2-4-6 (but no 8), what do Decaturites appreciate?
Some serious hotness going down on Ponce, that’s what.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That 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 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