One of the oldest questions in Western metaphysics, pondered by Plato and other ancient Greeks, is an identity problem known as the ship of Theseus. Suppose that Theseus, founder and heroic king of Athens, retired his battleship to a museum. Over time, the ship would decay and its parts would need replacing. Eventually, the entire ship would be reconstructed with replacement parts. Can we still say that the thing in the museum is the ship of Theseus?
Fellow Atlantans, this is also the question posed to us by Watershed. After it opened in its first location in 1999, it quickly became a beloved spot in Decatur. Owners Ross Jones and Emily Saliers even scored a James Beard Award and are credited as early promoters of the now commonly understood virtues of a farm-to-table menu. Their elevated Southern fare was nicely balanced out by the mystique of excellence surrounding their once-a-week fried chicken special. In 2012, when the restaurant packed up and moved to its current location in Buckhead, Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’s legendary fried chicken recipe came, too. The city took a bit of convincing about this move, but even spurned Decaturites eventually came back around to visit.
Seven years later, here with are: Chef Matt Marcus has bought out Jones and Saliers, so that he finally owns his own kitchen. So Atlanta is once again faced with the question of whether Watershed 3.0 is still Watershed. Yes. No. And maybe.
Yes, it’s still Watershed. The serve who waited on our table has been at Watershed for twenty years. He’s seen it through all the changes and the hospitality at the core of their dining room is as good as it ever was—neighborly and helpful. A restaurant that can keep a server for twenty years is a place worth visiting. And the Matt Marcus menu iteration still includes the two dishes that diehard Watershed fans always get: the fried chicken and the hot milk cake. Those are both still made the way Ross Jones’s grandma always made them. In fact, though the fried chicken is still served in moderately exclusive quantities, you can find it there a few more nights per week than before. If the legendary order of those two plates is your go-to, Watershed is still Watershed.
But then also, no, it’s not Watershed. Chef Marcus is no less of a Southerner, but his menu shows a lot more interest in French than previous Watershed menus. We tried a root vegetable truffade—thin layers of the all-white veggies stacked up like a cake—that looked and tasted terrific but slid apart awkwardly and instantly when we cut into it. The agnolotti was stuffed with spicy rabbit and maque choux was super flavorful. There’s more than a little whiff of Creole Louisiana about these that the old Watershed didn’t deliver, and personally, I’m in favor of it.
And so maybe Watershed is Watershed, but maybe it’s not. The new macaroni and cheese, which the menu boldly proclaims is “epic,” was indeed super good. Thick noodles and four cheeses, a great side for two to share or for reheating as leftovers the next day. The brussels sprouts were a huge hit at our table, showing off a peach ravigote, pecans and citrus but also getting the bedrock issue of crisping correct on the sprouts themselves. The shrimp and grits seem more saucily delicious than before, while the cheeseburger seems a little more straight-laced than before—but perhaps that’s only in comparison to some very successful risks Marcus is taking.
There was a watermelon tomato gazpacho that, were it not so clearly a seasonal dish, might rate up there with the old classics as a new go-to order. The watermelon was allowed to shine through, rather than getting beaten into submission by the tomato. A mole oil added a beautiful hit of heat on top. This entire brightly well-balanced soup seems to literally effervesce in the mouth, thanks to a neat trick on the tongue performed by finger limes, sometimes also known as “lime caviar” precisely because they feel like you’ve eaten a fistful of Pop Rocks candy.
Some of these updates reveal Matt Marcus is himself a bit of a philosopher. And as both chef and owner of Watershed, that particular ship of Theseus is now entirely his to captain.
Watershed is located at 1820 Peachtree Road. Visit watershedrestaurant.com for more information.
Megan Volpert lives in Decatur, teaches in Roswell and writes books about popular culture, including her latest, a Bruce Springsteen-inspired collection of poems and essays called Boss Broad.