One of my brains -- the sensible brain, the Bauhaus brain, the brain that always makes me quit smoking and pay my parking tickets -- this brain yearns perpetually for a sanctimonious supper of spinach salad. The ideal version will consist of small, tightly crinkled leaves, a few crumbles each of Roquefort and applewood-smoked bacon, a whoosh of red-onion dice, a whisper of walnut oil and nine drops of 30-year-old Compagnia del Montale balsamic vinegar. This brain then instructs me to float lightly to the sofa for the Seinfeld rerun and call it a night. But the other -- the wanton brain, the Wildean brain, the brain that never knows it's had enough until it's had more than enough -- this brain always wants me to phone a French restaurant, don the gay raiment and affix my heinie to an upholstered banquette for two vivid, buttery hours of libidinous gourmandise. My brains begin wrestling each other every day at around noon. Sometimes their combat is so exhaustive that they cancel each other out, and I end up face-down in a pizza at the Way Out Club.
Last week, however, it transpired that the butter brain overthrew the spinach brain in a rare coup. When I regained consciousness, I beheld a magnificent specter: a bottle of St. Julien cradled in flickering candlelight by a white-aproned waiter. My deepest instinct is to nod appreciatively at anyone with a bottle of Bordeaux in her possession; it is this gesture that most often results in the wine being opened and poured. I was delighted that at Chez Leon (for this was where tonight's compulsion had led me) natural laws governing wine and nodding are strictly enforced. Within seconds the first sip was down the hatch. Several of my glands throbbed with anticipation at how swell this stuff was going to taste 20 minutes later.
It turns out that the much-anticipated Chez Leon, its facade emblazoned with the heart-warming legend "cuisine traditionelle," is the most civilized addition to Euclid's foodie mecca since Bar Italia. You are going to love it.
For one thing, you'll look good in the soft light from two enormous alabaster saucers suspended from a 20-foot ceiling; facial wrinkles are erased by a tabletop candle glittering inside a little lantern. You'll appreciate the manageable scope of the short menu, in French with English subtitles. You'll either admire or not notice (they amount to the same thing) the velvety, graceful tact of the servers, who have ESP and who pamper you without getting in the way. You'll enjoy the look and feel of fine dining -- white linen, sparkly table settings, noiseless elegance -- at bistro prices (at 28 bucks, the three-course prix-fixe option is the way to go). And best of all, you'll remember why cuisine traditionelle used to be your favorite food.
I know. You have forgotten about real French food. This is because one bleak day back in the '70s (the decade that brought you granola, the Pritikin diet and aerobics) all hell broke loose: A guy named Michel Guérard went on a diet, became deranged and invented cuisine minceur. Guérard, one of only a handful of three-star Michelin chefs then working in Paris, was convinced that cooking with saccharin was a good idea. Against all odds, his lipophobic notions caught on. Unfortunately, an important point eluded his imitators: Few cooks are gifted enough to pull off stunts like that. Be that as it may, butter and cream -- mainstays of all right-thinking French chefs since the dawn of cafe society -- vanished like dodo birds from chic menus the world over. Roux has been a dirty word ever since. Broth is now a cutting-edge "sauce."
So imagine my happy surprise when a trio of beef medallions arrived with three classic, kick-ass sauces, each richer than the one before. The stuff was actually poured over the meat, rather than squirted on the plate in those pesky, inexplicably fashionable squiggles. Here was a warm, cozy blanket of Madeira sauce with shallots, a deep, seductive brandy reduction with plump morels, and -- no way! Was this really a béarnaise, that beef-loving staple of haute cuisine for more than 160 years? Nobody does béarnaise anymore, yet here it was in all its buttery, yolky, artery-clogging glory, a downy pouf atop my perfectly medium-rare chunk of tenderloin. Pinch me! At the center of this homage to Escoffier, an amusing textural foil: three golf-ball-sized pommes dauphine (or mashed-potato fritters, as we South Siders call 'em). The dish was a triumph.
By now you will have surmised that Chez Leon is hardly the home of the light supper. Owner Leon Bierbaum wants to put some meat on your bones. When a dish is light on the lipids, expect him to make up the difference in volume. From an appetizer list that included foie gras and escargots in garlic butter, I demurely selected oysters on the half-shell, hoping to make it all the way to dessert. No dice; these were some of the bulkiest specimens I've ever seen -- brick houses, if you will, and so mighty-mighty with their classic vinegar-shallot dressing that I sucked down every last glistening one. Ditto the plump steamed mussels, which overwhelmed their aromatic, wine-scented broth with sheer numbers. Not that I'm complaining. You can't have too many mussels when they're done right, and that broth was just the thing to dunk bread in.
The soups strutted some major cojones, too. One of these -- our server called it "farmer's soup," though this incarnation was of decidedly regal bearing -- was a delectable and filling convocation of carrots, celery, chunks of potato. A preponderance of bacon infused its sumptuous broth with an irresistible smokiness. Along the same rich-and-hearty lines, the soupe à l'oignon was a sterling example of the classic preparation: a slew of tender caramelized onions, a chunk of bread, a luxuriant stock, gooey cheese. An especially nice touch was the heavy, oversized soup spoon; too big for the human mouth, it was the perfect excuse to make juvenile slurping noises.
Despite the genteel surroundings, I had the impression that slurping was A-OK around here. I overheard one customer confide to Bierbaum that, were he at home, he would sop up his wonderful sauce with bread. "But you should always sop!" his host entreated. "Sop away! This is a bistro!"
Permission to sop coincided happily with the arrival of a broiled grouper swimming in a lordly garlic cream; I armed myself with bread and dug in. The fish was exactly right: crisped on the edges, succulent in the center and of excellent texture. The sauce, though rich beyond my dreams, was somehow not the least bit heavy, and the garlic quotient was perfectly attuned to the mild flesh of the grouper. Garnished simply with a circle of warm grape tomatoes, the dish was an excellent argument for traditional presentations that do not sacrifice quality for flashy foodie architecture. Who wants to wait while the plater turns your dinner into the Eiffel Tower?
The roasted chicken, fancied up with a light morel sauce, was another success. Surrounded by a passel of expertly cooked vegetables, it was nothing less than the Platonic ideal of roasted chicken. The aroma alone sent me into raptures.
The only dish I didn't love was the rabbit in mustard sauce. Perhaps I was on overload by the time I got around to tasting it, but it seemed to me that the sauce was a bit clumsy: overbearingly floury and not quite mustardy enough. The rabbit itself, however, was tender and juicy (and, yeah, it sort of tasted like chicken), and I'll try it again just to see whether it was me or the chef having the off night.
We hit another snag when we could find nothing on the menu for our vegetarian, but this was easily resolved with a quick inquiry. The resulting bounty of vegetable dishes was beautiful and tasty: ratatouille (which was refreshingly devoid of the usual gloppy tomato sauce), a melange of sautéed wild mushrooms, fragrant white rice, green beans, a tomato broiled with garlic and herbs. Arguments persist concerning the identity of one last item: Was it a creamy spaghetti squash or the loveliest, mildest sauerkraut ever? Either way, it was delicious.
After this luxurious feast, dessert seemed a ludicrous notion, but I had to order the tarte Tatin anyway. You would have done the same thing. Served à la mode, Chez Leon's house-made version of the Loire Valley's famed upside-down apple pie didn't mess around. Apples. Sugar. Butter. Lots of butter. My butter brain wouldn't have had it any other way.
CHEZ LEON, 4580 Laclede, 361-1589. Hours: Tue.-Thu. 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m.; closed Mon. Three-course prix-fixe: $28.
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