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Restaurant Reviews: Superica, Watershed, 4th and Swift

Revisiting two Atlanta stalwarts and one relative newcomer


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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? SOUTHERN COMFORT: Watershed’s chicken and buttermilk dumplings? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? DINNER TIME: Watershed’s dining room? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? MILKY WAY: Watershed’s hot milk cake with caramel icing and sea salt? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? CHEESE AND CRACKERS: Pimento cheese pecan log with benne wafers and pepper jelly? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? SIPPIN’ TIME: The bar at Watershed on Peachtree? ? ???
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Watershed ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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Southern food institution Watershed closed its Decatur doors in August 2010. The restaurant never stuck its landing when it reopened as Watershed on Peachtree in May 2012. It lacked heart. That is, until Zeb Stevenson came on as head chef last January.

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The chef, formerly of Parish, Proof and Provision, and Livingston, is reinventing a menu that seemed destined to stick with the staples of famed chef Scott Peacock. Owners Emily Saliers and Ross Jones have given Stevenson creative leeway with the menu but some dishes, such as the beloved fried chicken, remain. Stevenson introduced more European ingredients like Italian-style lardo (cured pork fat that is thinly sliced so it basically melts), but manages to make it feel Southern. The chef is taking the restaurant in a direction that's less about the South and more about what the South can yield.

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Southern standards come easy to the chef. Just as the first housemade benne wafer spread with pimento cheese crumbled in my mouth, my brain directed my hands to assemble another. Freshly baked cornbread sticks are warmed to order. The salted Banner Butter sashays through the bread's nooks and crannies as it melts. If you like sweeter cornbread, a local honey accompanies the appetizer.

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The chunks of chicken and vegetables in the chicken and dumplings are perfectly salted and thickened enough without being heavy. The fluffy buttermilk dumplings are substantial enough to make this a bowl of pure comfort food. A hunk of slightly underseasoned braised lamb shoulder served with blackberry sauce, chanterelles, and turnips is not traditionally Southern, but it abides by the cuisine's principle of using what the market offers.

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An appetizer of late summer peaches and a bed of thinly sliced raw cucumbers, radishes, peppers, and herbs are draped with slices of lardo. The accompanying quenelle of savory rice pudding was a sweet revelation. The pudding served as a foundation for whatever combination you happened to make from the summer bounty on your plate.

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Desserts at Watershed serve as one last warm hug from the kitchen before you depart. An assortment of cookies is served in a bag to take home for a sweet late-night snack. A wedge of Very Good Chocolate Cake is indeed a very good, intensely chocolatey and moist, and not too dense. Pastry Chef Laura Mares and her milk cake have both been around since Watershed first opened in Decatur. The milk cake, which almost has the consistency of pudding, is airy and draped with a luscious layer of salted caramel. It's sweetened just enough for the flavors to pop without being cloying. I would return for this cake alone.

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Under Stevenson, Watershed has been reborn. Everything feels fresh, a feat for a long-standing restaurant.

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Watershed on Peachtree, 1820 Peachtree Road N.W. 404-809-356. www.watershedrestaurant.com. Hours: Lunch: Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Brunch: Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Entrées: $14.50-$44.50. Full bar. Valet parking.

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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? GONE FISHING: Roasted whole Gulf red snapper with avocado tomatillo sauce? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? COMFORT FOOD: Superica’s braised short rib with chipotle molasses? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? CRUDO: Campechana de mariscos appetizer with spicy shrimp, octopus, lump crab, and avocado? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? LONE STAR STATE: Inside Superica’s festive dining room? ? ???
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Superica ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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Tex-Mex restaurants are not typically where one goes for refined cuisine. The food is supposed to be cheap, easy, and drenched in cheese. Ford Fry's Superica is a different type of Tex-Mex.

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Fry's restaurant group Rocket Farms struck gold when it took a chance on Krog Street Market. Vice President of Culinary at Rocket Farm Restaurants Kevin Maxey likens the market to a playground for adults. Show up at 6 p.m. on a Saturday and you'll be hard-pressed to find an empty seat. The restaurant is highly stylized like the Tex-Mex restaurants of old with their eclectic elegance. There's an incredible attention to detail down to the little wood drawer fronts crammed into the holes of the decorative cinder blocks and fun touches like an oversized guitar propped up near the bathroom.

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Fry and Maxey's Texas upbringings serve as a solid basis for an impressive menu with plenty of low- and high-brow options. Does the sound of sizzling fajitas make your ears prick up and your stomach growl? Are chips and salsas your thing? The menu has combination platters for those who cling to the idea of a taco, enchilada, and rice and beans. A plate of nachos pays homage to Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, the man credited with inventing the popular snack food, in its presentation as composed bites. Here, thick homemade tortilla chips are arranged individually and layered with a protein, melted cheese, etc. instead of stacked in a pile so you get all of the flavors in one bite.

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Maxey, who's spent time working with chefs such as Tom Colicchio and has history with Rocket Farms, has emphasized technique in what easily could have been throw-it-together cuisine. Quality is also a priority so you pay higher prices supporting local businesses such as the local woman who provides the restaurant with tortillas.

