“Luck is the residue of opportunity and design. – Branch Rickey”
If it isn’t already, No. 246 (say it like it’s an area code) seems poised to be the next “it restaurant” in Atlanta and Decatur. While co-owner and executive chef Drew Belline mans the kitchen and his partner Ford Fry does the business stuff, Atlantans are filling this loudspeaker enclosure of an Italian restaurant like it’s nobody’s business. Quite the shock if you ask me. After all, I’ve waited well over two-months to recap my early day visits and we all know Atlanta hangs on my every word.
Just past two full trips, I will go so far as to say that of all the sub-six-month-old restaurants in and around the city, perhaps No. 246 is the one we should be most invested in. As of today (August 26th, 2011), No. 246 is another small step forward for Atlanta and its love child city of Decatur. This is not to say that 246 is without its problems (god knows there are some glaring ones); but, the list of places that do not suck has grown just a smidge longer.
Who Cooks Your Food
Perhaps more so than your average professional, chefs LOVE to bank on and brag about past employ. It’s a great way to sound more impressive than you are, especially if you were really shit canned on account of your inability to peel a carrot. The two publicly listed part-owners have plenty of belt idioms to rely on.
For his part, Fry is the bankrolled owner and executive chef of JCT Kitchen, a place I really don’t care for think food goes to die but many people love. Belline, a native of the 404, has a cadre of impressive works on his resume. Most notable to you and me was his time under the Star Provisions umbrella. While I steadfastly stand by my aforementioned rule of thumb, of the notable handful of current chefs who left SP on good terms, I have yet to see one that wasn’t worthy of the affixed resume notation. Belline, who last served as chef de cuisine at Floataway Café, is no exception. So with Fry already looking to open a few more restaurants, my assumptive spidey sense tells me that No. 246 is Drew’s baby.
The Interior (aka: One Loud Mofo)
My two entrances into No. 246 were as different as one could expect. The first was during a subtly filled lunch while the second was in a haze of nighttime chatter and activity. During a sunny day, the entire space seemed dressed as a bastion of culinary serenity. By night, the restaurant deceived those quick to judge into thinking that it was a happening fine-dining spot. Happening it is, fine-dining not so much (but close).
The décor comes courtesy of Smith Hanes and like their work at JCT, 246 has a delusive layout. An unbelievable and underappreciated skylight and reclaimed wood beneath your feet help to make this one killer of a place to look around. But functionally, No. 246’s layout fails as epically as an angry doughnut graphic. The biggest proponent of my dinnertime headache was the noise, to the point where Glen Benton would have been drowned out during my dinner. Dampeners people … learn what they are! The sliver medalist of seriously wrong, and only by a hair, was the seating. Tables forced encroachments of all types. We were within just a few inches of our neighbors.
The Food & Service Review
Both of my servers were competent, friendly, and hard working people. Once, a drink order was forgotten; but, unless I’m at Per Se, single and low impact indiscretions just don’t matter. Every question I put out there was answered honestly and correctly. When one of my questions proved a little too esoteric (which was the intention), our server politely excused himself to acquire the answer. The little bit of water over the damn showed during dinner service, when a large crowd caused problems for the kitchen (and thus the servers) and the lack of space made for some rabid betting as to who would be the first to spill the tray.
But finally there is the food. Belline’s take on Italian is comfortable, energizing, balanced and to the point. A minor twist and turn here and there isn’t enough to distract, and his time at Floataway (a somewhat Italian joint in its own right) shines through. Set to change along with the weather, the menu development will be a very intriguing aspect of 246’s future. I like that Belline’s conceptualization is a reflection of a key Italian ideal. Italians’ cook what’s nearby. But don’t let others’ misinformation fool you, a number of ingredients on the menu come from far away.
The lunch menu serves as an abbreviated edition of dinner’s offer. Besides the lunch only sandwiches, there are topped toasts, some charcuterie and cheeses, and a dance into Italia’s most recognizable culinary contributions (with the pastas smartly offered in half and full sizes).
In a world where $30+ menu items are an endangered species, No. 246 is the definition of today’s fine dining. This food is thoughtful and the restaurant ambitious. It’s because of that presented desire that their roughness around the edges comes across more like a “we’ll get it we promise” and not a “we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing and hopefully you won’t notice.”
