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Ellen Kassoff Gray is running late to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address Congress. She’s supposed to attend a reception hosted by Speaker John Boehner, she says, and she’s rushing to the Capitol.
It’s not a typical day in the life of a restaurateur, but Gray and her husband, the acclaimed chef Todd Gray, are well-known in Washington circles. And they’re hoping their Hill connections take note of their newest venture, a seafood-centric eatery called Watershed in the burgeoning NoMa district.
The distance from the restaurant to the Senate side of Capitol Hill isn’t far — only about 10 blocks — and a recent visit indicates Watershed is worth the trip. Billed as coastal cuisine that draws from all along the Eastern Seaboard and especially from the mid-Atlantic, the menu reveals the same attention to the provenance of ingredients that made Todd Gray’s reputation at Equinox, the couple’s downtown restaurant.
Still, for all the local sourcing and sophistication, this is approachable fare — a good thing because many of Watershed’s guests are hotel patrons (the restaurant is located on the second floor of the new Hilton Garden Inn) who aren’t typically looking to refuel for a day of sightseeing on nouvelle cuisine.
Light-as-air calamari typifies the kitchen’s style. It’s a familiar dish, even to heartland dwellers, but the rendering at Watershed has little in common with the familiar heavy, bland, marinara-soaked versions. A buttermilk batter barely weighs down the silky squid, and in place of the lumpy tomato sauce, there’s a sweet-tangy ginger sauce.
“You can eat a lot of calamari when it’s made like this — and drink a lot of beer to go with it,” says chef de cuisine Wade Hoo Fatt.
The menu also veers into Southern-accented comfort food. The low-country favorite — shrimp and grits — is a standout. Tender shellfish, slicked with barbecue sauce, nestle on a bed of creamy grits. Though the shrimp are ostensibly the star of the dish, diners still might clean their plates of the grits, which are laced with green-onion butter and flecked with andouille sausage.
And the desserts are pure comfort food. Ice-cold milk and freshly baked cookies inspire nostalgia, while the restaurant’s cheesecake baked in a jar proves to be not just a novelty item.
Prices, too, won’t shock visitors from small towns or workers from nearby offices. Lunchtime entrees range from $11 for a salad to $17 for the shrimp and grits, while dinner entrees top out at $28 for a steak.