Leopold | Restaurant review
A West Town restaurant takes Belgian food from the bar to the dining room.
There’s something disharmonious happening at Leopold. Something between the menu and the room.
The room—the space formerly known as Relax, which was, for lack of a better term, a “rock lounge”—has a yellow glow, the light from chandeliers bouncing off the leather chairs and banquette. The walls are decorated with framed pieces of monochromatic art, which heightens the gallery feel of the place. There’s music here—the indie stuff you’d expect from a place in West Town—and yet the space feels a little hushed. Even when almost full, as it has been on the weeknights I’ve visited, the room has a quietness to it. Here, even the most heavily bearded and mulleted West Town hipsters take on something of a regal look.
But where the room is soft-spoken, the menu is loud. Put together by chef Jeffrey Hedin, who revamped the food at Leopold’s owner’s other spot,‚ it has two distinguishing features: It’s all Belgian (or at the very least Belgianish), and it’s all meant to be shared. Perhaps it’s because rowdy beer halls are the stereotype for Belgian restaurants—and indeed the Belgian spots we’ve got (Hopleaf, the Publican) follow that formula with success—but this is a menu that begs to be paired with a livelier room and a beer list.
Defaulting to beer would ignore the rest of Leopold’s beverage program, however, which includes a noble lineup of mostly small-batch spirits, and a list of four cocktails. Among those cocktails is the Lost in Flanders, a mix of gin, lemon bitters, basil syrup and St. Germain elderflower liquor. It’s a little sweet and a lot floral, and a nice aperitif. But it’s not quite bold enough to stand up to Hedin’s pierogies, which he makes by hand and crisps in lots of brown butter. Wine or beer, both of which Leopold cultivates with intelligence and restraint, would do the trick better. Likewise for the big flavors of Hedin’s mussels steamed in white wine and curry. The mussels, cooked so perfectly they exhibited not an ounce of rubberiness, are among the best in the city. And if Hedin ever fixes the limp, hand-cut fries, the dish could quickly top its competitors.
It pays to stick to the top of the menu here, where those mussels and other appetizery dishes reside. There’s a nice steak tartare up there, classically executed with an egg yolk. And there’s a rabbit terrine, punchy with barely crushed black peppercorns. The lower you get on the menu, though, the more risks you take. Smoked rabbit leg with mustard spaetzle had all the right flavors happening—the meat was rich, the spaetzle sprightly, the prune glaze sweet—but it was not evenly cooked, leaving some bites sumptuous and other bites dry. The braised short rib, on the other hand, was skillfully prepared and tender throughout. What was missing was flavor. (The simultaneously crispy and creamy potato cake that comes with the short rib, however, has flavor to spare.)
Lower still on the menu is a list of sides, perhaps the most dangerous arena of all. Braised endive, prepared with cream and cheese in a gratinlike presentation, was so gloppy it was almost impossible to remove from its ramekin. (The bitter flavor of the stuff will make you wish it had stayed there.) And while a soft pretzel is perfectly decent, as soft pretzels go, it doesn’t exhibit the decadent or distinguished trait that would set it apart from carnival fare.
In a crowded bar where you can’t hear yourself chew, Hedin’s food would probably get raves. It’s only under the soft spotlight of Leopold’s hushed dining room that any shortcomings become noticeable. Taking your meal at the bar could help matters. But you might want to bring a large group of loud people with you—and maybe an iPod with the volume turned up—just to be safe.