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Grazing: And the winner is ...

Scott Peacock takes home the Best Chef of the Southeast award for Watershed

Scott Peacock, executive chef of Watershed (406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-378-4900), was named best chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation earlier this month. In the culinary world, this is roughly equivalent to receiving an Oscar.

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Considering the award and the fact that I hadn't eaten anything but Sunday brunch at Watershed in a year or longer, I visited the restaurant last Monday to taste the superstar's fare. I should issue readers some immediate advice: If you go any night but Monday, you can order specials. Tuesday, as all fans of Southern cooking know, is fried-chicken night at the restaurant, but Wednesday through Saturday, Peacock offers off-the-menu dishes that cause foodie friends to kiss their fingers and go adjective-crazy.

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Watershed, which is owned by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers and three partners, hasn't changed much looks-wise since its opening about eight years ago. The entrance area of the former gas station, once a retail area, now includes tables for the overflow crowds on busy nights. Otherwise, the serene space is mainly unchanged and still pleases the eye – a testimonial to the enduring quality of its design.

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The restaurant's menu naturally reflects Peacock's passion for Southern cooking – a passion he nurtured in his long relationship with the late Edna Lewis, with whom he co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking. The Alabama-born Peacock's résumé is well-known – chef to two governors, opening chef at Horseradish Grill – and I should disclose that I've known Scott for years. His cooking doesn't just reflect our regional traditions. It's also an expression of his wit and personal warmth.

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My starter last week may be one of the best dishes I've tasted in weeks: a saute of wild mushrooms with goat cheese and country ham over toast. The ham adds more taste than texture to the dish but the goat cheese and mushrooms layer creaminess over the crisp toast, along with earthy flavors.

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Wayne ordered fried oysters, succulent inside a lightly crisp coating, served with "red pepper catsup" and some vinegar.

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We surprised ourselves by ordering no meat for entrees. I ordered the day's vegetable plate – yellow squash, lima beans, fried okra, cabbage, collards and roasted tomatoes – with a corn muffin that actually tasted like cornmeal instead of sweet cake. Wayne ordered okra pancakes with cucumber salad, plus the yellow squash and roasted tomatoes.

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Such food evokes immediate nostalgia for me. Peacock features organic and local produce whenever possible and the intensity of flavor reminds me of my mother's cooking. It also takes me back to the years I worked for rural newspapers. Readers spoiled me forever by piling produce from their gardens on my front porch.

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Peacock and his staff season vegetables in ways typical of the South – the collards are smoky, for example – but never to the degree that natural flavor is lost. And when good produce is not available, Peacock improvises. For example, no decent fresh tomatoes are available now, but his roasted tomatoes are so intense they are like the edible equivalent of an essential oil's aroma.

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For dessert we ordered his infamously rich chocolate cake with espresso-spiked icing. Lots of whipped cream compensated for the lack of ice cream Wayne always demands with his cake. We also ordered the fruity hummingbird cake – imagine spice or carrot cake with pineapple throughout.

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In Castleberry Hill

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"Here's your ex-girlfriend," the waitress told Wayne at Pearl (253 Peters St., 404-523-2121).

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"It's really good to see you," Wayne said.

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"It's been a long time," she said without blinking.

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There's nothing like deadpan comedy to start a meal. The "ex-girlfriend" is the name of the pink beverage with uncountable ingredients the server was putting before Wayne at this wonderful jewel in Castleberry Hill. It's actually the full-service restaurant and bar operated in the rear of Baltimore Crab & Seafood, a mainly takeout shop.

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Small, with only five tables and two bars, Pearl is staffed by an ultrafriendly crew. The restaurant is sleek, with pearly gray and blue colors lit by fixtures that vaguely remind you of spiny underwater creatures.

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The emphasis here is on small plates, which are not very small, along with freshly steamed or sauteed crabs. The big bargain is a sampler of three dishes along with two side items for $30. We ordered it along with a steamed Dungeness crab.

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Our three choices were fried shrimp, crab cakes and grilled ribeye. Crab cakes seem to be enjoying a renaissance and I've eaten them all over town in recent months. These are the best I've tasted so far. They are uncomplicated, not served with a fussy sauce or garnish. What you get is a fritterlike cake packed with twice the crabmeat most restaurants serve.

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Fried shrimp were extra-large, butterflied and served with the usual cocktail sauce. As for the ribeye, we were expecting slices of beef. Instead, we received a huge steak – salty, peppery, cooked medium-rare as ordered.

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The highlight was undoubtedly the Dungeness crab. We ordered the steamed version after the bartender told us it wasn't as "wet and sloppy" as the sauteed version. Of course, you're going to get pretty wet and sloppy either way, cracking the crabs open and fishing for every sliver of meat to dunk in the drawn butter.

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A side of corn on the cob was decent but broccoli was repulsively overcooked. Desserts are available but we could barely move, we'd eaten so much. Don't miss this place.

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Check us out online

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Be sure to check out the new Omnivore Atlanta blog that Food Editor Besha Rodell and I are doing, along with other Creative Loafing staffers. The website is OmnivoreATL.com.

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At this writing, you'll find commentary and reporting not in the print edition, such as a review of the kinky LottaFrutta, a report on a shocking espresso scandal at Whole Foods, a brief meditation on Björk's likely diet, the tale of Besha's masochistic "fruit cleanse" and more, much more.



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