Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Leopold


My inclinations point me toward places with straight-up, not-necessarily-creative but well-executed food, where cooks respect delicious ingredients and treat them with care.  After a fantastic recent meal, Leopold took a spot on the short list of Chicago restaurants that meet these criteria.

I was struck the kitchen’s ability to magnify the flavor of already delicious produce.  This was especially evident with the treatment of mushrooms in two dishes: the seafood risotto and the pierogi.  The description of a seafood risotto with tomatoes and morels worried me, as I typically find that those two ingredients clash.  Here, however, the morel flavor dominated with intense earthiness, and the tomatoes played a very subtle background role, adding just a hint of acid and a good dose of natural sweetness.  The menu advertises that  the pierogi come with “woodland mushrooms”.  I am no expert on mushroom varieties, but these thin, delicate white mushrooms with tiny caps looked more like what I’ve seen called “beach mushrooms," and that was a pretty cool thing because beach mushrooms are tough to grow and not often found on local restaurant menus.  The last place I had them was at L20 under Laurent Gras, where they were rubbery and bland.  The mushrooms topping Leopold’s pierogi were spectacular.  They were buttery and tender with just a bit of snap to them, and had an incredible, unique and robust flavor.

A lot of care at Leopold goes into prepping ingredients and combining them in ways that make sense.  A big bowl of steamed mussels was completely devoid the grit and broken shells so often found in lesser versions, allowing the plump, tender meat and aromatic broth to shine without distraction.  In the above-mentioned seafood risotto, not only was the mushroom flavor intense and the rice cooked just right, but each of the several varieties of moist, fresh-tasting fish was timed well so that it cooked through without disintegrating or drying out.  Even a boring-sounding endive-apple salad starred on account of superb flavor and texture balancing, with pungent buttermilk-tarragon dressing and hazelnuts chopped finely enough to be incorporated into every bite, but not so finely that you forget that they’re actually hazelnuts.

To me waffles are a meal, not a dessert.  Normally I couldn’t imagine ordering a big waffle with ice cream to end a multi-course dinner, but I’m very glad we were hungry enough to make an exception at Leopold.  On my first visit to Leopold a couple of years ago, one of my companions was a friend of the house and the staff really wanted us to try the waffle.  We did, and I frankly thought it was badly burnt, dry and not worth eating.  Gladly I remembered that only after my wife and I received our waffle last week, because much has changed.  Never have I tasted a better waffle, with an incredibly crisp exterior that gave way to a tender, luscious interior.  With the fantastic bourbon-brown butter sauce, this was a dessert worth violating whatever one’s dessert-eating principles might be.

While much of Leopold’s menu has stalwarts that appear unchanged from my first visit, there were also a lot of seasonal things that must change frequently.  I look forward to multiple repeat visits.


Leopold
1450 West Chicago Avenue
312-348-1028