Fine French restaurants are swell places. But we have an equally strong affection for bistros, the (usually) smaller, less fussy spots serving traditional food the way it’s been served for the past hundred years or so. Bistro food is about the closest you can get to French grandma–excuse us, grandmere–cooking unless you have a grandmere of your own. Chez Leon offers bistro fare in a setting that looks right, too; the long dining room has a red plus banquettes below a narrow mirror along one wall, plus recognizable coat and hat racks and doors that will open to the sidewalk of the Central West End when spring returns.
The menu offers a prix-fixe meal, three mix-and-match courses from the menu, for $38; a few items carry a surcharge. Everything also is available a la carte, so if you’re thinking about just a salad and then some dessert, that’s fine.
A recent visit began with one of the great bistro standards, salade Lyonnaise. Tender lettuce is lightly dressed with a little oil and vinegar and topped with a poached egg and crunchy lardons, pieces of bacon. Not bacon bits, but respectably thick half-inch pieces, irresistible to the wide world of bacon lovers. Potato and leek soup was deeply flavored with the leeks, and the note of cream smoothed everything out without making the soup overly rich.
But the winner among our first courses was the foie gras. A perfectly seared chunk–now there’s rich–was paired with a toasted brioche and a little warm cabbage salad, which included a bit of bacon, more for flavor than crunch. The foie gras was luscious and absurdly rich, the way it should be. Making everything even better was a brioche that was particularly yummy, with its light sweetness and a hint of orange. There’s a $2 surcharge for this item, worth every penny.
Onglet is the French word for a hanger steak, which arrived properly sliced across the grain. Hanger is a deeply flavorful cut, not exquisitely tender but very beefy, for the serious carnivore. Leon serves it with a smooth, tangy bearnaise sauce, the tarragon spreading its savor. The current version of the pommes frites, or French fries is good, not fabulous, but a considerable improvement on the last time we had them.
The skate sauce was another classic, primarily brown butter and capers. The tang of the capers is a great foil to the mild, oddly textured fish, and this was a great rendition. Both the steak and skate arrived with small green beans, fresh and sweet carrots and some absolutely delicious red cabbage, sweet-sour with a slight note of juniper.
Dessert always is a big question here. Apple tart, usually something chocolate, ice cream? We usually succumb to a souffle. Surprisingly, not many places do them any more. Our recent visit offered raspberry souffles, and it was worth our while. Warm and puffy with a creme anglaise custard sauce, from the first bite to scraping down the sugar-coated edges of the dish, it charmed.
The wine list, not surprisingly, is all French, with some interesting by-the-glass choices to explore.
Very occasionally over the years have we found problems with service at Chez Leon. We certainly didn’t on this visit. Proprietor Leon Bierbaum is always on hand and happy to discuss the menu, the wine list, his travels, his meals and most everything else, like the good, gracious host of a bistro in the heart of Paris.
4580 Laclede Ave.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair Access: Good
Smoking: Yes (only in the very separate bar)
Entrees: 3-course prix fixe, $38; a la carte, $24-$48