It suddenly dawned on me that the guy assiduously clearing away plates in the crush of people at the opening party for Watershed was the owner, Todd Gray. Here and there, folks called out their congratulations to him, and later, I saw him and his family patiently posing for a long series of photographs. But for much of the event, Gray, who won the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington's 2011 award for Chef of the Year, bused tables.
He and his wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray, are owners of the much-lauded Equinox, located on Connecticut Avenue near the White House in Washington. In 2009, Equinox was destroyed by a fire, but Gray and his wife managed to re-build and re-open the restaurant. At the same time, they took on a second challenge. They made a deal with Hilton Hotels & Resorts to open another restaurant (Watershed) in a new Hilton Garden Inn north of Massachusetts Avenue, a D.C. neighborhood dubbed "NoMa" that's grown since a Metro station opened there in 2004.
Seeing a picture of Gray, some longtime Richmonders might notice a familiar face. The Fredericksburg native attended the University of Richmond in the '70s as a French major and got a job working as a waiter at The Tobacco Company Restaurant during his sophomore year.
"It was sooo very wild — and untamed! I lived over top of the Bamboo Café," he says. "We really had a lot of fun. I'm still quite close with many of my U of R friends. Lots of music back then, too!"
Inspired by the two years he spent working at the Tobacco Company, Gray left UR before he finished his bachelor's degree to attend the Culinary Institute of America.
"Mostly I was inspired by the entertainment, the pace and the energy of the business. I always loved the historical connection of the Tobacco Company to Shockoe Bottom," he says. "It always stuck with me the way the owners refurbished a district with deep and important history. I hadn't realized that a restaurant could have that type of impact. [It] made me realize how important restaurants are to our American heritage."
It's a lot of work, opening two restaurants, one after the other as the Grays did, during the past two years. It's compounded by the fact that they are committed to using only sustainable sources and as many locally produced ingredients as possible. You can't simply place orders with a couple of large purveyors — your sourcing starts to escalate as you add more and more farmers to your ordering roster.
Equinox serves what might be described as new American cuisine, with dishes such as foie gras with house-made mulberry jam or pork tenderloin and sausage with peaches. "[It's] an ode to the farming community of the mid-Atlantic," Gray says. "It rolls with the seasons and keeps pace with the earth and the timing of produce."
Watershed, on the other hand, is "an ode to the Eastern Seaboard," he says. "We like to say it's an ‘eat' coast road trip from Maine to Florida!" A riff on gumbo with oysters, Surry sausage and rock shrimp is on the menu there, along with brook trout accompanied by succotash, clams and brandied shrimp cream.
It's difficult for me to give a dispassionate take on Watershed. When I was at their opening party, I was greeted at the entrance with an oyster shooter, and as I made my way around the various food tables, including one with the excellent gumbo I mentioned above, I realized that there was, tucked in the corner, a raw oyster bar. Not just any raw oyster bar, but a bar with seemingly unlimited oysters. I parked myself next to the shucker and trickily engaged him in conversation so that he wouldn't notice that I was continually refilling my plate and eating one out of every three oysters he shucked. Smart, right?
Gray has taken on a few other projects — he's also opened a takeout café called Muse at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and at the Fishing Lodge Cap Cana, a resort in the Dominican Republic, he's planning an open-air restaurant named Bistrot, plus a Caribbean-influenced café. It makes me tired just thinking about all of that work in such a short period of time.
However, I do have one little venture I'd like the Grays to think about. Given the couple's seemingly unlimited energy, I don't think it would be unreasonable for them to start to think about a second location for Watershed right here in Richmond. I can keep a raw bar occupied all by myself.
Todd Gray's Ceviche
- 2 pounds of fresh, firm-fleshed fish such as halibut, mahi-mahi, striped bass or, alternately, shellfish such as shrimp, scallops or lobster
- 1 cup of fresh lime juice
- 1 cup of fresh, diced tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup of diced onions
- 1 cup of diced avocado
- 2 tablespoons of cilantro, stems removed
Cut the fish into 1/2-inch pieces. Add the fresh lime juice and toss it with the fish in a nonreactive bowl. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 4 hours or until the fish becomes opaque. Toss (gently) again. In another bowl, combine the diced tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add those ingredients to the fish, stir and refrigerate for another hour.
Remove the bowl from the refrigerator and allow the mixture to sit until the olive oil loosens (it will have congealed somewhat). Stir it gently. Fill tall glasses approximately two-thirds of the way full with the fish and tomato mixture. Add a sprinkle of diced onions and avocado. Finish with the cilantro on top and serve.