A Watershed in name only
Todd Gray's latest offering falls short
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011
NoMa has yet to catch on as a neighborhood designation that anyone other than a developer might use, but there's no denying that the swath of land "north of Massachusetts Avenue" in the District has come a long way in the past year or so. Pitching in to make the tract north of Union Station more attractive to the masses are a new apartment building, the city's biggest Harris Teeter and a Hilton Garden Inn.
Inside the hotel, a flight up from the lobby, is another hopeful gambler: Todd Gray's Watershed. Watershed is a reference to a menu with a seafood theme; Gray is the founder of the 12-year-old Equinox downtown and the youthful Muse, a take-away cafe in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Did I mention that he and his wife and business partner, Ellen Kassoff Gray, are also penning a cookbook together?
The veteran chef is a busy guy - perhaps too busy, judging from several dips into his casual seafood project.
Like so many new establishments, Watershed launched with a ripple of excitement when it set sail in April. Here was a restaurant by a well-known chef promising a raw bar and dishes from the length of the Eastern Seaboard, and mooring in a slice of the city that cries out for reasons to eat there. It helped, of course, that a familiar brand was acting as Watershed's host, ensuring a captive audience in the form of lodgers. The flip side of the equation is, as Gray told me earlier this year, "You can't charge $35 for entrees." As anyone who ever planted a dining room in a hotel also knows, chefs are obliged to play it safe on the menu. For instance, you gotta have a steak.
You don't need to, and shouldn't, have fried calamari that requires a search-and-rescue team to locate the seafood, or a tepid chicken paillard stretched across a toss of dry corn bread: two of multiple disappointments at Watershed.
The kitchen can be careless with salt. One night, I felt as if I'd consumed as much sodium as salad on a plate of spinach, frisee and grilled asparagus. An otherwise appealing jumbo lump crab cake was set atop a nest of wilted spinach that could have been pulled from the ocean, it was that salty; it was sullied further by fried green tomatoes that registered as cardboard. Surely Gray, who was in the establishment that evening, hadn't previewed what should have been a signature.
Liquids tend to best solids, and I'm not just saluting the well-made libations from the bar: The kitchen produces some pleasing soups. Watershed's dusky, crab-rich gumbo puts an East Coast twist on the New Orleans classic, replacing the usual andouille with surry sausage and white rice with wild. A bowl of corn soup bobbing with tomato is enough to fuel a linebacker; the creamless appetizer puts the focus on one of summer's best and brightest vegetables. Alongside the bowl sits a little dish of spiced oyster crackers that have been baked in-house. Nice idea.
My single best catch at Watershed was a special that teamed clams from Maine, potatoes and pieces of corn in a shellfish broth tinted with saffron. As for turf, a lunch selection of pulled pork heaped on rafts of garlic bread sports a bright tang (although I would have liked more than its pinch of purple cole slaw).
The most consistent aspect of my experiences here, however, was the affable, on-the-mark service.
I appreciate an honest waiter. When I ask one about the Cuban sandwich, he diplomatically replies that he goes to Miami for his fix. I catch his drift when I take a bite of Watershed's rendition of the classic layering of pork, cheese and pickle, translated here as a mush of a filling that doesn't taste much of pork. I strike out again with a sandwich of fried oysters that emphasizes crust over seafood and comes with an ordinary green salad that does nothing to divert my attention from the central problem: I'm eating what amounts to a bread sandwich.
"I feel like I'm in the hotel lobby," a colleague says. We're seated in the center of the dining room, wishing the blistering late-July heat hadn't prevented us from dining on the patio beyond the sheer curtains. Watershed opens with what could pass for an airport lounge and flows into a low-ceilinged room that is most attractive for the wavy tiles on the ceiling and the tall communal tables that run down the center.
There are few reasons to linger in the space for dessert. Lemon tart makes my teeth itch; grainy bruleed marshmallow on the plate makes it even less appealing. Marginally better is the blueberry cobbler, but its ice cream is so vague, you have to re-read the menu to see what flavor it's meant to be. The most entertaining of the sweets is a deconstructed pecan pie: Ice cream, bits of pastry, nuts and macerated cherries (representing"the cherry on top") make a fun finish. So do warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies.
I like the idea of a good, moderately priced restaurant to propel a new neighborhood. Watershed isn't it, yet.