The cheese are all striking examples of their intentions. The Green Hill is my favorite to date. Think brie and I’ll save the adjectives as Sweet Grass Dairy has done plenty of that. The pickled watermelon in the tiny mason jar was out of fucking sight. Seriously – it showed up and by the time Pops Buddha went for a bite, I was just about to snag the last piece. Relying on the rind for a significant portion of the texture and flavor, the watermelon moved my inner child out of its sleep and into thoughts of yesteryear. I love that stuff!
Sticking with the starters, the meatballs need some more work ($5 for a big one) . Veal neck, pork shoulder, and beef brisket are intriguing protein selections, but the end result is something a little dryer and devoid of the true power of the meatball. I’ll stick with the way I make ‘em.
The padron peppers are a heap for just $5, but were totally unimpressive. Adding table salt was all that we could do. The toasts have one Lord and it is the house-made ricotta. Joined by delicious preserved wild mushrooms, parsley and lemon, I’m a little angry that they didn’t just put a funnel in my mouth! I’m sure Papa Squat would have bathed in it. Oh, that awesome bread? Courtesy of H+F Bakery.
Speaking of baked goods, while the burger buns and bread service stuff comes from H+F, the rest of the bread/dough is made in house. It gives me hope for the pizzas, which I have yet to sample.
A competent and rustic sandwich with Layla’s backyard tomatoes, fior di latte, backyard basil and proscuitto ($11) defined lunch. But the most intrigue was in the agnolotti. I’ve had it each time I visited and it is that hot prospect everyone is so high on. Whether it goes the way of Maddux and Glavine or the way of Steve Avery is TBD.
Speaking to the pastas on the whole, they are straight up flavor orgasms. Where they come up short in is the inconsistency of the pasta itself and, in my humble opinion, the excessive use of sauce. The latter is a legitimately debatable point. Careful use of sauce is like a blogger who can say what I’m saying in about half the words. In other words, it’s the ideal. Unfortunately, 246’s kitchen has yet to show me a properly cooked bit of pasta. The agnolotti (a garlic ricotta filled pouch) with corn milk, local chanterelles, tarragon and Humbolt Fog ($17) on top is indulgently good. But dumplings are drenched in sauce and the pasta arrived under cooked in one sitting and over cooked the next.
Belline’s parpadelle carbonara ($14) is ultimately too much. The egg on top is fried and even if the cook problems of the pasta were absent, I would have a hard time really getting into a dish that takes gluttony and replaces it simply with “refined gluttony.” We also touched down with the sausage rope. A winding maze of linkage, it was certainly cooked appropriately, but did little to push me beyond a “well this is just fine.” ($15) As their agnolotti, tortellini, and pappardelle are all made in house, I have not yet had the chance to compare those with the spaghetti and garganelli (sourced from Rustichella d’Abruzzo).
Dessert did push its way across my table at lunch – and it was good … so good that I might actually learn what the hell makes a good dessert just so I can talk about this one.
Opportunity is At Hand
With outdoor seating and shuffleboard in the works, I’m not sure if there will be an identity crisis for No. 246. Focus and practice is imperative so that the kitchen doesn’t suffer like it did during our dinner. And I can’t stress enough how much of a huge problem the pasta noodles are at this juncture.
As for value, No. 246 appears to be what you want to make it. We squeezed out a $50 tab (pre-tax+tip) for two during a non-alcoholic lunch while a filling dinner ran Papa Squat and I about $100 before the extras. Considering that we had a ton more food and several beverages … that’s saying something.
No. 246 is the type of restaurant that can serve a city well. While we will still need greatness, we so very desperately need Belline’s place to serve as a bridge. It appears they have the right stuff in place; now, just a little tweaking will go a long long way. So long as it stays up to this level, I’ll go back … and gladly so.
Atlanta Foodies on No. 246
- Eat. Drink. Repeat on No. 246 (07.17.11)
- TQ&DD on No. 246 (07.17.11)
- DW&FD on No. 246 (07.21.11)
- CL on No. 246 (07.22.11)