Google the New York restaurant Pure Food & Wine and you’ll find photos of an uncommonly airy Midtown patio space; portraits of soaring, meatless food architecture; and a forbidding legend: “Permanently Closed.” How one of New York’s hotter foodie destinations got eighty-sixed is the subject of “Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, ”though exactly why it all happened still may seem as cloudy as a quart of kombucha, even after the four episodes of director Chris Smith’s engrossing docuseries.

Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives

Wednesday, Netflix

The enigmatic ingredient is Sarma Melngailis, who took Pure Food & Wine and its takeout offshoot, One Lucky Duck, to the top of the Manhattan food chain after she and celebrity chef Matthew Kenney opened their raw-food eatery in 2004 (with the financial backing of restaurant mogul Jeffrey Chodorow, a very sympathetic source in director Smith’s story). Veganism was hardly as ubiquitous as it is now, but after Mr. Kenney was eased out, Melngailis make the regimen hip and elitist — so much so that when the fugitive restaurateur and her criminal husband were later tracked down on the basis of a Domino’s pizza order, the headline writers were helped in heaven.

Timing had been everything for Melngailis, and it became a principal ingredient in the schadenfreude reduction that was ladled all over an already tabloid-perfect combo platter of embezzlement, brainwashing, reincarnation and faux-espionage. The title “Bad Vegan” doesn’t have the sting now it would have had a few years ago. But the point is made.

What’s not quite nailed down is the culpability of Mr. Smith’s subject, who in some way conforms to a cable-series type — the highly intelligent, beautiful woman who, despite being well-educated (UPenn, Wharton, French Culinary Institute), is conned by a lowlife, whom she would, of course , marry. And who would become a convicted felon herself. Retrospection is everything in these stories, but there’s no question that Melngailis drained almost $ 2 million from the restaurant’s coffers, stiffed her devoted employees, cheated her investors, and perpetrated an enormous fraud on her friends and supporters (such as Mr. Chodorow). But it was all done at the behest of one Anthony Strangis, alias Shane Fox, someone Melngailis had met through one of her loyal celebrity customers (Alec Baldwin) and who sold her a bill of goods involving a mysterious cult-like family, his purported membership in the CIA and “black-ops” missions (to Las Vegas, it turns out). Strangis also promised that at the end of her ordeal, Melngailis — and, just as important, her beloved pit bull, Leon — would be made immortal. Viewers will find themselves rooting for Leon.

As a documentarian, Mr. Smith frequently focuses on twisted stories that conceal something not only profound but distinctly American beneath their surface sensationalism (“Operation Varsity Blues,” for instance, or his early “American Movie”). His documentary “Fyre,” about the misbegotten music festival in the Bahamas, is in line with the current passion for films about dubious business endeavors / perpetrators (Elizabeth Holmes, Uber, Anna Delvey, WeWork, etc.). But with Melngailis, other questions loom. Was she brainwashed? What exactly does that mean? (Smartly, the Patty Hearst case is invoked toward the end of the series.)

Melngailis, who is quite forthcoming about having both enormous debt and no future in restaurants (who would back her?), Was smart enough to agree to the extended interview that serves as the spine of Mr. Smith’s film — and to have recorded her phone conversations with Strangis. His tone and his apparent sociopathy make her look even more gullible in hindsight. But there’s something penitential about her account, a purging of her regret and guilt about her co-workers (many of whom testify here) but also her stupidity, about business and men. She doesn’t play the victim, which makes her sympathetic. If Strangis were your neighbor, you’d move.

The problem, such as it is with “Bad Vegan,” is that the story isn’t naturally a movie subject. It’s a magazine article— Allen Salkin, who wrote one about the case for Vanity Fair, makes frequent appearances here, providing clarifying thoughts about the trajectory of the Pure Food & Wine narrative and his own reservations about Melngailis as a victim. Mr. Smith’s objective is the creation of mood, which he does quite successfully, punctuating an ethereal portrait of the confused Melngailis’s thought process with the recollections of her employees, who were quite confused themselves when the whole drama was on the front burner, so to speak. One wishes composer Dan Romer’s music wasn’t trying so hard to be ominous, but there is a lot of scary stuff in “Bad Vegan.” For Sarma Melngailis, it’s most certainly a horror movie.

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