Distiller debuts one of the best new Columbus eateries in years

What kind of restaurant would you expect from a business formerly limited to making great booze? If you answered, “One of the best eateries to premiere in Columbus in years,” you've already been to Watershed Kitchen & Bar.

Credit Chef Jack Moore, a veteran of excellent Cleveland establishments such as Greenhouse Tavern and Black Pig, for rocketing this newcomer onto the stellar map of upper-echelon Columbus restaurants. On his initial menus (expect seasonal changes), Moore frequently flashes a best-of-both-worlds cooking style by elevating, but not compromising, hearty dishes with refined flourishes and acidic counterpoints. Note: Word has quickly spread about Moore's food, so reservations are highly suggested for dark, hip and bustling Watershed.

Situated in an industrial park near Grandview Heights, Watershed's black walls and ceiling and its wooden tables and pew-like banquettes are offset by a few plants, a copper-topped bar, plus views onto huge, gleaming distillery tanks and a little patio. The unstuffy but often cacophonous space is overseen by knowledgeable servers dressed in jeans and matching pale green T-shirts.

Cocktails are unsurprisingly emphasized, and they're as pretty as their pictures — which, along with descriptions of Watershed's ethos and history, fill an elaborate drink menu. Libations include a soothing warmer served in a teacup with a side of pun (Bon Apple Tea, $9); a tart-and-sweet refresher with gin, lemon, ginger and raspberry (Floradora, $9); an impressive integration of rye, amaro and Fernet-Branca (Marble Cliff, $11); and a grownup version of a liquid kiddie dessert presented in a little milk bottle featuring bourbon, Ovaltine, egg whites, flambeed marshmallow garnishes and boozy cola notes (Nostalgia & Moxie, $11).

Versatility likewise characterizes the food menu, which is organized into sections bearing Roman numerals loosely corresponding to starters, small plates and entrees. A recommended choose-your-four-courses tasting menu ($45) includes dessert.

Starters range from little pickle, lunch meat and cream cheese rollups classed up with crisp ham discs (Pickledillies, $4); a garlic-enhanced Beet Salad ($9), attractive as a decorative plant arrangement, that showcases a fantastic citrus vinaigrette and multiple beet varieties; and crinkly-edged, tongue-tingling Fried Brussels Sprouts ($6) dressed to kill in lemon juice, honey, black pepper and mint threads.

Under section “II,” you'll find Watershed's outstanding Crispy Fingerling Potatoes ($8). Embellished with a lush aioli playing off lemon zest and feathery shaved Parmesan, the herby, garlic-kissed little golden-brown nuggets are my current favorite spuds — and that's not something I say lightly.

Another indulgent treat has a Nashville accent: Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($13). Tangy, chili-flecked “whipped pig butter” (aka Italian-style lardo) melts like ice cream scoops atop a crackly battered leg and thigh. On the side are sweet pickles and a fiery, terrific hot sauce.

And I loved the seared, tender Braised Meatballs ($13) — three big, Parmesan-garnished orbs nestled above a brightly accented, sort of barley-and-cabbage risotto with a deep-flavored tomato sauce.

Watershed's Market Fish entree ($26) is the best-looking local fish dish I've had in a long time, if hardly the largest. Its changeable star — mine was walleye with a wonderful, salty crust — is accompanied by spring-celebrating companions: microgreens, herbed couscous that visually mimics peas, paper-thin radishes and grapefruit supreme.

If two lusty, umami-bomb entrees aren't flawless, they aren't far from it: a leg of succulent, seared Duck Confit ($27) with a perky celery root puree, hoisin-like “prune demi” and delicious but chewy gnocchi; and hearty Braised Beef Short Ribs ($24) with miso-mushroom polenta, rosemary-scented cauliflower, demi-style sauce and delicious but incompatible pickled cabbage.

Made with Watershed's vaunted Nocino, the Espresso Panna Cotta ($7) tastes good, but I found its not-silky texture wanting. So, for dessert, get the spectacular Poached Pear ($7) with tangy whipped cream, honeycomb, mint, pistachio and crumbled biscotti. Like Watershed's other best dishes, it's a crowd-pleasing knockout graced with elegance.