First Look: No. 246 in Decatur
Ford Fry and Drew Belline's locavore Italian
Sunlight is pouring through the windows of No. 246 (129 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., 678-399-8246). It's just before noon and I've scored a table at the end of the banquette nearest the front window. I've agonized over the menu and now my server, Phil, slides my first course onto the table.
Pow. Hand me my sunglasses. If Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam, he'd bribe me with a dish like this. It's a half-portion of agnolotti, ravioli-like folds of faintly yellow pasta in a white bowl scattered with fat corn kernels. I bite into the silky-delicate agnolotti and suddenly I've caught a severe case of synesthesia. I taste the summer light. It's distilled in the pasta's sweet filling.
My fork wanders to a chanterelle, slightly golden, meaty and an ideal grounding to the bowl's buoyant sweetness. Dollops of goat cheese bridge the textural gap, adding body to the shallow pool of — I think — enriched corn milk into which the bowl's garnish of chopped tarragon leaves has fallen. Every forkful is brightening.
Later, Phil explains that the filling of the agnolotti is ricotta cheese infused with corn milk, made by grating the cobs. The ricotta explains the fluffy texture. Of course, all the ingredients are locally sourced.
My next course is a huge sandwich made from "backyard tomatoes" (grown by a staff member) with fior di latte mozzarella, basil and prosciutto. The tomatoes' slight acidity is almost a shock after the forgoing corn's sweetness. The fior di latte is mellow, its flavor rendered a bit weak by the delicious prosciutto. Personally, I'd prefer the cured meat on the side. The sandwich is huge, by the way, especially with the also huge side of arugula and shaved Parmesan.
You'll note the Italian theme here. Interestingly, though, there's such an accent on local vegetables, it's easy to forget that this isn't all about farm-fresh Southern cooking. That's no surprise. Owners of the new restaurant are Ford Fry and Drew Belline. Fry is owner/executive chef of the quite Southern JCT Kitchen & Bar. Belline, who is executive chef at No. 246, was last at Floataway Café, which has a strongly Italian menu, too.
The restaurant takes its name from the original designation of its plot in the early 1900s. That's right. It's not the actual address on Ponce de Leon Avenue, so prepare to be confused. The interior is mainly bright with white walls to make the most of the window light. There's a burnished floor of reclaimed wood and huge rustic suspended lamps that look like tin funnels. There's a long granite bar on the right side of the restaurant, which also includes the waiting area. Do plan to wait. No reservations are taken.
The most dramatic feature of the restaurant is the open kitchen, where wood roasting is the specialty. It's not merely a peek-a-boo kitchen, but framed in a way that actually suggests a stage. Press materials say the kitchen features a chef's table where four diners can get a close-up view of Belline at work.
When I had dinner at No. 246 a few days earlier with Wayne, it had been open only three days and was slammed. It was already working at full speed. But let me make my usual Baby Boomer gripe: The noise was overwhelming. It's time for texting across the table. It's easier than sign language.
For dinner, we ordered three of the restaurant's "toasts." These are little slices of toasted bread served with your choice of five spreads. We chose one made with roasted figs, vinegar, almonds and basil. The second featured house-made ricotta, preserved chanterelles, lemon and parsley, while the third was roasted eggplant with chilies and mint. Don't take them seriously. They are like lab experiments. Some work well, some don't. At $3 each (and less for multiple orders), you can live large and take a risk. You might just love figs with vinegar.
The menu of starters includes dishes such as local heirloom tomatoes, cucumber soup with roasted shrimp and a bowl of Spain's famous fried Padrón peppers, which we chose. They were crisply charred, light and, as our server warned, unpredictable in their heat. A few caused alarm bells to go off.
We both skipped the pizza — I just can't enter another pizza wars battle right now — and chose from the menu of six entrées. I wanted the pork sausage rope but they were sold out. I settled for wood-roasted chicken with hen of the woods mushrooms and roasted baby carrots. The half chicken, crispy-skinned and juicy, was boned and salty-good. Notes of ubiquitous bacon also shared the plate.
Wayne's dish was the more interesting choice: pan-roasted escolar. This controversial fish — its oiliness can adversely affect the gut — is deliciously rich, and Belline tempers that with local cucumbers, pickled onions, basil and cherry-tomato vinaigrette. Also available was a whole roasted branzino with shaved fennel and salsa verde. The only beef on the menu during both my visits was skirt steak.
We finished dinner with a shared portion of buttermilk panna cotta topped with lemon-ginger marmalade. It's just like your weight-conscious Italian mama from Charleston, S.C., used to make. As radiantly sunny as my lunch a few days later, the panna cotta disappeared amid blurred spoons. I can't wait to go back.