New French Flavor in the Old Town - Bistro de Leon
Entertaining U - BISTRO DE LEON
July 8, 2008 by erin thursby -
St. Augustine doesn’t lack dining options, but I was looking for something new. I found it in Bistro de Leon, a French Bistro on Cathedral Place, just across the street from the square and within sight of the Bridge of Lions. It’s quite an improvement over what was there before- a doll shop that always used to creep me out with all those empty eyes staring at me as I wandered past. Now that they’ve redecorated the space and they serve outstanding French bistro fare, not only don’t I mind passing the place- I actually want to go in.
The walls are a warm coral pink color, simultaneously cheerful and inviting. The bric-a-brac and décor has the effect of transporting you to a bistro in Southern France. Bistro de Leon exudes a vibe of relaxation and hominess, but still manages to be chic.
If there’s a gene for cooking, it’s been passed on to French-born Chef Jean Stephane Poinard, a 5th generation chef. Not only is cooking in his blood, but he was actually baptized as a baby on a restaurant table. He and his family came to America to bring French cuisine and dining to the First Coast. They wanted the weather of Florida, but they also didn’t want a vast change from home. St. Augustine, which has long attracted Europeans, had the correct blend of Old World charm and New World culture for the Poinard family.
Diners will often see Chef Poinard’s wife Valerie serving in the dining area. Her background as a vintner in France certainly influences the selection of vino on the restaurant’s wine list. France, Chile and California are the predominant areas. Wines by the glass range from $5 to $12 and from $ 21 to $39 if you’re buying a bottle. Other beverages include beer and soft drink selections.
The bistro does a brisk business on weekend mornings. Patrons order fresh-pressed orange juice, illy coffee and the delightful fruit tarts from their display case. When ordering lunch or dinner you’ll have two options: go with the 3-course prixe fixe meal created daily by the chef or order from the regular menu. The most French experience is the 3-course chef’s choice. In France, diners will often depend upon the chef to choose what they will most enjoy. Making the three course choice is an exceptional deal at just over $20. Customers also have the option go a little lighter and slightly cheaper by ordering just the entrée and dessert or just the appetizer and dessert.
Pricing for a full meal is just a few dollars more than you’d pay at one of the big box casual chains, but of course you get fresher and far more palatable food. Entrées on the regular menu go from about $13 to $20. The bread is baguette perfection, crisp around the edges and soft in the center. They make the bread daily and it’s become popular with the locals, who pick up a loaf on their way home from work.
First and foremost, fresh and local ingredients are the key to the amazing tastes you’ll find on your plate. They go to the market throughout the week to ensure that freshness. A few things, such as the goat cheese used in their goat cheese terrine, are imported, but most of the greens and veggies come from local markets and providers.
The goat cheese terrine’s intensity and complexity of flavor, enhanced by the addition of strips of bell peppers, is balanced by a spring mix salad topped with a hazelnut dressing. The tomato caprese appetizer has a rather unique presentation. Instead of stacking tomato and mozzarella, the chef blanches a tomato briefly, removes the skin and hollows the tomato out, placing a mozzarella mixture in the center. The texture of the mozzarella mixture might take most diners by surprise, as we’re used to a more solid mozzarella in American capreses.
The chicken tajine, gorgeously plated with a flower atop it, was my favorite out of the entrées I sampled. When I commented on the beauty of the plating, Chef Poinard replied “The feast begins with the eyes.” Served on a golden bed of couscous, the flavors and textures popped on my palate, each note of flavor separate and distinct, but still contributing to the whole dish. I was wowed by the incredible locally grown carrots and I reveled in the slices of candied lemon and tasty turnips. The chef definitively took chicken from a pedestrian, fall-back menu selection to a thing of art. Moist chicken like this should never be underrated. I haven’t tried the duck, but if the Bistro’s treatment of other poultry is any indication, it will be the next thing I try.
Fish lovers should order the fish kabab. Featuring a half-pound of fresh fish served with a simple saffron and garlic aioli. The two fish selections (which I haven’t sampled- yet) is a fish quenelle soufflé with blue crab meat, cooked in a lobster bisque and a St. Augustine Bouillabaisse. Fans of lamb may want to try the leg of lamb, which is cooked seven hours with Provencal spices. A skirt steak with carmelized shallots is the other red meat option.
Their dessert case will certainly attract you the moment you walk in the door. Plenty of people stop in just for a little indulgence at the bistro, sitting and drinking coffee as they share a dessert. Their rich lava cake has already made a name for itself in St. Augustine. I loved the contrast in flavors between the fruit, the homemade ice cream and the chocolate. Bouncing from one to the other on the plate ensured that my palate never tired and I was always ready for another bite. The dessert was another example of what Bistro de Leon does so well; they let individual flavors stand on their own, while contributing to the overall experience of the dish- rather like a clarinet solo in the midst of an orchestral piece.
If you plan to stop in at the Bistro during a jaunt down to St. Augustine, do be aware that they are closed on Wednesdays. This won’t be a problem for most Jacksonvillians, since we tend to go to St. Augustine on the weekends.
Bistro de Leon
12 Cathedral Place, St. Augustine, FL