Watershed Kitchen & Bar started as a brand extension, but perhaps the food was the point all along.
In order to visit Watershed Kitchen & Bar, you have to know a little about it. As the restaurant adjacent to Watershed Distillery, this speakeasy of an eatery is hidden in plain sight, sheltered in an industrial park near Grandview.
It may seem counterproductive for a restaurant to be difficult to find, but owners Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo overcome this challenge with a strong team that has the license to create bold dishes and over-the-top cocktail menus. Rather than relying on passersby to wander in, Watershed defines its own customers. In other words, Watershed's customers are not there by accident.
The results are some of the best meals I've had in Columbus in more than a year.
Nothing, it seems, is by accident. Executive chef Jack Moore (who spent time in Cleveland at The Black Pig and Greenhouse Tavern) and general manager Andrew Schmitt run a stellar operation—one would think that the restaurateurs happen to make liquor, not the other way around. Watershed's menu suggests a chef with a well-traveled palate, while the operations demonstrate a grace that mimics some of the best white-tablecloth establishments around.
Intimate, with Scandinavian design (and just enough natural light peeking in to keep the plants alive), the restaurant is filled with a professional wait staff who look like they came from a Madewell catalog. They provide impeccable service. Each course is served with mise en place at the ready. The servers read tables like a book, and in each of my visits the staff worked seamlessly to anticipate my every need.
Housed in a plain concrete structure, the restaurant (which also provides a fantastic view of the distillery) is much bigger than it appears from the outside and includes several areas that feel private, as well as an outdoor patio that hardly feels like it sits among businesses like Columbus Fasteners Corp.
The drink menu is, as expected, on point. Plenty of beer and wine options join a creative set of new and classic cocktails. That are well-executed under the direction of bar manager Alex Chien. The seasonal cocktail menu—this fall, it takes the form of a cheeky document resembling a high school yearbook—presents an issue unique to Watershed, in that it feels strange to order a drink that doesn't include one of its spirits. If you feel brave enough to defect, I recommend the Aperol Spritz ($9), a refreshing concoction where bitter and sweet meet tangy coconut water. If you prefer sticking to the syllabus, try the Most Likely to be Tardy ($10), featuring Watershed Four Peel Gin with matcha, citrus and herbal notes.
The food menu is divided into three parts, which can be ordered as a three-course tasting menu (plus dessert) for $47 per person. Presumably, the size of the selections falls in line with the numbering, so that Part I is a snack, Part II is an appetizer and Part III features entrées. This mostly works, but pricing is a better indication of serving sizes. Some items in Part II, including the braised meatballs ($13) and the Hay-Smoked Baby Backs ($16), could easily be mains.
A first glance at Part I of the menu reveals sweetbreads ($8), which are a rarity in Columbus restaurants. Five pieces of delicate veal pancreas are fried and served in two-bite portions alongside pickled red cabbage. The crispy, cornmeal-based breading adheres to the meat with each tender bite.
The Beets & Strawberries salad ($9) makes for a cerebral experience. Al dente beets and compressed strawberries are served over a chili pepper-spiked cream that almost makes this salad taste like a dessert. Encountering this dish is like exploring a fine wine: Assembled, it gives out floral and citrus notes, while also offering a hint of spice.
Several veggie-forward dishes grace the menu, including a delightfully herbal (and very seasonal) tomato salad ($9) that features a variety of specialty tomatoes topped with Parmesan and whole sprigs of mint and dill. The fried Brussels sprouts ($6), meanwhile, are perfectly cooked and delicately placed in a bath of sweet, but not cloying, honey.
Part II of the menu includes the aforementioned baby back ribs. Three sets of ribs arrive piled in a Lodge cast iron pan with pieces of hay still burning. It's a spectacle that demands attention. Marinated in a five-spice barbecue sauce, then topped with sesame seeds and pickled shallot rings, the tender ribs have a well-seasoned and charred exterior with flavors reminiscent of Peking duck. It's served with a sort of chimichurri that is lovely but unnecessary.
Another can't-miss (and unique to Watershed) dish is Ham, Clams & Taters ($16). Diced red potatoes comingle with clams in a puddle of cream similar to an ice cream base. Served with incredibly fresh English peas and mint, this dish can only be accomplished with in-season produce. The country ham adds a taste of salt that really captures the essence of spring.
While the main courses are primarily meat-based, Watershed's single vegetarian entrée, Vadouvan Roasted Cauliflower ($19) with Indian curry spices, is both complex and beautiful. Served atop flavorful sliced mushrooms and scant beluga lentils, the cauliflower is presented two ways: The florets are roasted just a little past al dente, and the plate is encircled by a creamy purée that acts as a sauce. The winning element of this dish is the pile of watercress, which not only adds a pop of color but also the bitterness in each bite needed to complement the rich vegetables.
The braised short ribs ($24) are incredible. Yet another dish with red cabbage (a frequent item on the summer menu), the meat is served alongside crisp and charred cauliflower and a generous helping of creamy polenta. Super-rich and maybe just a bit over-salted, the ribs meet their match with that pickled cabbage.
The dessert menu includes several sweets, sherry drinks, coffee and even a six-pack of beer for the kitchen staff, if you're feeling charitable. The ice cream sandwich (included in the chef's menu) is a fun combination of an almost-chewy kulfi (an Indian take on ice cream) and a tart rhubarb compote placed inside a shortbread cookie that works with, instead of against, the frozen dessert.
Watershed has incorporated many elements that provide hope for the future of dining in Columbus. In a decade of new, trend-forward dining establishments, this is a place of professionalism and sophistication. But with this rave review comes trepidation. The restaurant reminds me of some other long-lived culinary leaders in Columbus whose establishments—for one reason or another—aren't around today. The make-it-and-they-will-come mantra has a downside: No restaurant is impervious to changing trends or economic shifts. Yet Lehman and Rigo's team seems to have a magic that is difficult to duplicate. Some may try, but I'm going to enjoy the creativity stoked at this location in this moment in time. Just like Watershed's yearbook-themed drink menu implores—never change.