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Watershed, in the Hilton Garden Inn - 1st and M Streets NE in NoMa, Closed


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Unfortunately, once I got up to Watershed I was not nearly as hungry as I should have been. But, first impressions were thus:

Generic hotel restaurant vibe, though the patio might be nice. Friendly staff, credible fried catfish sandwich, OK wine -- I had a French viognier. Todd was in the kitchen. Lot of non-fish in the menu. It didn't grab me but is worth checking out again.

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Not too much excitement about this place - expected a little more buzz.

We've been once and liked it. Holding off on saying much until we've been again, but the crabcakes and shrimp and grits are both very good as you would expect from a Chef of Todd Gray's caliber. The crabcakes are more like the ones you get from Chris's Marketplace at Dupont or Penn Quarter Farmers' Market than any others I've had, which to me is a very good thing. It's good, not fried seafood at reasonable prices, which I've found is almost nonexistent in this town.

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It's good, not fried seafood at reasonable prices, which I've found is almost nonexistent in this town.

$6 for plain hush puppies hardly counts as reasonable prices to me.

And hush puppies plainly do not count as "not fried seafood" to me.

My point was that for everything else the place strikes me as way overpriced - I work just down the street and when I have stopped to look at the lunch menu I balk at the prices for what is listed, they strike me as consistent with an overpriced hotel restaurant model, not something that will draw local workerbees in for lunch.

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Tried to go to Watershed a few weeks ago, but in a case of bad timing, the night we had reservations was the night the power went out in NoMa during the heat wave. Last night we finally made it back to check out the new kid on the block. We were a little fearful of rain so we stayed inside, but the patio is huge and looks really nice. I joked that coming into Watershed reminded me of coming into the old Corduroy (walking into a hotel and heading upstairs to a nice restaurant). They seemed to have a decent HH crowd and some interesting looking cocktails as well.

Our waiter informed us that a new menu was supposed to be printed that day, so he had a bunch of specials and new menu items he had to recite off to us. I think he said it was the third menu since they'd been open? Since they try to keep things seasonal and sustainable.

Two of us started off with a Summer sweet corn soup with blue crab ($8). Although it came out almost too hot to eat, once it cooled down it was quite delicious. Not too thick, which I appreciated, it was sweet with some good chunks of crab and a few pieces of pepper. It was also served with spice-dusted pita chips that added a pleasant crunch. One person also started with East Coast Seafood Gumbo with Oysters, Surry Sausage and Rock Shrimp ($8). She was warned it would be spicy, and the heat at the back of the throat lived up to the warning (this was also served very temperature hot as well). It's certainly not as thick as a traditional New Orleans gumbo, but had some good flavor.

One secret we learned is that they won't bring bread to your table unless you ask for it (along the lines of sustainability they don't want to waste bread on those that don't want it), but I'd certainly recommend asking because the rolls they had were hot and soft and topped with a sprinkle of salt. You didn't even really need the olive oil that was served with them.

For entrees two of us had the Carolina Style Barbequed Shrimp with Creamy White Grits,Andouille Sausage, and Green Onion Butter ($19), which is apparently their most popular entree. There were probably 6-7 good-sized shrimp on a large serving of very creamy grits and some sauteed spinach. The shrimp could've used a little more seasoning, but the grits were excellent. They have "Spicy Sauce" and "Skipjack Seasoning" on the table (hot sauce and Old Bay more or less), which I used a little of. One of the specials (which may be on the new menu) was a "Frogmore Stew" with wreckfish (if my memory serves me). The girl who had it said it was a little blander than she expected, but she polished it off. She was a little surprised at the $27 pricetag (when most entrees were $19-22), but not a huge deal. The fourth of our party had Smoked Carolina Mountain Trout with Arugula Leaves, Cucumber Noodles and Trout Roe Vinaigrette ($12), which I didn't try, but she seemed to like.

After soup, bread, entree and a glass of wine we were too full for dessert, but the choices on the menu all sound pretty good. Now that I live in Brookland and frequently shop at the NoMa Teeter, I can see myself heading back here for meals from time to time.

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With these ridiculous heat indexes, the family decided to play it completely safe and dine in a modern building that promised to have modern, flawless air-conditioning. We like dining out on H Street and supporting the neighborhood, but Watershed also advertises itself as a "community-centric" neighborhood spot, so why not?

I agree with alot of what is said in these previous posts. Staff is very pleasant, the food is quite good. Our appetizer was the weakest part of the meal, fried calamari -- lot of breading, but very little calamari itself. I did like the sweet vinegar dressing that accompanied. Wife and baby enjoyed an egg fettuccine in a cream sauce. I opted for the entree soft shell crabs, which were fine. But when do a couple of soft shell crabs ever satisfy as an entree? Remembering the praise for the shrimp and grits, we ordered that and were very pleased. We did order somewhat heavy dishes even though we had medium-bodied tastes, so we will be back to try the raw bar and all that.

