Beautifull - and Pricey - in Laurel Village

A new take-out and eat-in shop called Beautifull (3401 California at Laurel, 728-9080) opened last Thursday in Laurel Village. The space recently housed a Cuban coffeehouse (Cafe Lo Cubano), and before that a beloved neighborhood greasy spoon called Miz Brown's Feed Bag.

We dropped in to put the feed bag on during Beautiful's second day of business. It was crowded, both with hopeful buyers lined up along the glass display case and slightly rattled servers behind it. We caught a bit of contact anxiety: customers and servers were equally unfamiliar with the routine, one of the two cash registers was acting up, and the music was too loud.

Beautifull's menu describes it as "a revolutionary new store providing tasty, healthy, and convenient food that is fresh, natural, and whole."

Since "home meal replacement" (i.e., takeout food for those too busy or lacking the skills to cook their own) has been a hot trend in the food world for some time, and Beautifull itself has been in business for some time, preparing food for such places as Blue Fog Market, Berkeley Bowl, and Real Food Company, the revolution seems to be that this is Emeryville-based Beautiful's first retail store, designed by Cass Calder Smith. designer of the trendy San Francisco eateries Lulu, Terzo, and Lar Mar Cebicheria.
So: Beautiful is quite sleek, featuring industrial touches of shiny metal and glass, warm wood, green marble display counters for the prepared foods, and lots of fresh flowers. Tucked away in a narrow back hallway are open refrigerated cases that house already-packaged meals ready to grab and go, some microwaveable, some ready-to-eat (salads and sandwiches). Somewhat confusing illuminated signs overhead tell you what's available that day, and how it's priced. We especially like the large murals of spoons made up of fruits and vegetables. We're not sure that Mr. Smith would approve of the bright blue-and-white plastic "Now Open!" sign hung outside and flapping in the wind.

There's a line of wooden tables (with those familiar slat-back aluminum chairs originally designed for the Navy) clinging to the plate-glass window, and a matching row of tables mirroring them outside, on the other side of the window wall.

We tried one of the "beautifull bowls," Thai chicken curry in a green sauce served over your choice of brown rice or golden quinoa -- we tried the quinoa -- for $11.99. And Moroccan chicken, which we thought was also a "beautifull bowl," but turned out to be in another category altogether, "select 1 entree and 2 sides, $11.99; select a beef or seafood entree and 2 sides, $13.99". (You can also order the entrees and sides by the pound, to go.)

When we realized that the Moroccan chicken wasn't served over the (slightly gummy) brown rice, we told the server we would have chosen another side, if we'd known, and he treated us to a side of the single best thing we had that day: the heirloom shelling bean ragout. We'd return for it, even at $7.99/lb.

Both the curry and the chicken were pleasant, but somewhat underflavored, compared to what you might taste in an authentic Indian or Moroccan spot. The quinoa was nice and fluffy.

Finding drinks was a chore, since some of them are stored under the display counter and others are in the case in the back, and the choices seemed a little esoteric. We grabbed something labeled organic apple and carrot, and it was only after we took an unsatisfying swig that we learned it was something called "First Juice," designed for toddlers, and containing 43% juice. Oops.

We took home a couple of expensive, beautiful slices of rare roasted petite filet of beef (at $16.99/pound, it came to $7.25), with tasty horseradish sauce -- one of us liked the tenderness, but the other found the meat tasteless -- and half-a-pound of very mayonnaisse-y, very tarragoned shredded chicken salad ($6, at $11.99/pound).

We were also tempted by beautiful(l!) rare chunks of tea-smoked salmon ($7.99/piece), and lots of the array of vegetable sides: roasted garlic mashed potatoes ($6.99/pound), citrus salad with ginger and mint ($9.99/pound), golden beet salad with verjus and tarragon vinaigrette ($8.99/pound), which we tried as a side with the Moroccan chicken and found tasty indeed.

The baked goods looked too healthy to appeal to my sweet tooth, but the ginger-blueberry muffin I tried ($2.99, and on the small side) was surprisingly delicious.

On the whole, we thought Beautifull was probably in the right neighborhood to find takers for its somewhat pricey, health-conscious, upscale prepared foods. One tip: the portions dished out from the counter looked bigger for the same price than the pre-packaged microwave meals. Stand in line an extra few minutes and reap the benefits. 
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