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Beleza: Beauty and the beast

Giving health food a sexy makeover

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It takes a lot to get me excited about a cocktail. I'm just not that type of girl. Years back, when I was a New Yorker in the era of Carrie Bradshaw and her Upper East Side cosmo-drinking posse, you could find me drinking Irish whisky in Alphabet City.

And so, it comes as a bit of a shock to be genuinely, unabashedly in love with the entire cocktail menu at Beleza. Fresh grapefruit juice is tempered by the warm sweetness of tupelo honey and mixed with Zuidam gin. Whole passion fruits are scooped into the caipirinha de maracuja and offset by organic, muddled limes. The original inspiration for Beleza was the juice bars of Brazil, and although the Brazilian influence does not extend to the food, this cocktail list should have Atlantans dancing the samba.

Beleza, which means beauty in Portuguese, lives up to its name far beyond the cocktail menu. The room is modern but welcoming, with squiggly white light fixtures and black patent alligator banquettes. The wall of living green plants is incredibly cool. Servers are attractive and smart. Unlike the management of some other Midtown eateries, owner Riccardo Ullio hasn't let competence fall by the wayside in order to make room for extreme hotness above all else. But where Ullio has really applied the name and insisted on beauty is in the menu.

With Ullio's help, chef Michelle McKenzie has created a selection of dishes designed not just to look beautiful, but to help make you feel beautiful. My guess is that if you ate at Beleza all the time, you'd actually become more beautiful.

That's because Beleza serves no dairy, no refined sugar and no meat products. Fish is an integral part of the menu, but it is left raw and served as crudo, or cooked sous-vide, meaning slow-cooked at low temperatures in a vacuum-sealed bag. Grains are given as much attention as meat dishes in a traditional restaurant. But forget any notions of nondairy food as bland and unappealing. This food has texture, contrast and flavor in spades.

Among the crudos, there is a rotating list of winning combinations. Recently, fluke with sea beans and thinly shaved radish provided an airy bite of ocean, offset by the crisp snap of radishy earth. Another brilliant contrast of land and sea is the tuna diced up with baby beets and served with lemon confit and chive oil. The meaty tuna meets the musky beet in a pairing that now seems as elemental as bacon and eggs (or grapefruit and honey).

The best tactic is to pick some crudo, some vegetables and some grains, and – in an ominous foreshadowing of Beleza's greatest flaw – load up on those grains if you want any chance of becoming full.

But before we get to the downsides, let's pause for a minute to admire the perfect plate of quinoa with a spicy raw cocoa puree and avocado. Nutty quinoa, rich dense cocoa, creamy avocado.

Pine-nut puree and bell peppers match well with a serving of local eggplant, but the eggplant's flesh retained some of its spongy resilience, lacking both the crisp snap a hard cook in a saute pan would have provided, or the creamy interior a long roast might create.

The sous-vide fish is more substantial than the other menu options, but the cooking style works better with rich fish than it does with the lighter white varieties. Halibut can be bland and almost slimy, but buttery wild salmon holds up nicely.

There are other, small issues that will be remedied with time. A promising raw amberjack one evening was still stiff from the freezer. Some desserts do suffer from the lack of dairy, as sorbet and fruit sometimes become watery and confused rather than sharply focused. But a brilliant chocolate tart made with coconut milk is an after-dinner savior.

The real problem is this: Beleza is expensive. These small plates are really small, and all hover around the $10 mark. To get full, it's easy to need five or six plates, and more if you don't go heavy on grains.

"Everyone wants to be green, to be an environmentalist, but no one wants to pay for it," said Ullio when I spoke to him by phone last week. It's hard not to feel for the guy. He has a conundrum on his hands.

The reason for the high prices at Beleza is that McKenzie uses exclusively local and/or organic produce. Because food here has no animal fats, no sugar and no dairy, it's not filling in the traditional American, eat-till-you're-stuffed way. Beleza is expensive due to the high price of the ingredients, and customers aren't getting full, even after spending more than they had planned. And so, as Ullio is fully, sadly aware, people feel as though they aren't getting their money's worth.

As a result, there may already be some changes in the works for the restaurant. It may have to be less health-conscious, use more produce that isn't strictly local and organic, do what many other semi-socially conscious restaurants in town do and use the good stuff "when available."

It's hard to admit that we aren't willing to pay for what we believe in. I love Beleza's angle, but damn, it's hard to drop that much cash and walk away hungry. Even so, I know there will be some nights when those cocktails alone are going to be worth the price of admission.

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