Outside of ethnic spots, it's rare that a restaurant in our city offers completely unique flavors. I blame it on the continued corporatization of our restaurant scene. A few personalities have come to dominate the upper-end dining scene and, while their initial ventures might have been groundbreaking, their vision seems to get further diluted with each new restaurant. Understand, I'm not saying their food isn't usually good. I'm talking about creative depth.
Beleza (905 Juniper St., at Eighth Street, 678-904-4582), the new project of Riccardo Ullio, is the most unique restaurant to open in Atlanta in memory. Ullio, passionate if nothing else, has already given the city unique flavors at his Italian spots Sotto Sotto and Fritti. But Beleza almost defies description. Marketing material calls it a "celebration of body, nature and indulgence." Oh, yeah.
Start with the fact that it is greatly inspired by a Brazilian cocktail lounge. Drinks are made with exotic fruit juices in sometimes rococo combinations that provide a first impression that you're in a unique place. I don't drink alcohol, so I was limited to choosing a virgin concoction called "Jungle Juice," featuring acerola, açai, citrus juice and guarana (plus Square One organic vodka, if you imbibe). Wayne had a martini featuring fresh grapefruit juice and tupelo honey water.
Ullio plans to offer more juices straight up, but is working out a complication with suppliers for the time being.
The restaurant's appearance is also unique. Ullio has incorporated forms from the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (principal architect of the futuristic city of Brasilia). Tables feature Brazilian hardwoods. There's a bamboo wall and, most notably, a large hydroponic garden covering another wall – very similar to the wall at Bastide in West Hollywood. Sleek and lush all at once.
The food, by the very young chef Michelle McKenzie, is sensuous, gorgeous and brilliantly conceived. First, none of the menu – not the bar's nor the restaurant's – features any sugar, not even in desserts. Instead, McKenzie uses mainly agave nectar, which is completely safe for diabetics. You won't miss the white stuff.
Moreover, there is no dairy used. Fish is from sustainable sources. Produce is organic and local whenever possible.
The entire menu is small plates for sharing by two. Dishes change regularly, and you want to sample as much as you can. We started with a tasting of three crudo (raw fish) dishes. One was pieces of tuna with diced baby beets and lemon confit, backgrounded by a pool of chive oil. Another was baby scallops with lemon, olive oil, fume de sel and a mild curry sauce. Finally there was Florida snapper with passion-fruit salsa and micro cilantro. It is difficult to communicate how surprising these flavors were. The passion-fruit salsa, for example, included seeds that burst with flavor. The tuna and beets synchronized colors and textures, slightly salty flavor and sweet.
A salad of colorful, marinated heirloom tomatoes featured pickled melon rind and a watermelon-cracked-pepper sorbet. Maybe our favorite dish was a plate of sliced Japanese eggplant with a pepper-vinegar relish and black olive salt. It was backed with an almost decadent pine-nut puree.
A plate of quinoa featured the pearly grain with some avocado slices and peppers, along with a spicy molelike cocoa puree. Again: a completely novel taste and a combination that I would never have guessed would taste so good.
We finished with a sorbet sampler and a "study in chocolate." The sorbets included a yellow tomato, an avocado, and an apple with Calvados caramel, cinnamon and walnuts. The chocolate plate came with three flawless truffles (with no sugar), banana confit in cocoa butter and a raw cocoa nib shake with cacau-pulp foam. Yeah, I know, that tells you nothing. Order it.
Beleza, which seats 60, is bound to become a major dining destination. You'll be wise to make reservations. For now, the restaurant doesn't even have a sign up and is doing no advertising. It is, by the way, next door to Ullio's planned Spanish restaurant, Cuerno, whose opening was delayed again when the planned chef decided he didn't want to leave Barcelona to live in Atlanta. And Ullio will have nothing but a great chef.
I've been hearing raves about Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q (1238 DeKalb Ave., 404-577-4030) for several years. For a long time, the two brothers from Fort Worth, Texas, served their 'cue Wednesday nights at Smith's Olde Bar, but they've now opened their own place in the space vacated by Gringos. Judging from the volume of customers I've encountered there during my two visits, I don't think the restaurant is in danger of meeting the fate of earlier tenants of the space.
Barbecue is, of course, our most controversial cuisine – and Texas barbecue varies greatly from the versions you find in the Southeast. For one thing, Texans eat a lot of brisket. For another, the meat is smoked for long periods after being rubbed with spices. This compares with the more common Southern habit of basting meats with sauces as they roast, often over an open fire.
I have to admit that my first visit to Fox Bros. turned up the same complaint I've heard from many others: The brisket was very dry. I lived a few years in Texas, so I'm accustomed to the different style of cooking, but this was way beyond the usual dryness. A second visit, however, turned up much more moist, almost fork-tender brisket.
My favorite, though, is the pulled pork – savory, slightly chewy, crisp in spots. It is also on the dry side, but a huge shot of sauce solves that problem. Ditto for the baby back ribs, which are literally encrusted with spices. The chicken, on the other hand, needed no sauce except as a condiment.
Of side dishes and apps, I liked the fried pickles, the collards and the Brunswick stew. I intensely disliked the fried jalapeños stuffed with cheese and pork.