Here's the part that motivated me to write in. Just as New Foodie counsels that you must ask for bread if you want it, I suspect you may have to ask for all the menus to make a fully-informed order. Our server did run down 2 or 3 specials of the day, none of which we ordered. I had learned of the soft shell crabs while skimming a separate "special" menu at the host stand. Reading the website now, I see that the raw bar does crudo, sashimi, and beef tartare, but we didn't get that menu either.

Frankly, those items sound more targeted to our tastes than what we had, i.e. dishes which I would characterize as "safe choices" for the visiting gen-pop that probably make up a large portion of their clientele. Reading upthread, I see that no one here has reviewed anything from their raw bar, so I wonder whether anyone was offered an menu from that station either.

PS -- their air-conditioning amply made up for whatever minor gripes I made. Server was very cool. We will be back.

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Reading the website now, I see that the raw bar does crudo, sashimi, and beef tartare, but we didn't get that menu either.

Several weeks ago, I stopped by for a happy hour to test out the raw bar. I was really looking forward to the beef tartare. Sadly, that was an idle visit, and much of my visit mirrors Sietsema's.

I saddled up to the bar and asked for the raw bar menu, only to be told there wasn't any. "What you see on the chalkboard is what we've got," the bartender said. I was sitting about 40 feet away from that chalkboard and their 5 items were written in a 8 point font, so I couldn't see anything and the bartender had no idea. I ambled over and saw basically all they were offering were 5 different kinds of oysters. ???

I mentioned the beef tartare and sashimi and bartender quickly replied, "Yes, we do sometimes have those as a special." Fine. I ordered a Manhattan and a half-dozen oysters and settled in, only for the shucker to visit me personally and talk me out of some of the selections I had made. Whatever--I'm sure he meant well.

I see in Sietsema's review that he does not even mention any raw bar items, so I take it the program is sidelined for now. It's really disappointing, I'm sure the Gray's are also disappointed that presumably there is not enough demand for these items.

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."
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I've expressed my disappointment that one restaurant has dummied-down its menu to accommodate its market already, so I might as well stay consistent. Tim Carman reports that Watershed will partner with Culinaire, which will affect its sourcing. Watershed's worthwhile offerings were the exception rather than the rule, and how do the tea leaves now read?

Remembering the praise for the shrimp and grits, we ordered that and were very pleased. We did order somewhat heavy dishes even though we had medium-bodied tastes, so we will be back to try the raw bar and all that.

Kassoff Gray notes that there could be some disagreements in the coming weeks or months as Culinaire balances its twin objectives of reducing costs and staying true to Todd Gray’s quality, often regionally sourced ingredients. She, for example, could imagine arguing with Culinaire over purchasing Anson Mills grits vs. a cheaper alternative, which could compromise the chef’s flavors.

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I do regret saying "dummied-down". Everyone is entitled to their tastes, and everyone is at different points in their personal journey of learning about food. And I certainly am not in the head of Michael Landrum or any of his operating partners, so it is wrong of me to suggest that their intent is to "dummy down" anything for their customers.

I would substitute "sabotaged" instead. Many other successful businesses sabotage their own products, so I mean to use this word in a value-neutral way.

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Whether or not they realize it when they first open, all businesses (especially small private businesses like restaurants) have survival as the primary objective. In order to survive, a business must operate profitably enough to at least cover all its costs. Beyond that, other objectives are varied and unique to each business. Some want to be the best at X. Others are keen to have Y impact on the world or society. Still others seek to make their owners and investors very wealthy. All legal. All fine. To each his own.

I don't know Michael Landrum but I admire him because, from my outside and very uninformed perch, he has been operating a successful business for many years. I can only assume that due to the growth in locations, the popularity of his restaurants and the many years he has been in business. That alone is extraordinarily difficult to do, whatever social good may or may not also be in the mix. Seems like a very good and Good business. An honest business; what you see is what you get.

And, also just based on outside assumptions, it seems to me that product quality and community are also high priorities for him. I think this because his food is consistently great across locations* and because it's always fairly priced (probably lower than it could be were profit maximization the only goal). I think this because he partners with people like Mark Slater to manage an interesting, educational, unique and accessible wine program instead of just slapping some overpriced list of bottles together as so many other places do. I think this (concern for fish stocks) may be part of the reason there's not a Ray's the Catch. And, I think this because he even decided to open in East River in the first place.

Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions; a super important thing. A constitutionally-protected thing.

