Chez Léon is not to be confused with the chain of inexpensive mussels-and-fries restaurants found all over Paris. Far from it. This Léon is the kind of classic Paris bistro that is fast disappearing (and those that are left aren’t always known for the quality of their food).
At Chez Léon, we get all the benefits of an old-fashioned decor complete with zinc bar, antique advertising plaques and rollicking atmosphere, along with a youthful crew interested in serving traditional dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Both my visits were at lunchtime, when there is an attractive menu at €16 for two courses and €20 for three. Those in a hurry can take advantage of the “express 30 minutes” menu – a main course and a coffee for €15.
Just to make sure I covered all the bases, I had a starter and main course the first time I went there and all three the second time.
All in all, I sampled two soups, one of them
split pea and the other a mix of wintry root vegetables. Both were delicious, but I especially liked the second, a perfect creamy blend given extra character by just a hint of parsnips.
On one occasion, my friend Terry started
with the céleri rémoulade, a dish that is usually the ultimate in blandness. This one, however, was made with fresh celeriac and homemade mayonnaise brought to vibrant life by strong mustard.
Main courses here are copious. Of the three I tasted, my favorite was the pork tenderloin with a creamy, mustardy sauce and root
vegetables, although it was on the too-salty side. The risotto with mushrooms was very
good but suspiciously creamy – I’m a risotto purist, and cream is not a traditional ingredient.
On the second visit, we both had the lieu (pollock) with leeks, which involved a long wait because of a mixup in the kitchen and was not
hot enough when it arrived. In a sign of his great professionalism, one of the two vivacious young owners – childhood friends who grew up in the same village – not only noticed the problem but knocked our wine and coffee off the bill. Problems can always be forgiven when they are acknowledged and compensated for.
The only dessert I tasted was a Paris Brest, and
it was a delight: homemade with crispy/tender pastry and rich coffee-flavored cream. I swore I was only going to taste it, but the plate was soon empty.
Apparently mystery writer Georges Simenon – and, through literary license, his Inspector Maigret – used to eat at a previous incarnation of Chez Léon (in Paris, “Simenon ate here” is something of the equivalent of “George Washington slept here” in the United States), and so should you!