Editor’s note: Chef Jeffrey Hedin left in the fall of 2012.
After Andersonville’s Dutch-inspired Vincent, West Town’s Leopold is the second restaurant to open in the last half year representing a semi-obscure northern European cuisine. If only someone would open a Luxembourgian bistro Chicago could theoretically claim to have a complete selection of Low Country food.
But as a server hastily explained one night in this crowded sliver of a storefront, the concept is only “kind of Belgian.” And any Hopleaf regular would agree after a quick scan of the beer list, which seems limited for a place reportedly inspired by the studied quaffing of Belgian brews (though cheers to the Saison Dupont on tap).
But while chef Jeffrey Hedin’s concise menu does throw a few curveballs, it also includes primary touchstones of that country’s cuisine: mussels, fries, rabbit (three dishes!), varied applications of mustard, and of course brussels sprouts.
Of the two preparations of moules frites—one simmered with leeks and cured pork cheek in spicy California-brewed Devotion Ale and the other in a creamy white wine curry—I prefer the latter for its perfumed subtlety, which puts the focus on the plump, fresh mussels. And the early reports I’d heard that the accompanying spuds were too limp proved unfounded on the three occasions I tried them—fried near perfect, durably crispy and salty even when conscripted in poutine, glopped by gooey curds and merguez gravy.
Belgians are apparently fond of rabbit, and they’d likely be impressed by Hedin’s liver and loin terrine fattened up with pork belly and given a tart counterpoint with a pickled baby-carrot salad. Leporid turns up again in a cassoulet comprised exclusively of Slagel Farms meats, with more pork belly and a bratwurst. But its most interesting appearance is in a smoked saddle and leg over a generous pile of mustard spaetzle with caramelized onion. There’s an intoxicating smoky flavor to the meat that pairs well with the delicately applied prune glaze, but this is an animal with relatively little fat, and that technique makes it a chore to chew.
I can’t explain how a fatty braised short rib turned out much the same way, but its accompanying puck of stoemp, the Belgian answer to bubble and squeak—a potato mash that incorporated glazed turnips—trumped it. Other Belgian hallmarks include braised endive submerged in a Gouda bechamel; it would be a lot easier and more enjoyable to eat if it weren’t served whole. A pudgy soft pretzel baked across the street at La Farine Bakery was cold and stale on the evening after the snowpocalypse, but on a subsequent visit was served soft, hot, and fresh.
Less identifiably Belgian dishes vary in consistency just as much. A steak tartare also from Slagel beasts is a departure: big chunks of lush, raw strip, slicked with egg yolk and served alongside some bracing roughage in frisee dressed with mustard vinaigrette. But a small crock of Gouda aligot seemed to have been whipped with grainy potatoes, and what otherwise would have been beautifully plump sweetbreads perhaps sat on the pass too long, soaking up liquid from the sunchoke puree. An overseared foie gras special was perched on a hugely disproportionate wedge of toasted brioche, and a plate of four unadorned panfried pierogies just seemed orphaned among the rest of the surprisingly (for northern Europe) well-seasoned plates.
After all that, a simple, crispy, minimally and expertly cooked waffle with sour cherry preserves and a luxurious scoop of Black Dog malt-vanilla gelato is an obvious but winning way to end a meal here. It makes me wonder what could be if Leopold fully committed to the country it’s inspired by.