It’s a rare but beautiful thing when a restaurant inhabits its surroundings so thoroughly that it immediately feels like an intrinsic part of a city’s landscape. Leon’s Full Service, located in the former gas station that was most recently Rue de Leon, has managed to become such a natural part of Decatur already, it’s hard to believe the restaurant is only eight weeks old.
The reason may be the owners' intimate familiarity with the hopes, desires, and beer enthusiasms of Decaturites. They've spent the last 12 years running the legendary Brick Store Pub around the corner. But it’s more than Leon's pitch-perfect reading of what a young, booze-friendly customer base requires. The space is brazenly appealing, evoking a slightly nautical feel with its white wooden booths, blue walls and red accents. Just enough of the building’s vintage character has been left in place to communicate its aesthetic, and just enough has been done to modernize the space to make it feel clean and vibrant. It’s Decatur all over. Don’t you just hate Decatur sometimes for being so … awesome?
There are certain qualities of Brick Store the owners have imported to Leon’s. The commitment to outstanding beverages includes a manageable but thrilling beer selection, and extends into wine and cocktails. (Try the Belgian champale cocktail for something truly weird and delicious.) The enthusiastic service here mirrors the passions of Brick Store's brew-loving barkeeps. It’s not uncommon for a server to take a seat at the table to fervently discuss a certain beer, cheese or dish. It sometimes makes for slow service at other tables, but is wholly worth it for the attention when you do get your turn.
Chef Eric Ottensmeyer's menu excels most at nibbly bits to go with drinks. I’ve had great meals here made up entirely of selections from the “snacks,” “sides” and “starters.” Peppadews (tiny red sweet/hot peppers) stuffed with goat cheese are the ultimate in creamy/piquante contrast, utterly simple and satisfying. The pig smörgás is like a gourmet version of the toaster oven concoctions my, um, slightly altered friends used to make in high school — Benton’s country ham and melted Gruyère grand cru on toast with cherry jam and pineapple. Salty, cheesy, crispy, gooey, sweet. Dude, that’s gooood.
I’ve had mixed success with the fries, which come with your choice of dipping sauces. Some days the fries are piping hot, crispy and addictive. Some days they're too scattered and crumbly. The dipping sauces are fun, but I’d prefer more mayo choices. Leon’s claims its fries are Belgian-style, but the Belgian frites places I adore offer dozens of varieties of mayo, from curry to dill to Vietnamese pineapple. Leon’s offers 12 sauces, including (strangely tasteless) goat cheese fondue and massaman curry, but the five mayos are by far the best of the bunch.
Sides, such as the madras curry cauliflower and broccoli with cashews and golden raisins, showcase some of the kitchen’s creativity and aptitude for smart flavor combinations. The chickpea salad combines warm chickpeas with the fresh burst of basil, the sweet squish of dried cherries, and the mellow hum of aged provolone.
I’d like to see more of these kinds of inventive forays with the entrées. Roast chicken over stone-ground grits with beery mushrooms hit its comfort food mark exactly, but needed another component to hold my interest through its hefty portion. On the other hand, crispy trout rests over a truly engaging jumble of endive, radicchio, cashews and apricot vinaigrette for a pleasing play of bitter against nutty sweet tang. I could eat it over and over. Niman Ranch pork osso buco was tender and well-paired with butternut squash and greens, but also merely sufficed without being particularly exciting.
Other misgivings included heating issues — an osso buco came out stone cold, and an otherwise delicious apple cobbler's uneven temperature screamed of microwave — and long waits for drinks to arrive (the function of a bar that’s happily and justifiably slammed — get these folks some help!).
But there’s so much to love about Leon’s that minor quibbles tend to fade quickly. Especially when the bill arrives — you get a lot of quality for a lot less here. Try as I might, in my three recent visits I couldn’t break the $100 mark, and folks, I can drank. So that’s saying something.
It’s also saying something that Leon’s already feels like an inexorable part of Decatur. Leon’s and Decatur deserve each other.