Awaiting its moment

A watershed moment is a defining moment, and husband-and-wife restaurateurs Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray look to be on the cusp of just such an experience.

Watershed, the Grays’ new restaurant, opens not only in an up-and-coming neighborhood, NoMa — “north of Massachusetts Avenue NE” — but also at a time when the duo has begun a new chapter in their professional lives. Less than a year ago, they reopened their signature restaurant, Equinox, after a kitchen fire caused such severe damage as to require a six-month shutdown. 

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Now they’re not only back, they’re growing their business, and their latest venture resides in a newly built Hilton Garden Inn not far from Union Station.

“We had a simple desire to expand,” and the NoMa location seemed like a good bet, said Kassoff Gray, the daughter of a Washington real estate developer. She pointed to the area’s lack of sit-down restaurants and the hotel’s built-in clientele as advantages of the location.

Just as the surrounding neighborhood is evolving, so is the décor at Watershed. Currently designed and decorated by Hilton in muted colors — a tasteful example of an unassuming hotel bar — Watershed will get more visual punch and panache as the Grays adds Washington-inspired artwork throughout.

While the dining room might not be that remarkable yet, the large patio area is. The expansive space offers diners an outdoor respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Comfy chairs and soothing music make the patio a special spot, and one Kassoff Gray said she hopes to further enhance with numerous plants and hanging lights.

Just as the design will likely change at Watershed, the menu, too, is evolving. Currently priced 5 to 7 percent below what it will eventually reach, the menu serves as a test case for regional recipes that will be tweaked based on diner feedback and what does and doesn’t sell.

“We’re paying attention to the market,” Kassoff Gray said. Menu offerings have already been altered in the weeks since the restaurant opened and will continue to change over the next six to eight months as the restaurant finds its footing.

While local products and cuisine might be the theme at sister restaurant Equinox, “regionality” is the focus at Watershed, with inspiration and ingredients from along the Eastern Seaboard.

Watershed’s menu — described by Kassoff Gray as “an East Coast road trip” — focuses heavily on seafood with an interesting array of coastal favorites, from gumbos to shrimp and grits.

The grilled sourdough crostini with wild mushrooms, sweet garlic and crispy onions was a first-course highlight, with an appealing array of mushrooms and a tangy sauce.

The standout in the appetizer course, however, wasn’t an appetizer at all.

Labeled a side dish on the menu, the semolina hush puppies are quickly becoming a Watershed signature dish, Kassoff Gray said. A twist on a deep-fried beignet, the nuggets were doughier and less crispy than anticipated but had a pleasing texture and a perfect partner in the zippy accompanying remoulade.

The seafood-themed starters didn’t deliver like the crostini and hush puppies. The Baltimore seafood stew with rockfish, clams, asparagus and potatoes was thin on the seafood, and its tomato broth suffered from a heavy hand with the salt.

On the other hand, the baked oysters, “NOMA style” with spinach, pancetta and gruyère cheese, were long on seafood, but the oysters lacked that fresh-caught taste. 

The main entrees offer a changing array of seasonal proteins and vegetables from along the Atlantic Coast, a surf-and-turf mix of meats and seafood from Cape Cod to the slow-cookin’ South.

The grilled Montauk swordfish steak with charred asparagus, pearl onions and peppercorn cream sauce was the star of the evening. The fish was cooked to tender flakiness, and the crisp vegetables provided a nice counter-texture. The peppercorn sauce was simple yet rich.

The dry-rubbed pork ribs with red cabbage also came out of the kitchen perfectly cooked — fall-off-the-bone tender. The accompanying thick-cut potato chips, however, could’ve used a more generous shake of seasoning.

Other entrees seemed to be works in progress. The gnocchi was undercooked and arrived in a portion and bowl better suited for a side dish. The crabcakes relied too heavily on breading, and the patties’ shoestring potatoes, which more closely resembled fries, seemed like an afterthought.

Desserts stayed true to the restaurant’s East-Coast-road-trip theme, featuring, among other sweets, a New York mainstay, cheesecake, and a Southern staple, pecan pie.

The pecan-pie sundae with vanilla ice cream, pecan-pie crust and whipped cream was a perfect mixture of sweet and salty, and all-around deliciousness.

The “New York-style cheesecake” is definitely different here, baked in a jar with graham cracker crust and strawberry compote topping. Pretty in presentation, it was a creative twist on a very traditional flavor.

The warm strawberry rhubarb cobbler with cinnamon ice cream offered a flaky crust and tart, spicy note to the meal.

The standout of the desserts — and perhaps the entire meal — is not specific to any region but rather a signature American sweet from coast to coast. The warm chocolate chip cookies, served with a glass of milk, were everything cookies should be: uncomplicated, unfussy, sweet and smile-inducing.

The wait staff might still be getting settled in — service was a bit muddled and slow — but all were friendly and accommodating at Watershed. It’s all part of the approach here, where customer feedback will help shape the final product.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” as Gray said.

Once firmly settled into its new digs, this eatery could prove to be another success story for the Grays. True to its name, its watershed moment may come with its unique location, evolving menu and spacious patio. 

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