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No. 246 restaurant review, Decatur

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2-4-6 (but no 8), what do Decaturites appreciate?

Some serious hotness going down on Ponce, that’s what.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

Sleek, gorgeous No. 246 — open every day for lunch and dinner and thronged with folks braving the no-reservations seating — has electrified its quaint stretch of E. Ponce de Leon Avenue since opening about two months ago. Inside this gleaming new restaurant, bartenders pour craft cocktails and deliciously obscure wines, and the kitchen dishes Italian food prepared with A-game swagger.

As one neighbor commented, “It feels like an instant classic.”

That it does. No. 246 (the name refers to the original plot of land rather than the address) signals a new age for Decatur dining — not another quirky hothouse flower like Watershed or the Brick Store Pub but a fully formed vision of rustic Italian dining, built and presented with big-city panache.

Blistery pizzas emerge from a wood-burning oven. Handmade pasta arrives crowned with a gushing deep-fried egg. Piles of rosy prosciutto and heaps of toast top rough-hewn wooden platters that look like salvaged farm implements.

Spaghetti with Georgia white shrimp (photos by Becky Stein)

Spaghetti with Georgia white shrimp (photos by Becky Stein)

No. 246 is already a huge success and an immensely likable spot. But after having paid this restaurant four visits, I have to stop just short of recommending it as an across-town destination. The broad menu, though admirable, needs editing. Both the kitchen and the front-of-the-house staff perform as if they remain slightly shell-shocked from the opening crush. This ambitious restaurant could use a bit more time to realize its full potential.

Business partners Ford Fry (JCT. Kitchen & Bar) and Drew Belline (who left the top position at Floataway Cafe to run this operation) have already announced that sound-absorbing ceiling panels will soon arrive to alleviate the ear-slapping din inside. No. 246 may be one of the noisiest restaurants in the metro area, but it’s also one of the prettiest — airy and light, with fascinating, industrial-sized steel fans whirling overhead. Designer Smith Hanes wisely reconfigured the former Eurasia Bistro (and, for several decades before that, the Square Table) so guests now enter through the bar to mill about and, inshallah, eventually get escorted to the dining room with its lovely open kitchen in the rear. Zinc-topped tables are set with dishtowel napkins and water glasses cut from reclaimed wine bottles.

Ahi tuna in a cherry tomato vinagrette

Ahi tuna in a cherry tomato vinagrette

The menu offers all manner of snacks and appetizers, pizzas and pastas and plates large and small. Diners can structure their meals as they like, and waiters cannily encourage you to order some meats and cheeses, or the signature toasts with spreads ($3 for one, $8 for three, $14 for five) before you’ve considered the whole picture.

Hello, snackums! We pass around little jars of cannellini bean mash with braised Tuscan kale, prosciutto conserva (ham spread to you and me, Bubba), eggplant with mint and chilies and a meatball in tomato sauce. (How do you eat a meatball in a jar?) Fun, fleeting tastes, one and all, but I soon get a little sick of those sharp, oily plugs of accompanying crusty bread ripping the roof of my mouth. Better if you chew/grind on the side, like a cat eating a piece of bacon.

We love our drinks. Head bartender Lara Creasy knows summer cocktails should refresh, and designs many to tickle your nose with effervescence, your ears with clinking cubes and your palate with gentle flavors. I love her take on the Pimm’s Cup ($8) made with muddled cucumber and housemade limoncello.

I also love the wine list, filled with wines from all over Italy. Catch this: You can get Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia’s entry-level “Le Volte” Super-Tuscan by the glass ($15). Or, if you want something more summery but red, try the juicy Matteo Correggia “Anthos” Brachetto ($10), which, unlike other Brachettos, is not sparkling but rather still.

I plan to make it through the nearly two dozen reds by the glass as I slink to the bar for a bowl of pasta— the kitchen’s glory. Let’s go back to that “instant classic” business to describe the pappardelle carbonara ($9 half order, $14 whole) — wide folds of noodle luxuriating with Parmesan, bacon, spikes of black pepper and that deep-fried egg. Puncture, swirl, melt.

