The last time I visited Leon's, I parked in the small designated lot two doors down from the restaurant. As I slid into a space between two cars with out-of-state plates, a couple, probably in their mid-50s, was just getting out of the one on my right. "Well, I guess we found it," the woman said.
Leon's, it seems, has already established itself as something of a destination restaurant. It's on what you might call Upper Upper King, two blocks past the U.S. 17 overpass, which is now the frothy edge of the wave of new restaurants that seem to be rolling relentlessly northward from Marion Square.
Those out-of-towners are not coming to experience some long-hidden gem of vernacular Lowcountry cooking nor a new eccentric venture from an up-and-coming farm-to-table chef. Instead, it's a brand new oyster bar and fried chicken shack, and it's the creation of a couple of veterans of the local hospitality industry.
Formerly a partner in Revolutionary Eating Ventures, Tim Mink helped launch several popular casual-dining spots like Poe's, Taco Boy, and Closed for Business. He's now teamed up with Brooks Reitz, who previously was the general manager at one of Charleston's most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants, FIG, before helping launch The Ordinary, a high-end oyster bar and seafood house. Roll all those places together, and you basically get Leon's.
Fresh-shucked half-shell oysters are served over ice on vintage beer trays. There's typically a house selection for a $1.50 each and a high-end one, like local Caper's Blades, for $3.
Other preparations are served on heavy white plates with elegant black trim, a bed of rock salt beneath the shells. There's an admirable version of Oysters Rockefeller ($12) in the understated New Orleans style — not gunked up with onions, cheese, or hollandaise, just oysters topped with a judicious amount of dark green puréed spinach laced with Pernod, a blanket of lightly-toasted breadcrumbs on top.
But what may become Leon's signature dish is another New Orleans import, the char-grilled oysters. They are quite wonderful.
A half-dozen oysters on the half-shell are topped with parsley, butter, and sharp parmesan then grilled until the cheese is melted and turning brown at the edges of the shells. I added a squeeze of lemon to accent the sharp garlicky, parmesan bite and ended up using the three strips of bread, slightly charred on the grill, to mop up every last bit from the insides of the shells.
Leon's was once an auto body shop, and Reitz and Mink adapted both the name and the hand-painted style of the black-and-red logo on the side of the white building, transforming it from "Leon's Paint and Body Shop" to "Leon's Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop." Inside, the broad, open dining room has a concrete floor. Above it, an open ceiling with old, rough-hewn rafters. During the day, the room is filled with angling natural light from the tall windows, which skips across all the brown wood and stainless steel and creates a photographer's dream.
The main bar runs the full length of the back wall of the joint, and in an L at the left end is a small, white-tiled extension where the oyster shuckers do their work. A smaller bar on the opposite side of the room fronts the open pass into the kitchen, and it's top is made of heavy steel rimmed by rough welds. On the walls, a mishmash of framed paintings tend toward nautical scenes, joined by a variety of funky knickknacks that vaguely suggest New Orleans at some unspecified time in the mid-20th century.
There's fried chicken, of course. These days, it seems, one fine-dining chef after another is taking a crack at this most humble of dishes. They brine it and swaddle it in a secret blend of spices, then fry it in anything from peanut oil to rendered chicken fat.
Leon's version stacks up nicely beside the rest of the city's recent entrants. A leg and a thigh ($8) come atop a little square of red-and-white checked paper on a small white plate. The leg quarter is tightly jacketed in a dark brown batter that's flecked with pepper and spiked with a sweet, spicy mixture of what appears to be honey and hot sauce. Beneath that crisp batter, the meat is juicy and pleasantly firm in texture. Fresh from the fryer, it's hot enough to sear your tongue if you're not careful. You can also get two pieces of white meat ($10), half a chicken ($15), or the Big Chicken Dinner ($36) — a whole chicken with three sides for an entire table to share.
If you stick to the left and right sides of the three-column menu, you're in familiar oyster bar and chicken shack territory: oysters, hushpuppies, and fried clams on the left, fried chicken, fried fish, and a couple of sandwiches on the right. The middle column, though, offers a slate of novelties labeled "Smaller" that you're not likely to find at old school places like Casamento's in New Orleans or Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville.
These creations of Chef Ari Kolender —another Ordinary alum — include charred radicchio with yogurt dressing ($11), grilled sweet corn with Old Bay butter ($8), and an heirloom tomato salad with peaches, tofu cream, and sherry vinegar ($12). The black-eyed pea salad ($6) is quite delicious, the peas fresh and firm and laced with tangy sparks from bits of pickled onion, celery, and peppers. You can make them even better with a dose of Sous Chef Geoff Rhyne's delicious homemade hot sauce, a bottle of which (along with Louisiana Crystal and green Tabasco) awaits at each table.
The Siam salad ($9 small/$15 large) is one of those dishes whose first bite makes you say "wow." It's a bowl of Napa cabbage tossed with sliced avocado and oranges, peanuts, fried shallots, and plenty of fragrant herbs — a great blend of fresh textures and Thai-inspired flavors.
The small selection of sandwiches are well-executed, too. A fried fish sandwich ($13) comes on a spherical sesame-topped roll that's been lightly toasted on the grill, and it's dressed with iceberg lettuce, a slice of tomato, and Duke's mayo. The shrimp roll ($13) tucks cool shrimp salad inside a thick slice of soft bread that's been grilled on both sides then split open lengthwise along the top. I'm not sure the shards of potato chip strewn across it really add much, but everything else is in a spot-on balance: cool shrimp in a creamy dressing with a burst of horseradish and lots of floral herbs popping through.
The first time I ate at Leon's, I sat alone at the small bar in the back near the pass window that opens into the kitchen. As I dabbed the fried chicken grease from my fingers, I contemplated the artfully composed decor around me. What is this place? I wondered. Is it a chicken and oyster shack, or is it fine dining?
And then the bill came. As I was calculating the tip (and the check was large enough to require a two-digit one), I heard from somewhere back in the kitchen, "See you tomorrow, chef." Yeah, I thought, this is a fine-dining spot.
But that's no knock on Leon's. They have picked their genre, and while the blend of high and low is a definite culinary mash-up, they execute it flawlessly. The core offering of chicken and oysters is quite superb, and the Smallers are pretty impressive, too. The service is friendly and efficient, and, though highly stylized, the setting is quite comfortable and relaxing.
In fact, Leon's seems to perfectly embody the spirit of our dining times — an abandonment of formality, a spanking new decor that's artfully and carefully crafted to appear faded and rustic, the most humble of dishes executed with the same attention to detail that chefs once gave to their foams and demi-glace.
If we're going to ditch our coats and ties and continue this long slouch toward informality, I suppose we could do worse than eating char-grilled oysters and crispy fried chicken while sipping craft beers. And Leon's is just the place for that.