by Netta Sadovsky, Washington University
Chez Leon, a spacious French restaurant in Clayton, has a constructed sort of comfort, like a spa. I felt oddly welcome, whether securing a reservation from a man with a sultry, radio-ready voice or leaving to a warm “please come again” from several members of the staff as they lifted their drinks in my direction from the bar. Over the course of the meal three different servers made (non-annoying) conversation about school, the Roquefort, the almond cake, and the book I was reading. I’m sure that had to do with how conspicuous I looked (sitting alone with some books and a camera) but I felt that the staff’s warmth went above and beyond.
“Warmth” would be a fitting term for most facets of my experience at Chez Leon, mostly metaphorically. For example, the walls are covered in paintings made not by Ikea, but rather by a friend of the staff named Daniel Byrne whose paintings are sweet, if quirky. A realistic naked male torso hangs alongside a Pollock-like abstraction, next to what looks like a huge apple made of butter.
For the first course I had a mixed green salad with Roquefort and candied walnuts, topped with poached pear. The pear is nice but ultimately less interesting than the sweet walnuts and creamy blue Roquefort. The latter two complement each other perfectly, crunchy sugary walnuts and smooth cheese with a bold blue bite.
The scents of oaky, smoky rosemary from my entre entered my nostrils before I could even give them permission. This dish, the roulade de poulet, is unequivocally wintry: a rectangular piece of braised pork belly and four round cuts of chicken sit on a bed of lentils, cooked carrots, and lettuce. The pork belly, as my server put it, is like bacon but in the form of a pork steak. Instead of the strips of fat and meat in bacon, the fat and meat become horizontal layers, about two inches tall, like a bacon-cake. The round cuts of chicken are each stuffed with a “chicken mousse,” which is pretty much what it sounds like—something with the flavor of chicken and rosemary, but impossibly soft, with the consistency of mousse. The firm lentils underneath the meats make a welcome accompaniment, unadorned and hardy.
The dessert, an almond cake with tart berry sauce, tastes like a mojito thanks to the basil on the cake and alien-green mint drops on the accompanying vanilla ice cream. The cake itself is disappointingly low on almond flavor and somewhat dry. I had a bit of an out of body experience as I watched myself spread butter (from the bread and butter at the start of the meal, which I requested be left on the table) onto the cake. If the accompanying ice cream had been melted and the almond cake doused in that—problem solved.
For its pleasant tinklings of Debussy and quiet conversation at nearby tables (some highlights: “I have four hundred dollars in my pocket”; “cause you know, you don’t win when you do pouty mouth. You don’t get your way and you don’t win.”), and the group effort of making me feel at home, I would say the hospitality at Chez Leon trumps the food. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t go back for the food alone. I would go back for another crisp nibble of pork belly, with its melty-tender insides. Chez Leon pulls through like an all-inclusive French cuisine resort, and I look forward to hearing the silky sounds of that host’s voice when I reserve my next stay.