A Pimm's Cup at the inviting bar

A Pimm's Cup at the inviting bar

Another pasta my maw refuses to close for: spaghetti with Georgia white shrimp ($10, $16), garlic, Pequin chilies and crunchy breadcrumbs. If I ever end up face down in a bowl of food from overeating, I want it to be this dish.

While pastas have been universally excellent, I haven’t yet found consistency to be a strong suit of this kitchen. The wood-oven roasted “pork sausage rope” ($15) with cherry mostarda comes crisp on the edges and raw in the center. I know the USDA now says pork doesn’t have to be cooked through, but I’m not ready for sausage tartare in my life.

Ditto (sigh) a lovely whole snapper ($26) presented with an artful pouf of shaved fennel salad. Crisp skin, various degrees of succulence and mush, and sashimi stubbornly clinging to the bone.

The pizzas, from a coveted Acunto wood-burning oven, have seemed more admirable than crave-worthy to me. “Ken’s wild mushroom pie” ($15) had lots of nice ingredients sloshing about a crisp crust. I better liked the cheeseless Romano ($13) topped with a riot of anchovies, black olives, oregano and whole Calabrian chilies.

The pie would be better with snippets of these super-spicy dried chilies, but there seems to be a “keep it rustic” mantra in this kitchen that can result in harsh or excessive cooking. A porchetta sandwich at lunch ($11) features damp, fatty meat, a rich garlic mayonnaise and a greasy roasting jus for dipping. Hairy fennel fronds float in the jus. Fine if you’re a field worker in pre-industrialized Italy…

The funny thing is that Belline is such a master of refinement. Witness his pan-seared tiles of ahi tuna ($28) served over a cherry tomato vinaigrette with cucumbers, basil and pickled onion slivers, each ingredient a leaping tiny dancer of pure flavor. It’s a bravura dish. Also great is his witty tomato lunch sandwich ($11) with multi-colored tomatoes sliced and piled high like pastrami. Milky mozzarella and one thin sheet of prosciutto play perfect backup to this song of summer.

246-4That said — and I’m going to run for cover after making this next observation — I’m not sure local is always best here. Huge late-summer arugula leaves (the kind where all but the crunchy spine goes limp in dressing) seem to blanket every single dish. A side of wood-roasted okra ($4) was so woody we had to spit out the indigestible fibers.

The front of the house staff tries valiantly to keep up with their customers in this decibel-distressed room, but I’ve observed a kind of jerky pacing to the meals happening around me. One waiter smartly warned me that a wine I ordered might not be what I’d expect from the varietal. But then a waitress assured my friend that her salad dressing contained no egg, even though my palate (and a subsequent call to the restaurant) revealed it did.

Another time, a waiter brought my wife the wrong salad. When we told him, he was extremely apologetic and rushed to replace it.

“I’m so sorry,” he explained. “It’s so loud in here I don’t always hear things right.”

Give this place some ceiling tiles. And a little time. It’ll be terrific.

NO. 246
129 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 678-399-8246
2stars5
Food: Ambitious rustic Italian, with pizzas, pastas and plates big and small.
Service: Very friendly and well-versed, but susceptible to some new-restaurant gaffes.
Best dishes: All pastas, tomato sandwich, ahi tuna, cold cucumber soup, chocolate tart with sea salt and olive oil.
Vegetarian selections: Quite a few, including pastas, salads and local vegetables.
Credit cards: All major
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Children: Fine but far too loud for kids with noise sensitivity.
Parking: On-street and in nearby parking lots.
Reservations: Only for the small chefs table.
Wheelchair access: Full
Smoking: No
Noise level: As loud as any restaurant in the city, but they’re working on noise reduction.
Patio: Not yet open but looks like it’ll be great.
Takeout: Yes

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37 comments Add your comment

VickiF

September 1st, 2011
7:20 am

This review seems very true to what we’ve experienced. It is a good place ready to get even better.

Mark

September 1st, 2011
8:08 am

John: what’s your take on the no reservations policy? When we first arrived in Atlanta, one of the surprises is that no restaurants seemed to do reservations–a la the two hour wait on the street to get into Indigo or Partners. Then, civilization seemed to arrive, and since then, every legitimate “destination” restaurant has taken them. The addition of OpenTable, while galling to the restaurants, has made reservations even easier to get and more useful for planning.