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Dishes such as the campechena de mariscos, a large glass full of octopus, gulf shrimp, lump crabmeat, avocado, chilies, and tons of lime juice, illustrate the kitchen's skills at creating noteworthy dishes with straightforward ingredients. The fish is pristinely prepped and the sauce balanced, making this the perfect dish to eat with an ice-cold beer on a hot day.

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The whole fried red snapper served in a green tomatillo sauce will make you feel like you're on a beach in Mexico pulling off hunks of crispy fish, dipping them in sauce, and rolling them up in one of the flour tortillas. Well, maybe the flour tortillas aren't so Mexican, but they are delicious and made à la minute. Another impressive dish, the short rib, arrives on a cutting board in a huge hunk. It looks prehistoric. The short rib is slow braised and finished on the grill then topped with fresh cilantro, cotija cheese, and flour tortillas.

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My only disappointments with the restaurant have been the chili con queso dip and the drinks. The American cheese-based dip lacks body. It's too thin and bland. With the exception of the basic margaritas and the beer-based Michelada, the drinks, overseen by well-known cocktail maven Lara Creasy, have been a letdown. The Return of the Swamp Thing made with cilantro and jalapeños is a fun idea, but was like drinking a runny salsa spiced with tequila. Even for a cilantro lover like me, it was a stretch. Another drink made with horchata (a milky rice drink) and rum makes sense on paper, but the result was a melted, boozy milkshake too heavy on the cinnamon.

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Servers are quick, polite, and enthusiastic, making it clear that Rocket Farms has its training down. Fry and Maxey have another hit on their hands, but this is one that seems the most close to home for them given their backgrounds. As a result, this place has a lot of love behind it and you can feel it in the service and food.

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Superica, 99 Krog St. N.E. 678-791-1310. www.supericaatl.com. Hours: Weekday lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Weekday dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri., 5-11 p.m. Weekend: Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Entrées: $16-$34. Full bar. Street, lot, and valet parking.

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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? VEGGIE TALES: Slow-roasted beet entrée with golden quinoa, sorrel pesto, pistachio milk, and avocado? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? RARE BEEF: Beef tartare with watercress aioli, pearl onions, mustard ice cream, and pretzel bread? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? SEA FOOD: Seared diver scallops with arugula, pickled shiitake mushrooms, fennel, and beluga lentils? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? OLD FOURTH: Inside 4th and Swift’s dining room? ? ?
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? ? Erik Meadows? ? ? TABLE SERVICE: Tables at 4th and Swift? ? ???
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4th and Swift ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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Since 2008, chef Jay Swift's restaurant 4th and Swift has quietly churned out excellent locally-sourced cuisine. The chef and, his son, Jeb Aldrich, are currently focusing on their seafood-centric concept Noble Fin (slated to open this fall), so Swift brought on chef Graham House to run the kitchen at 4th and Swift. House initially served as the line cook when 4th and Swift opened in 2008, but left in 2010 and went on to work at Prospect in San Francisco and Redd Wood in Napa Valley. The chef also traveled around Italy and Greece before returning to Atlanta to work as chef de cuisine at 4th and Swift.

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House has made many changes to the menu, although the longtime favorite "three little piggies," a trio of pork preparations, is still there. Before House took over in June, much of the menu seemed to lean toward New Southern. Now it's more of an assemblage of cuisines from all over the world. House is unafraid to take risks, but they don't all pay off. They do, however, hint at House's potential.

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My favorite bite of the meal was my first: salted foccacia that tastes like soft, airy pretzels and butter. I asked for a second basket. Appetizers were more successful than the entrées. An appetizer of tagliatelle, beet mole, and housemade chorizo tasted like taco night over pasta. Bright red beef tartare served with pickled pearl onions, mustard ice cream, and pan-fried pretzel bread was without fault. Crosshatched tubes of grilled calamari that came with baby gem lettuce were fishy and a bit chewy.

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A main dish of slow-cooked beets with quinoa, avocado, and pistachio milk intrigued me as a vegetarian option. But the bland and mushy quinoa tasted more like a breakfast porridge studded with roasted and raw beets than an al dente ancient grain. It was a great idea, but the dish needs work and salt. There was plenty of acid with the diver scallops and beluga lentils that successfully lightened the otherwise rich dish.

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Every cocktail I tasted was pleasant to drink and the service extremely attentive. Our server was quick to recommend wines and did so with confidence. Currently, House is serving as the pastry chef and chef de cuisine. Dessert, which used to be great, now seems jumbled and redundant. There were components so oddly presented I could not decipher what they were. I struggled to identify ingredients and confused dishes because of their excess of crumbles and smears. Dessert should be delicious and art, not just art.

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Despite the new chef's missteps and lack of editing, a great deal of talent is evident. Perhaps with some more experience running this particular kitchen, he will be able to show Atlanta what he can really do.

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4th and Swift, 621 North Ave. N.E. 678-904-0160. www.4thandswift.com. Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-9 p.m. Entrées: $23-$48. Full bar. Valet parking.

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