You have to hand it to Todd and Ellen Gray when it comes to naming restaurants.  Equinox, their downtown dining destination, has been offering balanced, seasonally-inspired menus for more than a decade now.  But they’ve taken ‘meaning’ to a whole new level with Todd Gray’s Watershed, their new restaurant which opened this weekend on First Street, NE.

Watershed announces itself as a celebration of the “Coastal Cuisine of the Eastern Seaboard,” with special emphasis on ingredients and recipes found in the Chesapeake watershed region.  Walking up to the restaurant (entered through the lobby of the new Hilton Garden Inn), it’s easy to find a second interpretation of the name.  This IS a watershed moment for the area developers branded as NoMA (North of Massachusetts Avenue), as it brings sit-down dining and a chef’s touch to a neighborhood previously served only by fast-casual chains and coffee shops.

We had the chance to take a look at Watershed a few days before its official opening on Friday night, and we stopped in again yesterday to see how things are going.  We found a raw bar with an impressive if choosy selection, a dining room with a warm and inviting palette, and a killer patio.  Oh…and the food we tried last night was a great reminder of Chef Gray’s respect for the quality of his ingredients, too.

So what can you expect to find when you have your Watershed moment?  Check it out after the jump.

Walk in the front door of the hotel, and you’ll be greeted by a wall of falling water (eventually – it’s not yet running).  From there, you can climb the stairs or take the elevator to the second floor, where you’ll find Watershed.  Head to the right, and you’ll be able to grab a seat in a laid-back lounge area.  Head left, and you come to the host stand at the front of a bar area featuring an attractive display of fresh, raw shellfish.

Watershed offers a variety of dining experiences, depending on when you visit and where you sit.  According to Ellen Gray, Watershed’s menu “is approachable by everyone – business travelers, romantic dates, foodies.”  In the dining room, a long banquette lines one wall and squares of interspersed fabric above help to soften the space.  At the rear of the room, a large table does double duty as a serving station in the mornings and a Chef’s Table with a view into the kitchen at night.

And what a kitchen it is!  With space for restaurant, room service and banquet catering operations, this kitchen dwarfs the one at Equinox – “Heaven!” Ellen says with a big smile.  There’s also a scalable meeting room space that provides the kind of private dining options that the Grays have longed for in their first space.

The biggest draw – at least for the next few months – may be the Uline Patio.  This outdoor space, bordered by the GSA on the other side, looks out at the Uline Arena where the Beatles played their first American concert.  Surrounded by glass and bathed in evening light, this is a refuge from everything. The space will feature tables and couches as well as some sun umbrellas.  There are even rumors of circulation fans for those really hot days in August and September.  Patrons will be able to order from the full bar and food menus, making this a great place to roll from happy hour into the dinner hour.  Expect crowds.

The Grays are involved with every aspect of the property, not just the restaurant.  “We want this to be a place people look forward to visiting,” Ellen told me.  “It’s exciting that people can spend the night here.  You can go right upstairs after you eat, making this a real dining destination.”  An attached residential property, Flats 130, will also benefit from Watershed’s presence – residents can order meals directly from the restaurant.

Much of the Grays’ team comes to Watershed with a history of working together.  Chef de Cuisine Wade Hoo Fat, who will be overseeing kitchen operations when Gray is at Equinox, has been in charge of off-premises catering at Equinox.  And Tom Wellings, Equinox’s RAMMY-nominated pastry chef, will be serving as executive pastry chef for Watershed, as well.  A newcomer to the team, the Grays’ son, helped design the children’s menu.

photo by Emily Clack

A look at Watershed’s menus shows that Chef Gray has taken his Eastern seaboard inspirations and used them to turn out a menu of reliable favorites and creative new dishes.  A Baltimore Seafood Stew takes its cues from clam chowder and adds rockfish to the mix.  A Rappahannock River Oyster Sandwich is dressed like an East Coast po’ boy with tomato remoulade on an artisan baguette.  A Grilled Sourdough “Crostini” is topped with wild mushrooms and sweet garlic; it’s a bit unwieldy due to its size, but the flavors make you dive right in with knife and fork.  Hush puppies?  Not here – those are ‘Shed Puppies…and they’re simultaneously crisp and airy.

Never ones to shy away from a cause, Chef Gray and Ellen are already working with two charitable organizations at Watershed.  They’ll be hosting a demonstration and fundraiser for the Marshall Legacy Institute’s landmine-sniffing dogs on June 18th.  They’ve also established a relationship with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which oversees oyster restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere, and which runs the Shell Recycling Alliance.

Watershed is currently open for brunch and lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 daily and for dinner from 5:00 to 10:00.  Get there early for the best seats on the patio.

Todd Gray’s Watershed
1225 First Street, NE
Washington, DC
Todd Gray's Watershed on Urbanspoon