We live 5 minutes from 246, but have made no effort to go. When we were younger, childless, and could afford an hour at a bar waiting, we might have been there day one. But now, free time is too valuable. Maybe we’ll go on a Thursday at 6pm, as we gradually morph into the Jerry Seinfeld cliche of senior citizens having their discount dinner at 3:30 pm.

But still, a restaurant with aspirations of being more than a casual neighborhood joint ought to do reservations. I understand the risks of no-show reservations. Still, they could reserve only a small fraction of their capacity and in doing so tap into a much larger potential audience of time-stressed folks, not to mention those coming from a distance away. Right now they’re living on the buzz, but as they mature perhaps they’ll consider this.

Good Food Eater

September 1st, 2011
8:38 am

I have been twice for lunch. The first time I enjoyed the chicken sandwich, although it could have used a little more flavor. The second visit I ordered the Margherita pizza and was disappointed. The crust was ashy and if this is possible, too much cheese. I can’t believe I just said too much cheese but it’s true. It just was sort of tasteless.

It is really loud and with a no reservation policy I won’t be going for dinner.

Theresa

September 1st, 2011
8:43 am

I agree with Mark, and I don’t have children. No reservations means I’m not going.

Robert

September 1st, 2011
9:21 am

First thing I saw in your review was that picture of the shrimp pasta. Looks really good and there’s no better shrimp than Wild Georgia Shrimp (or SC).

Grasshopper

September 1st, 2011
9:34 am

What is it with restaurant designers not understanding acoustics? Don’t they get paid to take these things into consideration?

It seems as if every other restaurant that opens has the same problem. To have to retrofit ceiling panels into a new restaurant is ridiculous; I hope that the owners can get some of the design consult fee back.

Oh…the food looks delicious! Thanks John.

Edward

September 1st, 2011
9:49 am

I so loathe the overwhelming loudness of some restaurants. I don’t care how well the food is prepared, if I am uncomfortable while sitting in the room, I’m not going back. I’ll wait until I hear they have installed some tiles to ameliorate the sound levels and perhaps by then they will have ironed out the other little issues (like how to cook a fish or pizza properly).

M. Johnson

September 1st, 2011
10:11 am

Great review. But the price tag for a tuna and veg dish stopped me for a few.

pan-seared tiles of ahi tuna ($28) served over a cherry tomato vinaigrette with cucumbers, basil and pickled onion slivers, each ingredient a leaping tiny dancer of pure flavor.

For $28, that better be a LOT of leaping and dancing.

Billy

September 1st, 2011
10:57 am

Pizza are lackluster at best, just because you have an Acunto oven doesn’t mean everything that comes out of it will taste like Antico. Ripping off another restaurant’s menu and decor from San Fran doesn’t mean you can produce the same quality. It’s one thing if the food was spectacular, it’s another when it’s borderline. It’s embarrassing when you get caught.

Sophie's Choice

September 1st, 2011
1:25 pm

We’ve been three times, and loved the food each time. However, even though 246 is maybe 6/7 minutes away, we’d made up our minds to not go back because of the noise (which is truly deafening). We figured the trek to La Tavola (our go-to joint for good Italian) isn’t that far, and we don’t have to scream at one another from 12 inches away to hear what our dinner companions are saying. So, I was happy to read that the owners are going to do something to abate the noise, & we’ll definitely go back now– just not till those tiles have been installed!

Bob from Accounttemps

September 1st, 2011
1:29 pm

I’m with Mark and Theresa — no reservation, not going. I applied that personal policy years ago and haven’t wavered unless I call ahead and know the wait is manageable (or they’ll put my name on the list). Looks good though.

Susan

September 1st, 2011
4:29 pm

I think that restaurants equate noisy with trendy, which I find unfortunate. Makes me sad and also feel old…yet I’m not THAT old. I’m in my 40s and thinking, well, I’m in the age group that can afford to go there yet they’re catering to a much younger crowd. Don’t understand it, but can’t go back unless they remedy the noise issue (which seems to be underway), I go super early (Jerry Seinfeld comment above) or get there right before closing so I can at least enjoy a conversation with dinner.

No employees yet?

