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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.
The dining room itself features a bar and lounge, with a raw bar on one side that Hoo Fatt calls Todd Gray’s “toy.” An airy dining room and — happy-hour questers should take note — a large patio with shady umbrellas can accommodate substantial crowds.
The décor is sleek and contemporary, but it is saved from hotel-bar banality with touches that reflect the restaurant’s theme and location. Large black-and-white photos of oyster boats are a nod to the food’s origins, and a painting of Eastern Market reminds patrons where they’re dining. A three-starred D.C. flag behind the bar adds more local flavor, and the mirrors lining the dining room are the creations of a local artist.
Scott Foreman, director of operations, shows off a feature of the restaurant that he hopes will draw Hill denizens: a modern, light-filled ballroom space just off the restaurant, where groups can hold large-scale meetings, fundraisers and receptions. The room has its own entrance to the outdoor patio to accommodate an indoor-outdoor event.
Foreman wants political types to take note. “What I hear from people who go to these events and who plan them is just that they’re tired of the same places over and over again,” he says. “We can provide some variety.”
The neighborhood surrounding the restaurant is changing rapidly, with large office buildings springing up along a formerly scruffy corridor. The nightclub Ibiza and the aging Greyhound bus station are remnants of the district’s past, while the new Harris Teeter and a stretch of lunch-hour favorites like Potbelly point to its future. There are plans for more full-fledged restaurants, such as the Gillian Clark-helmed Kitchen on K Street a few blocks away.
So far, though, Watershed is the only upscale, sit-down restaurant for blocks. But lack of alternatives is far from the only reason to visit.
NoMa, at least when it comes to dining, might just be having its watershed moment.