As everyone knows, it’s pretty hard for new restaurants to break into the food scene surrounding Decatur Square. Because there’s no place left to build new real estate around there, the kitchens can be quite expensive and prospective restauranteurs need a very clear concept that can strike a balance in meeting the needs of Decatur’s eclectic community. We’ve been spoiled by exceptional neighborhood cuisine, but we still want it to have a cool vibe, but additionally we don’t want to overpay for plates because our property taxes are already ridiculous. So all this makes for a less than hospitable climate for entrepreneurs, though the payoff for successful experiments is enormous.
There is one restaurant spot in particular that seems especially cursed with a rotation of unprepared concepts—the one between longtime Decatur staples Worthmore Jewelers and Sweet Melissa’s. That long, shotgun-style dining room space and tiny patio is currently occupied by The White Bull. Ernest Hemingway referred to a blank page as the white bull, and the interior is a gorgeously minimalist white that lets the bar display shine. It’s a good looking dining room that isn’t too terribly cramped for such a thin, rectangular space.
The dinner there has already gotten reviews that are solid, so I went for brunch instead. There’s no nice way to say this except to just say it: The White Bull is trying to be all things to all diners, and as a consequence, it is not succeeding in being anything at a level of excellence. If you have a bunch of folks who can’t agree on where to have brunch, The White Bull may be your best answer because everyone will be equally a smidge disappointed. There are many things to enjoy about The White Bull, but the total effect of these things is “meh,” which is disappointing given the obvious intellect and talent of Chef Pat Pascarella.
One things it wants to be is a farm-to-table place. Decatur already has several of those. Most of them have blackboards up all over the walls featuring the local farms and growers that will land on your plate. At a minimum, they tend to list some of these farmers on the menu. The White Bull doesn’t showcase these, and when I pressed a couple random servers about origin stories, none of them could tell me anything beyond some of the names of the farms. The brunch menu listed thirteen plates and eight of them prominently featured eggs. It’s a low bar for them to say where these eggs originate. I asked where they get their espresso. Answer: “I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s local.”
Another thing it wants to be is a from-scratch place. They butcher their own meat in the back somewhere (points for being—I think?—the only ones in Decatur to do this, and may it not become a trend). They make their own butter, and bread, and pasta. And bloody mary mix, but they’d run out of it when I ordered one—at noon on a Sunday, during the high tide of brunch. Other things it wants to be are an Italian place, a tapas place, an unfussy family place and an eventful spot. But ok, let me stop complaining and be sure you know that the food is very good.
The best thing we tried was the mafalde pasta with pecorino and black pepper. The menu advertised this explicitly as “#yolkporn,” and indeed it was. The other stand-out dish was the grits with short rib. The last very good get was something we had as an appetizer that would’ve been equally suited for dessert: the burrata and pumpkin bread with hazelnuts and raisins. Some version of all three dishes at basically the same price are also available on the dinner menu. Not on the dinner menu is their burger: onions caramelized, cheddar aged, bacon made into jam, house bun. It was good, but not good enough to stand tall above the many killer brunch burgers all over Decatur.
The good people at The White Bull seem smart and nice. Their problem is not a blank page, but a too-full one. Is their Italian interpretation any competition for no.246? Are their tapas concepts any match for The Iberian Pig? Can their bar compete with Brick Store Pub or Victory Sandwich? Is their support of local farm stories as visible as Leon’s Full Service? How will they pull people away from the cheap and easy standard brunch at Sweet Melissa’s right next door? Only time will tell, but if The White Bull doesn’t focus its brand into a more excellent experience, I fear they will go the way of so many prior contenders at that address. We have no shortage of good food in Decatur already.
For more about The White Bull, 123 E. Court Square, visit whitebullatl.com.