But, for me, dummied-down, sabotaged or other negative words don't at all factor into how I think about ML's business. Rather, I see a business that operates smartly and compassionately. And to do that, it has to have a good sense for the different markets in which it operates and how best to serve them. Nothing dumb or sabotaging about that IMHO. It's called targeting in marketing speak. And it's about really knowing and then meeting different customers' needs (very easy to say and hard to do). And, all successful and worthwhile businesses do it. As best I can tell. the Rays empire is both successful and highly worthwhile whatever lens used.

* In full disclosure, I've not been to East River though I intend to check it out. Have been to every other Ray's outpost many times in aggregate. And I almost always love the steak, burger, chicken, sandwich or whatever I'm served. The quality and consistency always amazed me before I learned anything about the man behind it all.

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When I get home I'll consult my economics textbook, but I'm pretty sure the term is "sabotage" when it comes to manufacturing. This wiki article talks about "duplicate manufacture", a term I don't recall but somewhat speaks to what I meant. I'll repeat, I meant to use it in a value-neutral manner, and not be negative about it. And also, I didn't want to dummy-down my thoughts! ^_^

Beyond that, darkstar965, you echo alot of what I've said in the other thread, so I take it you are agreeing with me on a substantive level. Also, once you do visit East River, I respectfully ask that you provide your thoughts on the wine program there. You provide an exhaustive critique of other places, and I look forward to your review for this.

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Sure. And my apologies to you DaRiv18 on characterizing the sabotage word as negative which you didn't intend. There are lots of terms in different contexts (whether science, business or whatever) that take on different meaning altogether in everyday speech and how most might perceive them. Starbucks caught a lot of flack in its earlier days for opening new stores right next to other existing stores. In marketing strategy, business wonks call that cannibalization, an intentional and sometimes productive strategy to further growth. But that's a term that can be very easily misinterpreted in plain English terms. Common usage of cannibalization is negative or worse.

As for Rays East River, absolutely I'll look forward to trying it and will likely post about it when I do. I'll expect it to be different from Silver Spring and Arlington since it's a different market. That said, you won't find too much prose in my posts about wine programs relative to food. I often make bad choices on wine due to lack of knowledge and markups. Know what I like--maybe most important--but would never in a zillion years claim any expertise there.

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Just to put an end to this, apparently the term I was thinking of was "damaged goods", the intentional sabotage of a product in order to price discriminate. Marketing folks also referred to this as "crimping the product". Although it still sounds nefarious, this paper argues that both the business AND the consumer benefit from this practice. Michael Landrum without question has the consumer in mind, here.

On second thought darkstar965, I won't be unhappy if you decide not to review East River. Of course you are going to enjoy a meal there. My whole point is not with the quality, but with the direction, of the outlet. If you haven't been there before, you obviously can't appreciate the differences now. And since raving about any of Ray's meals is probably the easiest and least controversial thing to do on this board, why pressure you into the errand of actually visiting East River if there's little incremental payoff for our online community.

[As much as I want to continue to post on this 1) for the pure folly of having more posts about East River than of Watershed in this particular thread, and s) to contribute to Michael Landrum's happiness that discussion of East River be broken off from the main RTS thread, I will now step off my soapbox.]

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For anyone who has enjoyed the HBO series The Wire, arguably the best American television series of all time, you'll remember the show for it's dark honesty and tremendous character development.  One of the show's greatest characters, Marlo Stanfield, had several outstanding scenes in the last 2 seasons of the show, and perhaps the most famous is in the clip below (some harsh language in the clip below, although nothing worse than what you would see in a late night Rocks post that he deletes several hours later).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0K-tfJLiFE

"My Name Is My Name." That phrase has stuck with me since I watched that episode.  What Marlo not so elegantly stated rings true in all aspects of life for me, no matter what business you are in.  Your reputation, your "name", should be something that everyone takes pride in and guards throughout their life, as once your name gets tarnished, it's hard to erase that memory from the people who know you and your work.  Which is why I continue to be shocked that Bobby Flay, Michel Richard, Jose Andres and even pseuo celebrity chefs like Todd Gray seem so willing, even eager, to sully their names for a few dollars.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for these talented individuals profiting off of their hard work and achievements, but always within reason.  In the case of the Watershed, it appears that Todd Gray, a chef whose talents I admire, has severed all ties with the restaurant except for one thing; his name.  According to an employee of the restaurant that I spoke with the other night, Chef Gray has discontinued his direct association with this restaurant and has accepted a fee from the hotel/owners to keep his name on the front door.  Now, I know that this is exactly a new practice, but I have to wonder if whatever the hotel is paying Chef Gray is worth having his name associated with the food I have had in my 3 visits here since I started working in the area 5 months ago.  Each time I have been for lunch, so I can't speak to the offerings at dinner, but my colleagues who have dined here at night say that the dishes are of a consistent quality to what we ate at lunch.  Which is to say, they are entirely mediocre.  At my most recent experience, the Butternut Squash Soup was watery and did not taste like butternut squash. I wasn't sure if it was the excessive water in the soup or the spicing, but I was actually more focused on trying to decipher what the taste of the liquid in the bowl was rather than extracting any sort of enjoyment out of eating it.  Things did not improve with the arrival of the Steak Salad, which was ordered MR and arrived somewhere between M and MW.  One can't expect much when ordering this dish unless you are at a steakhouse, but it's also safe in that it takes effort for kitchen professionals to mess up something so simple.  They managed it here, clearly putting the warm steak onto the lettuce before giving it sufficient time to cool, wilting the lettuce beneath and killing any sort of enthusiasm I had for enjoying my lunch.

