No. 246, hailed as the latest great addition to downtown Decatur’s increasingly hip restaurant scene, offers its Chef’s Counter as a unique dining experience to distinguish itself from the rest of the fare on Decatur Square. There are four front row seats to the kitchen action, available for reservation any day of the week, where diners will be treated to a five-course menu for $50, plus the chance to chat with Chef Drew Belline.
Getting the special spot on a Friday night was no easy task, and I booked two seats over a month in advance. After we sat down, Chef Belline spent two or three minutes politely saying hello, and then introduced sous chef Andrew Thomas as our guide for the night. That was all we saw of Belline, as his workstation is actually entirely out of view of the Chef’s Counter. Thomas is more than capable in the very busy kitchen, but not too interested in conversation. His mind was always at the stove, and though he cooked and presented most of our courses himself, he was short on words for the four of us at the counter. If diners are expecting any entertaining rants and raves about local farms, menu decisions, or other foodie topics, they will be disappointed. As an experience, the Chef’s Counter might be more suitable for industry people who know how to read a kitchen unassisted.
But let’s get to the food. The restaurant promises five courses, and Thomas actually delivered eight. For fifty bucks, there is no way to accomplish a similar coursing in the restaurant’s dining room. So for the value and for the breadth of dishes offered, the Chef’s Counter can’t be beat. Many of the dishes were off-menu, heavy on root vegetables and mushrooms like many winter menus are, and they offered a strong case for Thomas’ apparent passion for sauce. On the whole, it was a meal that built steadily and satisfied entirely, if somewhat predictably. The ingredients were local, and the cooking was fairly classical. Here’s the breakdown:
Bread: Any Atlantan could recognize this as the fine work of the bakers at Holeman & Finch. Paired with the usual EVOO, some actual olives, and a pinch of Italian spice.
Amuse: Two icy oysters on the half shell with a dash of champagne and greenery, served in a charmingly irregular clay bowl for a touch of personality.
Soup: Celery root puree riff on the menu’s parsnip soup, with a dash of greenery and aged balsamic. Served in a glass shooter and guaranteed to warm the bones almost as much as the restaurant’s lovingly crafted cocktails. (Side note: I only saw women behind the bar while I was there, which is a welcome change of pace from all the dudes making similarly intelligent cocktails at nearby establishments.)
Flatbread: Straight off the menu, with mushrooms, prosciutto, aged balsamic and greenery. The meat was shaved on the thicker side, adding an extra delicious dose of salt. For the striking presentation, served layered into a deeply rounded wooden plank, there is a price to pay when the dish ends up being somewhat awkward to dig into.
Fish: Trout prepared like the one on the menu, but with different accents. Pan-seared for a great crispy skin, plus house-made gnocchi and some broccoli. Nicely made, though not with much flair.
Beef: Beautiful cut of flatiron steak done medium rare, with more sunchokes and mushrooms, all soaked in a rich red wine sauce. Looked good on the plate and tasted even better.
Cheese: A domestic cow’s milk with the consistency of taffy, made sparkling by a pool of honey, hazelnuts and candied ginger. Worked as a solid palate cleanser before dessert, and the only surprise in the coursing.
Dessert: Chocolate ice cream with candied hazelnuts in a waffle cone. The house-made cones are something of a signature menu item, and although completely delicious, perhaps not entirely the best choice for a finish on the winter menu.
So, should you try the Chef’s Counter at No. 246? Yes, it’s likely worth doing once, because the food is pretty great. It’s a good introduction to the styles on the menu, but not the atmosphere of the place. The experience itself, of chatting with the chef and getting a peek at what goes on behind the scenes, is not a selling point. I suspect the wait staff in the dining room affords better opportunity for amusement than the kitchen staff – and rightly so: cooking belongs in the kitchen, and conversation belongs at the tables. There’s no reason to put Andrew Thomas under a showbiz spotlight – it’s hot enough in his kitchen already.
To make a reservation for the Chef’s Counter, visit www.no246.com.