The walls of Chez Leon are shockingly dark, a shade that's not quite jet black, but much deeper than the richest, most burnished wood. The color of Coca-Cola, say. Anchored on these walls are oil paintings, still lifes of food, mostly, that seem to float in space around you. It's disorienting at first, like the first minutes of a 3-D movie, as your eyes struggle to adjust to the unexpected depths. Yet as you settle into your meal, the effect is weirdly successful: You're set adrift from the petty concerns of more casual restaurants. You can lose yourself in the experience.
And you want to lose yourself at the new Clayton location of Chez Leon. I say this as a person with no sentimental attachment to owner Leon Birnbaum's original Central West End restaurant. I never dined there before it closed last fall. (The space is now Brasserie by Niche.) Maybe because today's food scene is in such flux — on the one hand, our knowledge of and access to the world's cuisines is growing exponentially; on the other, chefs and diners are growing increasingly sensitive to issues of sustainability, with more and more produced and sourced locally — there is something deeply compelling about turning back the clock for an evening to a time when France was the undisputed heavyweight champion of cuisine, Escoffier the king of the kitchen.
As you work your way through Chez Leon's appetizers, you might find chef de cuisine Colby Erhart and his staff coming close to this ideal. Foie gras paysanne brings two thin slices of seared liver splashed with a sweet Sauternes reduction and served alongside a mixture of cabbage and plump lardons. The combination of foie gras and bacon is pure indulgence, the stuff of last meals. Escargots à la Bourguignonne is a classic dish executed very well; each snail is tender and dripping with a strong garlic-fennel butter. A generous portion of veal sweatbreads — perfectly seared, the exterior crisp, the interior possessing that unique, almost creamy softness — is dressed with sauce of black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms, with the richness of the dish nicely cut by capers.
Yet even here there are signs of trouble — or, rather, of boredom. Both the coquilles St. Jacques à l'estragon and the housemade pâté are tired, as if the kitchen is merely going through the motions. The former brings diver scallops, slightly overcooked, in a too-understated shallot beurre blanc. In the latter case, a serving of chicken-liver mousse is pleasant, if unremarkable, while a thick slice of country pâté is underseasoned, only vaguely porky. Of course there is French onion soup, a rather ordinary version buried beneath the expected cap of melted cheese. If I might skip ahead, desserts suffer from a similar been-there-done-that quality: flourless chocolate cake, plain apple tart.
Entrées are perfunctory, and, worse, here the kitchen's technique begins to slip, too. I was mildly concerned when our server didn't ask how I wanted my seared veal chop cooked — a rare oversight amid otherwise excellent service — but what arrived was beyond anyone's idea of a proper temperature, the meat too tough for a brandy sauce to save. Beef tenderloin was an excellent cut cooked to the appropriate temperature, a lovely dusky red, but its accompanying béarnaise sauce was a disaster. There were no notes of vinegar, wine, shallots, herbs — no notes of anything, really, except a custardlike eggy sweetness that clashed with the meat.
Both the chop and the tenderloin were served with potatoes gratin and green beans. Each side dish was fine on its own but symptomatic of the restaurant's larger lack of inspiration. If you can look past potatoes and green beans, consider that salmon and duck entrées as well as a special tuna dish were served with plain ol' white rice as a side. It's difficult not to imagine some kind of cafeteria setup in the kitchen, with vast hotel pans of potatoes and white rice waiting to be slopped onto each plate.
Of those white-rice entrées, the duck à l'orange is the safest bet. Though the sauce is restrained, the duck breast is prepared as you would hope, the skin browned to render the delicious fat beneath, the meat twilight-purple at the center. The salmon was overcooked; the tuna was the correct temperature (rare) but swaddled in an unnecessary sauce with the cloying sweetness of a kids' breakfast cereal.
If nothing else, a French restaurant, upscale or casual, should serve a decent steak frites. Chez Leon goes the high-end route, pairing fries with a strip steak smothered in maître d'hôtel butter. (Hanger steak is also available, though this is served with that bland béarnaise. Proceed with caution.) The fries are good, crisp outside, soft inside, salty throughout, but my steak was an inexcusably poor cut, the meat threaded with gristle.
These problems would stand out at any restaurant, but they're especially galling at one as expensive as Chez Leon. There is a prix-fixe option, which brings any three courses for $40, though you will pay a supplement for certain choices (the foie gras and beef tenderloin, for example). However, even with this option, tax, tip and beverages (not to mention valet parking, more or less a necessity in Clayton) are going to push even two frugal diners well past $100.
This is a shame, because the restaurant is primed to be a standout. Service is exemplary: efficient, but never rushed; friendly, but not fawning. The wine list is well curated, with Leon Birnbaum himself happy to act as sommelier for his selection of French whites and reds. And there are excellent little touches, like individual French presses of coffee (even decaf).
Yet as a whole, Chez Leon fails to deliver the transcendent experience that has made French haute cuisine the touchstone for gourmands everywhere. And if you do manage to lose yourself in its beguiling black dining room, it will be all too literally.
Where are we? And how did we get here?