid-Atlantic regional cuisine. So it’s a surprise one evening in the middle of summer to find an overbuttered slab of grilled trout set over succotash made with the blandest corn we’ve had outside of a Sysco truck. Or a trio of baked oysters completely hidden by a thick coating of dry bread crumbs.
A chicken paillard tasted like what you’d expect at an airport-hotel dining room—that is, not much at all. Its “cornbread salad” turned out to contain only a few hard croutons. A dessert trio of water ices featured a lemon-verbena version with a flavor so faint that it tasted as if it came straight from one of the hotel ice machines.
Other dishes suffered the opposite problem from restraint and blandness. The sautéed mushrooms that smothered wedges of crostini were swimming in butter, while the oysters in a sandwich disappeared in thick fry batter. Even Gray’s justifiably famous crabcakes suffered from a drenching of brandy-cream sauce.
Some dishes do get it right. A starter of calamari was nicely fried. A pan-roasted filet of rockfish was terrific—and a cilantro lover’s dream—with mango, rice pilaf, and crème fraîche. On the Southern side, barbecue shrimp over grits was excellent one night, too salty another, and robust pork ribs with a cola-tinged glaze were a refined take on smokehouse fare.
During six visits to Watershed, I learned a few lessons: If it’s nice out, ask for a table on the patio. The cocktails, especially a cucumber-lime Collins, are worth ordering. And there are two things I couldn’t resist getting every time—the hushpuppies, enhanced with sour cream and served with tangy rémoulade, and the chocolate-chip cookies rippled with both dark and milk Valrhona chocolate and served with cold, rich milk from a Maryland farm.
They’re reminders of one of Gray’s strengths—subtly elevating the familiar—but at this point they’re few and far between. Our hope for Watershed? That another six months makes a world of difference. For now, appreciate Gray’s cooking at Equinox.
This review appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.