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The word is out on 1223 Belle B, the year's stellar newcomer. 

Tasting is Believing

1223 Belle B
1223 Bellevue Ave.
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m.
261-4500

Word of mouth worries me. It can be dangerous, setting ridiculously high expectations that the real experience can't possibly match.

The word about 1223 Belle B has been a rumble on the restaurant-starved North Side for months. The neighbors watched the former neighborhood bakery and bistro be transformed from institutional plain to a restaurant with a fanciful interior. The word became a shout when they opened the doors and started putting food on the tables. Early reports were stellar.

Now, I'll add my voice to the chorus.

Belle B is a bright star of 1999. I'd bet that any choice any patron would make from this menu would be successful.

Belle B respects people's love of basic foods prepared perfectly with top-notch ingredients and pleasant adjustments of flavors. I'm absolutely sick of raspberry purees garnishing desserts. Belle B offers a crisp spearmint syrup with its refreshing key-lime ice cream which is wrapped in a phyllo cup ($6). A bit of the bracing mint amplified its dense and divine bittersweet chocolate tart ($6) as well. I'm also sick of variations on mashed potatoes and boring salads, but Belle B's potatoes are the best I've eaten and the salads are perfection.

Food is arranged on the plate rather than being dressed. This is a subtle but significant difference. And our choices were beautifully presented at the perfect temperatures. I loved the absence of puffery on these plates, the fact that the food — topped by a mint leaf or a sprig of thyme or ringed by roasted vegetables — was the star.

The chef is constantly adjusting Belle B's menu. Choices are few but each possibility is intriguing.

We settled on a salad of arugula and watercress ($7) tossed with a gracious key-lime vinaigrette. Slices of just ripened, sweet Bartlett pears, grape tomatoes and goat cheese complemented the tender watercress and assertive arugula. I adored this salad for its honesty and purity. We also adored a generous serving of smoked rainbow trout ($7), which came atop a piping-hot sweet corn cake. (I'd swear the corn was out of the husk and trimmed from the cob minutes before it went into the batter). Mixed greens and peppered melon balls finished this hot appetizer.

The chef prepares one fresh fish daily; we tried the snapper ($22) and we're glad of it. Accompanied by roasted red bliss potatoes, this nice portion was meltingly tender and served in a light broth seasoned with the salty-fishy sea bean, the edible marine plant that's abundant along the Atlantic coast.

We were just as happy with our grilled leg of lamb, five ample slices for $17. The medium-rare portion was plated with the ubiquitous mashed potatoes. These were prepared with pecorino Romano — a hard Italian dry cheese made from sheep's milk. I've eaten fancy mashed potatoes all over town and these were singular: robust and hot and studded with lumps. A generous dusting of steaklike shiitake mushrooms, spinach and pea pods finished the plate.

Our waitress was wonderful. She was careful and polished, and she made me realize how long it's been since I've been so well cared for by a server. The wine list is thoughtful and offers nice opportunities by the glass. In fact, almost everything is thoughtful.

Belle B feels inviting and fresh. Flowers in blue glass vases greet you at the front door and dress every table. Seated promptly, we were made to feel welcome. The water boy was at our side before we'd had a nanosecond to look around.

Restaurant interiors should respect the purpose of the customers' visit: To sit comfortably with friends and eat and drink and spend foolish quantities. People are not birds. They don't do this well perched on twigs. This promising restaurant gives guests a choice of a spiny chair fit for a tall elf or a backless stool that belongs on a kiddie carnival ride. If this restaurant fails it will not be because of the food, but because of the stupid chairs. I spotted one comfy booth and on return visits will try to claim it.

Despite the silly seating, I will go back. If I can get in. The word is
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