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A sampling of the new chef's offerings

Riccardo Ullio has good news. By the time you read this, Cuerno (905 Juniper St.), his long-awaited Spanish restaurant, will be open. The owner of Sotto Sotto, Fritti and the new Beleza has had a long haul, trying to open what will almost certainly be the most authentic Spanish restaurant in town.

Cuerno is located next door to Beleza, which I visited last week after receiving many comments about changes in the restaurant's rather esoteric opening menu. I ran into Ullio – yes, he knows my face – and our discussion of the cuisine at Cuerno pretty much exemplifies what's happened at Beleza.

I asked him if Cuerno would be featuring any of the more avant-garde cuisine for which Spain has become famous in recent years. I was specifically referring to the "molecular cuisine" of Ferran Adria.

"Are you crazy?" Ullio replied. "I'm going to have enough trouble convincing anyone in this city to eat a squid-ink paella, much less trying to get them to eat a foam or jelly made out of cuttlefish."

"Well," I replied, "Richard Blais seems to do all right."

"And what happened to the last restaurant where he worked and where is he working now?" Ullio snapped back.

Ouch. The last place, Element, closed and Blais is a consultant for Elevation in Kennesaw now, although rumors are circulating of yet another staging of the bad boy's fascinatingly weird and delicious cooking.

But back to Beleza. Opening chef Michelle McKenzie is gone, by mutual agreement, according to Ullio. "We just couldn't agree on things," he said.

The "things," apparently, boiled down to costs. McKenzie's menu – featuring entirely organic and/or local produce and fish served raw or cooked in the tricky sous-vide style – was expensive to prepare. And diners had to order a lot of it to fill up.

"People," Ullio said, "would come in and order a few grains and ..."

"Stop on the way home for a hamburger?" I said.

"Exactly," he replied "People either thought it was weird or loved it, but didn't come back because it was too expensive or they couldn't get full. We're still using organic and local ingredients when we can afford to, but I'm not going to pay $20 for a pound of organic pine nuts. I have to charge a fortune."

The new chef is Ken Bouche, who was Beleza's original sous chef and will also be heading the kitchen at Cuerno. Ullio's attempts to hire a chef from Barcelona were frustrated, but a consulting chef from Spain has been on hand to develop the menu and work with Bouche.

I certainly don't think Beleza's quality has declined under Bouche. I do miss the sous-vide fish, but I'm not surprised it was excised. "It was unpredictable," Ullio said. "Sometimes it would come out perfect. Other times it was inedible." Most critics agreed.

The menu is still in development, and there were three ceviches the evening of our visit. But the change definitely swings to the more substantial, such as an oxtail stew that was utterly delicious, made with Strube Ranch Kobe oxtail, butternut squash, black-eyed peas and kale. It was a larger-than-tapas-size portion, more like a "media ración," in Spanish terms.

We were particularly impressed with Bouche's Georgia white-shrimp moqueca, a stew considered to be the test of many Brazilian kitchens. The dish originated in Africa, and Beleza's is typical of the Bahia state in northeast Brazil, which features the country's spiciest food. Besides a generous heap of flavorful shrimp, the dish features organic coconut milk, cilantro, cashews, fiery Malagueta chilies and, most interesting of all, extra-virgin red palm oil. Its filtration eliminates the usual unhealthy fats in palm oil and leaves behind a completely unique flavor. The dish reminded us somewhat of Thai curries, but the palm oil definitely adds a unique note.

Grains are still featured at Beleza, in larger portions. Do not fail to order the "forbidden rice," black, heirloom whole-grain rice with squash, yellow raisins, pistachios and cilantro pesto. It's a stunning range of textures and flavors – savory and sweet, nutty and fruity, all backgrounded by the velvety black rice.

Farro, a grain familiar to me from Italian dishes, is here combined with heirloom beans, a touch of truffle oil, some arugula and smoked San Marzano tomatoes. We ate it with a plate of cheese – a mild Gorgonzola and a creamy, slightly sour chèvre that was especially good with the sweet star-fruit compote accompanying it. Feather-light Sardinian flatbread was almost too thin for the cheese.

Finally, of course, we had to try the new erotic chocolate menu from Kristin Hard. I know what you're thinking. But, yes, a woman with the last name of "Hard" is making chocolates with aphrodisiac qualities. Don't be juvenile.

For the present, there's only a plate of three of the aphrodisiacs available. And don't try to eat them in just any order you want or someone will slap your hand. Your erotic stimulation depends on the sequence of consumption of the dark, exotically flavored chocolate. Among the ingredients in the three are passion fruit, guarana, coconut, catuaba bark, maca root, suma root and Aztec aphrodisia. Yum yum yum.

I did not get a buzz above or below, although Ullio said he definitely feels the stuff. In fact, the restaurant had run out of all but one order of the chocolates, and he extracted a second from his briefcase.

"Oh, you carry these around to slip into a woman's drink?" I asked.

"No, you just have to hold chocolate in front of a woman and she will immediately crave it ... not that I need the help," he said.

As if.

Beleza has also added alcohol-free juices and sodas to its menu, along with the exotic cocktails. Be careful. As it turned out, the server set Wayne's cocktail in front of me and my soda in front of him. The ingredients are so exotic, who can tell what's what? I drained his cocktail quickly, not having a clue there was booze in the glass. It was my first drink in more than 20 years. Woo hoo! Let's party!

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the Spanish chef and molecular gastronomist. His name is Ferran Adria.



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