Every time I go to Decatur, I feel like I'm an extra in a movie set in a small town. Friendly people pace the sidewalks with their friendly dogs or head to friendly coffee shops like Java Monkey, where a poetry reading was underway Sunday night when we passed by. Really, in Decatur, I feel like Mr. Rogers.
Please, won't you be my neighbor? I'll buy you big mugs of draft beer at Leon's Full Service (131 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-687-0500) and feed you slightly strange food. It's a beautiful night to get wasted in this neighborhood.
Actually, I don't drink, but Wayne makes up for that. And he had plenty of company during our Sunday night visit. Leon's, open about 10 days, was packed with a 30-minute wait for a table.
This new gastropub has been opened by the same folks who own the nearby Brick Store Pub. The name derives from its original use as a gas station. Although at least two retail businesses preceded this latest use, there's still a faint ambiance of the filling station, mainly in the large windowed garage door. But most gas stations don't have a boules court right outside the door, as Leon's does.
About a third of Leon's is devoted to a bar area where more than a dozen draft beers are on tap. There's also a wine list and some fancy cocktails, including an absinthe frappe that I told Wayne he could sip while pretending to be Arthur Rimbaud, my favorite poet and absinthe addict. He declined.
Despite the huge crush of customers, we found Leon's operating in orderly fashion – once a server became aware of our existence. After a slight delay with that, we had the promised full service.
The food itself was a mixed success. Contrary to the usual experience, we found the entrees we sampled better than our starters. I was intrigued by an appetizer of "crispy rabbit tenders" and "bacon in a glass" (with a peanut butter "supplement" available), but we ordered the frites, the "pig smörgås" and a chickpea salad to start.
The latter featured Benton's country ham, melted grand cru gruyere, cherry jam and pineapple on toast. This is a play on the Hawaiian toast I've eaten multiple times in Germany, where it is popular for inexplicable reasons. The main problem with Leon's version is that the bread didn't taste toasted at all.
The frites are available with your choice of three coatings from a list of 12. The fries themselves were mainly crispy. Our three selected dips were disappointing, though. The goat cheese fondue was virtually tasteless while the Madras curry ketchup was sharply flavored with the usual bottled seasoning. The black-pepper mayo was weirdly short on the flavor of black pepper.
The best starter – actually listed as a side dish – was the salad of warm chickpeas, dried cherries, basil, cubes of goat gouda and a light red-wine vinaigrette.
Our entrees were far better. I had fork-tender Niman Ranch "pork osso bucco" served with cubes of sweet butternut squash mixed with braised kale. A jus, flavored with an India pale ale, was pooled on the plate. It was a great contrast of flavors – from sweet to slightly bitter – and soft textures.
Wayne ordered North Carolina trout, cooked until its skin was crispy, and served over braised endive and radicchio with an apricot vinaigrette. Chopped cashews garnished the fish. You'll see mountain streams while you eat it.
Dessert was a waffle with whipped cream and shaved chocolate – a notch above carnival food. I would have preferred the seasonal fruit cobbler with brown-sugar whipped cream but I was overruled.
Leon's has a great feeling about it and I'll definitely return. As has been reported widely, the pub auctioned off its first beer on eBay to benefit employees of Trackside Tavern and 5th Earl Market, both of which were destroyed by fire last month. The winning bidders, at $2,560, were the owners of Steinbeck's and Universal Joint – Marshall Davis and Marc and Shelby Brennan. So the place has heart, like much of Decatur.
Here and there
As it happens, we returned to the Porter Beer Bar (1156 Euclid Ave., 404-223-0393), another gastropub, last week. It was a Monday, when the bar conducts its "Recession Session." You get to drown your financial sorrows for $2 a beer.
We had a great meal, starting with Belgian fries cooked in herb and garlic oil, served with a charred-onion mayo. We also ordered a small loaf of Sweetwater "spent grain" bread. It's made from the grain left behind in making beer. Spread it with salty butter and savor the earthy flavors.
Wayne ordered fish (beer-battered flounder) and (more) chips for his entree. I ordered the Riverview Farms organic bratwurst with sauerkraut and Fuji apples, the kind of simple dish of German heritage that's almost impossible to find in our city. Order it.
Chef Nick Rutherford is offering a three-course beer dinner at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24. It will feature loup de mer tartare with lemongrass sauce, beer-braised short ribs with celery-root puree and lavender pound cake with vanilla ice cream. Cost is only $25; another $10 buys you beer pairings. Make a reservation. ...
We had another good meal at Solstice Café in Grant Park recently. The standout dish was my freshwater prawns cooked in unfiltered sake and sugar cane, then sauteed with garlic, andouille sausage and tomatoes. It was served with crunchy risotto croquettes stuffed with basil and pine nuts and a brandy-cream reduction. I want more. ...
I tried the new brisket tacos at the Standard. They are outstanding but need an accompanying sauce to give them some heat.