Review: No. 246

Modern Italian in downtown Decatur

Monday August 29, 2011 09:00 am EDT

At midday in downtown Decatur, sun streams though the window onto my plate at No. 246, the new Italian restaurant operated by Ford Fry and Drew Belline. The plate holds one of the most glorious lunchtime indulgences I've encountered in years: a porchetta sandwich alongside a shallow bowl of "roasting juices." In other words, this hunk of pig was roasted until meltingly tender, slathered with aïoli, topped with pickled red onions and then sandwiched by a crusty roll. As if that weren't enough, the drippings from the pan are provided as an au jus, adding extra moisture, indulgence and just straight yum to the experience. I am besotted.

Alongside the sandwich is a "rocket" salad — arugula for those not hip to British farmer slang — simply dressed with lemon and anchovy and adorned with shaved Parmesan. It's clear from the peppery, verdant disposition of the greens that they are as fresh as can be. They're also a tad ... sandy. Which I try my best to ignore, this otherwise being a lunch for the ages. But I can't. I wish my rocket was less rocky.

No. 246 is a restaurant that seems too good to be true and so therefore probably is.

Located in the Ponce de Leon Avenue spot that housed Eurasia for years, No. 246 is stunningly lovely: glossy white subway tile, burnished mirrors, oversized filament light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It is also, thanks to all these hard, glistening surfaces, stunningly loud. Loudness is not a pet peeve of mine, and because of this it took me a while to figure out where my slight annoyance at eating here was coming from. One night, the clue came when my throat began to ache from screaming at my dining companions. Another, I realized that my family and I had not uttered anything all night that hadn't required a, "Huh? What did you say?"

Which is too bad, because most of what we were saying were expressions of enthusiasm for the food placed before us. Belline channels much of the aesthetic he employed at Floataway Café in his years there as chef under Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison. This is straightforward Italian food synthesized through the prism of a Southern location and local ingredients.

A rustic wooden trough acts as a plate for the menu's "toasts," small offerings served in glass jars and accompanied by — you guessed it — toast, which is sometimes pliant and pleasantly oil-laden, and sometimes brittle and dry. What comes in the jars varies by day — sometimes a smoothly decadent pork rillette, sometimes a salty puréed prosciutto conserva. More memorable to me than any of the jarred items was a rabbit terrine found on the charcuterie list that displayed musk and funk in its creamy texture, but mainly provided luxuriant, meaty generosity.

There are a few highlights on the appetizers list beyond toasts, meats and cheeses — a recent cucumber soup provided cooling relief and pops of sweet shrimp, and the No. 246 meatball is a paragon of the genre, mellow and hearty at the same time. But pasta is where the real excitement begins, and I'd urge you to start there with a half order rather than fill up on toasts. No. 246's agnolotti is one of the summer's most memorable dishes — a buttery jumble of sweet corn, delicate pasta, mushrooms, herbs and fresh goat cheese. Pappardelle carbonara sports a prickly panko-crusted egg on top, which breaks open and runs its yellow yolk into the smoky, herb-laden pasta beneath. The egg is visually arresting and a fun gimmick, but also works texturally and practically.

Pastas, in fact, are the menu's one spot where I've yet to find uneven ground. Pizzas and entrées have more pitfalls, although with the pizza, it's all in the toppings — the crust is fabulous; thin, crispy, but with the needed pliant bready pull. I liked the margherita — the sauce's sweetness a perfect balance for the creamy stretch of the mozzarella — although it was a touch too salty overall the day I tried it. Another version, one that sounded intriguing with its arugula and lemon, was just straight odd. The lemon, sliced whole in thin slivers, overwhelmed almost everything else. That pithy rind flavor, plus bursting pops of juice from the flesh, plus bitter peel ... well, I love lemon in almost any form, except, it turns out, in high doses with bread and cheese.

The short list of entrées has recently included a whole roasted fish, which I've had when it was snapper and when it was branzino. It's a simple presentation, topped with shaved fennel and radish, allowing the sweet white flesh of the fish to shine on its own terms. Classic, elegant, lovely.

An equally simple-sounding skirt steak with romesco and roasted potatoes was actually muddied by a peculiar sauce — red wine, perhaps? — that mingled with the romesco and gave the whole dish a strange, off-kilter countenance. Pork sausage comes in a generous curl and is served with a rich, decadent cherry mostarda, but the sweet tang of the mostarda overwhelmed the sausage completely. Which wasn't such a bad thing. While the sausage's flavor was fine, the whole thing lacked fat and turned crumbly and dry as a result.

Booze is a high point — the entire broad selection of Italian wines is available by the glass, and while cocktails can veer into overly sweet or perfumy territory, there's plenty of brown liquor and bitterness to go around as well. Service is casual but competent, although you do have to shout at waiters and vice versa. Desserts right now seem one tiny step behind the rest of the menu — offerings, such as a slightly stiff panna cotta in a jar topped with blueberries, hit all the right notes of seasonality and simplicity, but lack the twinge of excitement.

There's one more thing that must be said about No. 246, which is that it's extremely derivative on all fronts. Everything from the concept to the look of the place to the menu itself is lifted from other restaurants. San Francisco seems to be a particular influence, but New York makes an appearance as well, and one of NOLA's finest provides the inspiration for that panko egg carbonara. Perhaps this matters, perhaps it doesn't. On the one hand, it would be nice for our city's most exciting new restaurant to bring something original to the table. On the other, what Ford and Belline have synthesized from elsewhere and delivered in downtown Decatur is certainly something we can use: a high-quality, modern Italian restaurant that feels welcoming, casual and like the exact right evolution for the neighborhood.

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