September 1st, 2011
4:48 pm

I wonder how long it will take before the employees/owners get on here and start raving and refuting every constructive criticism….

george

September 1st, 2011
5:18 pm

is atlanta so short of quality italian restaurants that people wait in line to dine in an establishment with frat party noise levels? the people doing the marketing for this establishment are doing a terrific job. i bet there is a lot of social networking involved.

Baltisraul

September 1st, 2011
5:31 pm

An hour wait and the noise so loud we could hardly have a coversation with our friends. Too many other choices in this town to put this back on the list of dining places. Food was good. Will see if they make some changes!

Dry Sense of Humor: Engage

September 1st, 2011
6:05 pm

@No employees yet?:

“I wonder how long it will take before the employees/owners get on here and start raving and refuting every constructive criticism….”

You sound disappointed–it’s as if you’re spoiling for a fight.

You must be fun to be with. Stick with Mickey D’s drive-thru and dine alone.

Susan

September 1st, 2011
7:28 pm

P.S. Love your writing, John! Also, meant to say that I have been to 246 three times and have really enjoyed the food…didn’t want to just give negative feedback. Love the feel of the place/clean decor.

Isaac

September 1st, 2011
9:16 pm

The actual dishes served only faintly resemble their pictures shown on this article. Too loud, to expensive for what you get, and won’t last long unless they make drastic changes. They will not receive many second and third visits by those who don’t eat free like Mr. Kessler.

DH

September 1st, 2011
9:54 pm

Don’t let the no reservation policy discourage you. If the wait at 246 is too long, there are many great places within a 2 minute walk: Leons (next door), Iberian Pig, Cafe Alsace (next door on the other side), Cakes and Ale, just to name a few.

Spencer

September 1st, 2011
10:02 pm

Agree that the noise is a little much, but absolutely love the food. Looking forward to the patio!

Cale

September 1st, 2011
10:14 pm

Best new restaurant in Atlanta in 2011 and it gets 2 stars. These ratings are a joke.

Jadzia

September 1st, 2011
10:37 pm

Must be because we always go around 9:30 pm on Fri or Sat – no wait and we get seated in the seating are by the bar which isn’t doesn’t seem to have the acoustic problems the dining room is having. Love the food, the bar drinks, and the waitstaff has also been great.

Louis

September 2nd, 2011
1:41 am

Eurasia was a beautiful restaurant without a noise problem – sans diners. The transition has been remarkable. The space is alive with diners enjoying the bar scene, the food, the beautiful cutting edge buildout. The excitement permeates and the noise exhibits the fun. This crowd is mature, sometimes bringing children. The restaurant was well thought out and the success of it is wonderful for Decatur and our dining scene. It is well worth the drive and should have received better star recognition.

Jenny

September 2nd, 2011
1:48 am

2 out of 5 stars…. Is it something personal???

Rex

September 2nd, 2011
6:54 am

Some people will eat garbage, and love it, if it’s served at a newly popular “in” place. After the initial popularity ends the place closes for lack of customers and soon reopens as a new “in” place with a new name. Happens all the time.

MMMMMMmmm. Foood

September 2nd, 2011
9:13 am

People are waiting because they want to eat there. People are loud because they talk louder and louder. It’s loud because the restaurant is full. Acoustic tiles (I hope they stuff them in every corner) will help the noise, but it will not make your wait shorter. In fact, it may make the wait longer. It’s a nice place. Good food and truly not that expensive. They will get there legs as John says.

How come if you make the choice to wait to eat somewhere and there are others waiting to eat there (who have made the choice to wait), it’s the restaurants fault? I hate waiting, too…..but I know what I’m getting into if I choose to wait. Pack a snickers, so by the time you are seated you’re not so tweaked and you can relax and enjoy the company and atmosphere.

southern hope

September 2nd, 2011
9:13 am

I feel like we go around and around with the stars ratings but they just truly don’t make sense. And by “don’t make sense”, I mean that if a person is new to Atlanta…or casually reads the reviews…or is visiting in Atlanta….or, really, any person who hasn’t obsessively followed these discussions in the blog, he/she is going to think that it’s a very so-so place to eat. And that’s because they just don’t jive with national ratings…whether it’s a critic in Chicago or a Yelp reviewer in LA….the staff here at AJC uses 2 stars to denote a very good restaurant and it simply doesn’t make sense to others who read/rank restaurants.

