We’ve been told that we slum it too often, so today we have a very special post regarding a fancy local restaurant!
I’ve heard lots of mixed reviews regarding dinner at Watts, so I was nervous when my friends decided to dine there after learning that Piedmont was overrun by the hipsters in town for Full Frame. I am pleased to report that my dining experience at Watts was overall positive: the service was not bad, the food was very good, and the atmosphere was just fine.
When we walked in, we were quickly shown to a table in the bar area once the host learned that we did not have reservations. The server was mildly overattentive, but still managed to make a mistake with my drink order. This put me a little more on edge. Fortunately, it was then cocktail time!
A word about cocktails
Their cocktail menu was kind of boring, but claims to use fresh fruit juices and purees. This got me excited, so I ordered a salty dog (grapefruit and gin, salted rim), which is always a favorite drink of mine. It was a pretty shade of pink and good tasting, but not that special for the $9 price tag. I would have to say that for cocktails, i would always choose Piedmont, which is creative enough with its cocktails to justify paying more.
I ordered the asparagus and mushroom hash with poached egg as a starter. When it first came out, I was a little surprised because it gave the appearance of a stirfry, not a hash. I always associate hashes with potatoes, and this contained none. Despite this dissonance with my expectations, I liked the dish. The mushrooms were extremely flavorful and well-seasoned without being too salty, the asparagus was al dente, and the egg, while a touch runny, had a bright, beautiful yolk bespeaking a nice local egg.
The Main Course
Next, we split a vegetarian plate and a steak. The vegetarian plate was well-composed compared to many I’ve had in upscale restaurants, and was very well-presented. A few snowdrifts (this is really how they were shaped. for those of you from warmer climates, think sandune…) of pureed cauliflower were interspersed with little piles of quickly sauteed vegetables including some kind of greens, some red peppers, and florets of cauliflower. The protein component was an excellent mushroom custard–that’s what the server called it, anyway; I’d call it a boudin. The steak was very well-seasoned and cooked exactly as I had requested it. It was accompanied by a few spears of grilled asparagus and red bell pepper, plus some kind of special chipotle seasoned pinto beans. I was impressed by the number and quality of sides since this is one aspect of a meal that is often overlooked.
I told my coblogger about this meal, and she expressed reservations again. We agreed that we really want to like Watts, but we are not yet comfortable putting a full CarpeDurham seal of approval on it. Her reasons are that she has had some spotty experiences with the food, though she loves all of the servers. My main concern relates to the balance of flavors in general. The plates are just not well-composed in the way that I would expect from a restaurant that charges that much in Durham, and that bills itself as a sort of nouveau/southern cuisine type of restaurant. Rather than melding the two approaches–nouveau and southern–seamlessly, which is what I’d ideally expect, the menu jumps from one to the other. For example, I liked the beans that were served with my steak, but they did not seem like either a natural or a (pleasantly) surprising fit. They seemed like a southern or southwestern add-on. Similarly, the vegetarian plate was quite delicious, but very nouveau-oriented. I did not see the south represented at all. Additionally, it probably should have included some kind of carboydrate-based component. If nothing else, the “southern” half would seem to connote a hearty meal.
I think that this is why we normally like to eat and and review ethnic restaurants in the area. We know that it’s really difficult to invent a perfect menu, and it’s usually cheaper and easier to find at a Mexican or Vietnamese place where the cooks are just working to recreate a menu that has already been perfected through tradition. That said, we will return to Watts, and definitely have an open mind about it.