NoMA continues to be underserved considering the number of people living and working in the area.  Todd Gray and Watershed had the potential to be the one place in this neighborhood where one could go for a moderately upscale sit-down meal to break up the trips to Five Guys and Roti, but if he really has parted ways (almost) completely with the hotel, I don't see this being the answer for people who frequently find themselves down here.

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...Which is why I continue to be shocked that Bobby Flay, Michel Richard, Jose Andres and even pseuo celebrity chefs like Todd Gray seem so willing, even eager, to sully their names for a few dollars. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for these talented individuals profiting off of their hard work and achievements, but always within reason. In the case of the Watershed, it appears that Todd Gray, a chef whose talents I admire, has severed all ties with the restaurant except for one thing; his name. According to an employee of the restaurant that I spoke with the other night, Chef Gray has discontinued his direct association with this restaurant and has accepted a fee from the hotel/owners to keep his name on the front door. Now, I know that this is exactly a new practice, but I have to wonder if whatever the hotel is paying Chef Gray is worth having his name associated with the food I have had in my 3 visits here since I started working in the area 5 months ago. Each time I have been for lunch, so I can't speak to the offerings at dinner, but my colleagues who have dined here at night say that the dishes are of a consistent quality to what we ate at lunch. Which is to say, they are entirely mediocre. At my most recent experience, the Butternut Squash Soup was watery and did not taste like butternut squash. I wasn't sure if it was the excessive water in the soup or the spicing, but I was actually more focused on trying to decipher what the taste of the liquid in the bowl was rather than extracting any sort of enjoyment out of eating it. Things did not improve with the arrival of the Steak Salad, which was ordered MR and arrived somewhere between M and MW. One can't expect much when ordering this dish unless you are at a steakhouse, but it's also safe in that it takes effort for kitchen professionals to mess up something so simple. They managed it here, clearly putting the warm steak onto the lettuce before giving it sufficient time to cool, wilting the lettuce beneath and killing any sort of enthusiasm I had for enjoying my lunch.

NoMA continues to be underserved considering the number of people living and working in the area. Todd Gray and Watershed had the potential to be the one place in this neighborhood where one could go for a moderately upscale sit-down meal to break up the trips to Five Guys and Roti, but if he really has parted ways (almost) completely with the hotel, I don't see this being the answer for people who frequently find themselves down here.

I sometimes post about restaurant economics and business operations on this site. Just a natural area of interest for me for different reasons. I've also shown more sympathy for big corporations than others in a few posts over the years. But, I'm not one to argue that the "free market" or even capitalism are the answers to all problems. They're not. Nor would I ever argue that all businesses are morally or ethically "good" since, well, they're not. Far from it in too many cases.

But, on the issue of absentee chefs licensing their names as with Todd Gray and Watershed, I have zero problem with that believing that a more free-market issue. As a customer, I don't like it and just avoid spots with poor quality or that aren't a good value in my own subjective opinion. But clearly in this country, millions of others have different priorities and will pay richly because a famous chef's name is on the door. Such is their right. I'm just not among them.

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But, on the issue of absentee chefs licensing their names as with Todd Gray and Watershed, I have zero problem with that believing that a more free-market issue. As a customer, I don't like it and just avoid spots with poor quality or that aren't a good value in my own subjective opinion. But clearly in this country, millions of others have different priorities and will pay richly because a famous chef's name is on the door. Such is their right. I'm just not among them.

 Is Todd Gray a celebrity chef?  I feel like could ask 100 people who are interested in food in the DC area and maybe 5 would place the name and maybe 2 would identify what he is associated with.  Never been to anything he has been associated with so can't speak to food quality.

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Is Todd Gray a celebrity chef?  I feel like could ask 100 people who are interested in food in the DC area and maybe 5 would place the name and maybe 2 would identify what he is associated with.  Never been to anything he has been associated with so can't speak to food quality.

Totally fair question. On one hand, clearly not the same name recognition of a Thomas Keller, Mario Batali or even Mike Isabella locally. OTOH, if someone is willing to pay to hang your name on their door, I guess that says something?

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