Making something out of nothing is what creative types do. There is a thrill about starting from zero, but it can also be paralyzing.
Hemingway understood that about the writing process, calling the challenge of the blank page “the white bull.”
The White Bull, a new farm-to-table restaurant on Decatur Square, takes inspiration from Hemingway’s mantra. It’s a place that serves as a blank slate for the culinary aspirations of owners Pat Pascarella, Pat Siciliano and Gabriele Besozzi.
Pascarella is a 20-year veteran of kitchens, having worked most recently as executive chef at the Optimist before embarking on his own endeavor. Sharing the kitchen with him is Siciliano, the White Bull’s sous chef and Pascarella’s cousin. Besozzi, a native of Milan, has worked in the hospitality industry for years and serves as the restaurant’s general manager. He, like a handful of others on the White Bull staff, clocked time together at the Optimist.
The way the team faces their white bull is through a menu of a dozen and a half small plates. Three-quarters of the menu falls in the New American realm; the remaining is loosely Italian in the form of house-made pastas.
The dining room, one that has seen concept after concept come and go in short order, is newly renovated. Breezy, bright and comfortable — a long banquette holding poufy pillows that invite an unhurried stay — this, too, is part of the clean slate on which to create an experience for diners.
Three-fourths of the dishes change daily. The only constants are an amuse of pickled veggies — a little nibble of crunchy romanesco florets — plus house-made bread and butter, chicken liver toast and roast chicken.
I fell hard for the stuffed squash blossoms, then fell even harder when they were gone from the menu upon a return visit. I’d hoped to taste again that flavor-packed flower. It was fried to a satisfying crispness, the insides filled with silky smooth house-made ricotta and finished with a shower of Parmesan.
I fell for the red pea tortelli, too. The dough was rolled out neither too thick nor too thin, but to a consistency that let shine the earthy flavor of a red peas filling and that of musky chanterelles and white porcini mushrooms scattered here and there around the rectangular-shaped pasta.
Alas, the squash blossoms and tortelli have come and gone.
There’s still the chicken liver toast, though. The mousse-like texture of the pate contrasted nicely with meaty slivers of white king trumpet mushrooms layered atop it and the crunch of toasted bread below.
Servers enthusiastically touted roast chicken, but as juicy as that half-chicken was, and as endearingly simple the composition — just chicken plus seasonal vegetables (on my visit, it was spring onions and baby carrots), it wasn’t a revelation.
Specific dishes don’t stick around for long, but whatever the kitchen creates starts with fresh. The White Bull is headstrong about working with product sustainably grown and raised from nearby purveyors. And Pascarella never buys more than 10 pounds of anything, he said, in part to ensure freshness.
Freshness makes a difference at this small-plates place where adequately portioned offerings are highly vegetable-forward. The upper half of the menu is especially dedicated to produce of the moment. A tomato salad brought quartered maroon-hued heirloom tomatoes on a bed of lettuce with thumb-sized baby gherkins. A delicious green goddess dressing and a swirl of thinned house-made ricotta made the dish especially cohesive.
Neither yogurt dressing nor ground cashews, however, managed to turn a plate of thinly shaved raw summer squash into anything close to an edible work of art.
The kitchen also seems to uphold the ideal that if they can make it in-house, they will. They mill their own red winter wheat, sourced from DaySpring Farms in Madison County, using the flour for bread, as part of the pasta dough, as a tempura batter for trout, and soon, for risotto. They’ve begun to use DaySpring’s corn and mill it to make tamales, tostadas, tacos and polenta, although none was an option during my visits.
The practice of in-house milling is commendable, but the results aren’t always impressive. Much effort goes into the bread — a round rendition of a Sicilian-style focaccia. Yet, whole-wheat flour has a dense quality to it that becomes apparent in the chew. It’s also oily, making house-churned butter redundant.
Pascarella has a passion for pasta, one born from a childhood of making it with his grandmother. The kitchen employs its organic, whole-grain flour to make pasta of all rolled, extruded and stuffed varieties. Yet some — spaghetti, in particular — were on the heavy side. It’s the vegetables, the lighter broths and sauces, that keep them from feeling weighted.
The made-in-house M.O. extends to the White Bull’s capable bar. Dreams of My Youth is a refreshing drink that features a playful house-made Tang. The shrub-like mixer zings with grapefruit, lemons and oranges. Mixed with a tequila infused with clove and cinnamon and served on ice in a Collins glass, it’s a recommendable summertime sipper. That tang holds potential; I’d bet it would taste great with just a jet of fizzy seltzer.
The NY Strip — 25-day-aged organic, certified beef sourced from Stone Mountain Cattle in Forest Park — holds potential, too, if a bit more of the thick strip of fat would get trimmed away. Bite-size sections of flab clung to the edge of every single one of the six slices arranged on the plate. The steak rested atop a soubise, the onion essence of the sauce doing more for the accompanying oversalted sauteed Broccolini than the meat.
The plate came with another misstep: The kitchen had forgotten to add Parmesan slivers, apparently the final flourish for the steak. A server realized the snafu and quickly emerged with a small ramekin of the cheese. That didn’t do much to improve the dish, but it was an instance in which the front of house performed impressively, as was consistent throughout my meals.
Besozzi leads the charge up front. I’ll take his modern version of a career hospitality industry professional any day over the image of the stuffy, formal old-guard European waiter. Gone is any air of pretension. Replaced with his sneakers, the pep in his step and the smile on his face. His waitstaff follows suit in affability and efficiency.
Aspects like house-made everything, guaranteed freshness and vegetables that take center stage are areas where the kitchen, too, demonstrates capability and aspiration. This is all a reason to visit the White Bull. Yet too many compositions are more like drafts instead of final versions. Perhaps that’s because the majority of the menu changes daily. Pascarella said that such constant flux helps “keep the line cooks on their toes.” But the practice might be a bit bullish. Most masterpieces aren’t created on the first try.
The White Bull
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: small-plate farm-to-table
Service: efficient, professional without pretension
Best dishes: chicken liver toast, whichever stuffed pasta is on the menu
Vegetarian selections: options change daily and include at least one vegetarian pasta
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: paid street parking
MARTA station: Decatur
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 123 E. Court Square, Decatur. 404-600-5649