RK

September 2nd, 2011
9:39 am

southern hope: case in point, eater.com’s headline says “John Kessler Awards Decatur’s No. 246 Two Stars”

Grant

September 2nd, 2011
11:27 am

I’m with the several other people in the comments on the sentiment that excessive noise and wait times are detractors. I think higher dollar restaurants should accept reservations and be amenable to comfortable conversation volumes. I’m young and childless, too, so it’s not just a “get off my lawn” kind of thing. If I’m up for a noisy, wait-around kind of place, I’ll head to a popular bar, not a nice Italian restaurant.

John, I support the ratings. There is a large “Key to the Ratings” on every review that doesn’t change. If people don’t take the time to read them and ignorantly think “2 stars = bad,” then that’s their difficulty. Maintaining tough ratings allows for good restaurants to receive the true credit they deserve. Just my opinion.

John Kessler

September 2nd, 2011
2:10 pm

Thanks for all the comments here. I really do like 246 a lot, but there were enough food and service glitches, as well as that not-negligible noise problem, that I felt a cautious rating was in order, at least in the beginning. This is an extremely ambitious restaurant, and I’m sure it will meet those ambitions as intended soon enough. Have a great holiday weekend, everyone.

Jim

September 2nd, 2011
4:33 pm

I don’t really have a problem with John’s rating system, but focusing on the one star definition, which provides in part that “the food is hit and miss” and the 2 star definition, which provides in part that “the food is consistent,” shouldn’t this really be only a one star-rated restaurant? Seems John’s whole review describes hits and misses and was perhaps very kind with 2 stars.

@ No employees yet?: Looks like you actually may have gotten one of the owners in “Louis” a few comments after yours!

Annette

September 2nd, 2011
4:38 pm

I’ve only been once but was very surprised at the poorly thought-out ideas and lack of attention to details. Tiny jars for the spreads are cute, but they also call for smaller knives than a table knife. Salt crystals in a wooden bowl are artful but not easy to use. Why call the tomato, mozzarella and prosciutto sandwich witty, John? It’s a fairly standard sandwich which can be had at several other places in Atlanta for far less. Mine, BTW, had mounds of prosciutto instead of one thin slice like yours. And that is not the only inconsistency in dishes I saw. We salivated watching the chef generously grate Parmiggiano over fries on one plate, but my fries came with no cheese. After assuming the cheese fries must have been a special order, I ate half of them before overhearing the waiter at the next table proudly say they cover their fries in Parmiggiano. More problems: pork rillettes with tough chunks of pork, meatball that not only could not be spread, but required both knife and fork to cut into a manageable size, and delicious but sharp toast cut into a size and shape too small to handle chunky spreads – let alone a tough meatball. Oh,and half of a huge tomato slice was bruised – not discolored but damaged.

246 is new and I definitely chalk up these problems to growing pains, so I’ll try them again. We all live and learn. But for now I’m really puzzled by the buzz about this place.

John

September 2nd, 2011
5:27 pm

Ate there today; decent food, mediocre service, snotty young lady at front, way too loud head-banging music blaring. One of their salads on their menu featured arugula, the next on the list featured rocket. When I asked the waiter why they listed the same green under two different names, he first told me they were different ingredients then said they just didn’t want to list the same ingredient the same way twice. At any rate, the place is hardly worth a rave review. The old occupant of the space (Eurasia) was far superior.

Baltisraul

September 2nd, 2011
6:03 pm

Cale 2 stars is very generous after reading the article and the comments that followed. Do you really believe this is a 3 star resturant?.

joe in tucker

September 4th, 2011
10:00 pm

A cheap dig at the Brick Store and the Watershed is closed and you obviously don’t understand the ‘quirkiness’ of Decaturites… thanks for the review so i won’t waste my money or time there…

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kendall

September 6th, 2011
12:36 pm

I absolutely loathe arugula. I keep hoping it will go out of style soon. I have read many similar reviews of this place. Although I love JCT Kitchen and Floataway, I will wait until this new offspring gets the noise under control, gets rid of the arugula overload and takes reservations. Decatur already has the parking issue, so restaurants there already have that against them. I plan to eventually try Cakes and Ale because the owners of my favorite restaurant love it, but No 246 is going to have to wait.