Leo's


(Grand Rapids, MI) — For out of town visitors, we are tasked with deciding where to make dinner reservations. We’ve exhausted some of our usual haunts for this particular group, so we go with an old standby: Leo’s. The parking ramp is surprisingly full for a Thursday night and we make our way down to the restaurant, eager to see how busy they are...

He Fed:

It is somewhat shocking to see all the activity at Leo’s tonight. Many tables in the main dining room and the bar are packed. I estimate they are at 80% capacity, which is heartening. People are out and about, having a good time! We are greeted at the host stand, then led immediately to a five-top.

Our friendly and efficient waiter sets us up with water and takes our drink orders—I decide against wine tonight and opt for a bottle of Laguintas Pils. Moments later, we are given a warm welcome by a pretty, young lady who will be assisting our server. I get the impression she is a section manager, more than capable of fielding any curveballs we may lob...and our group is wont to lob a few, especially after a couple cocktails.

It takes some time for our party to decide on dishes. I take my usual tact by ordering in secret and last, lest someone decides to copy me. Nobody does, of course. I begin with the Warm Goat’s Cheese Salad. It is a generous plate of “spring mix greens” which are not quite as crisp as I would have liked, though the crunchy slices of Granny Smith apple, roasted onions, candied pecans, and two large lumps of toasted goat cheese drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette take my mind off any limp edges to the lettuce. I clean my plate.

Instead of an entree, I get two appetizers. Part of me wants badly to order the Wild Mushroom Escargot but instead I lean toward the Ceviche and Oysters Florentine. The oysters are large, on the half-shell, baked with spinach, bacon/onion stuffing, topped with Asiago cheese. They are served at the perfect temperature, so I am able to fork the whole mixture in one bite. Salt and brine hits my palate, followed by the pungent earthiness of the not-quite-stewed spinach. The oyster meat is chewy but not overly so. Asiago adds a nice nutty aftertaste.

Ever since lunch at Everyday People Cafe in Douglas last autumn, I’ve been craving ceviche. Raw fish cured in lime juice may not sound like your cup of tea, but to me it whispers of warm weather and Mediterranean winds. Leo’s version contains sea scallops, Scottish King salmon, and sole served with marinated cucumbers, onion, avocado, red pepper, and tomatoes. It does not disappoint. The vegetables provide a little crunch in contrast to the silky, fresh seafood and the herbs add high green notes to combat the buttery characteristics of the avocado. One piece of salmon has grey around the edge, perhaps bathed too long in citrus, though this one superficial flaw does not detract my overall enjoyment of the dish. I would order it again.

Finally, I don’t have any designs on dessert but Fate steps in when we’re shown the Vanilla Bean Cheesecake. But I don’t want a whole piece! Luckily, they offer a dessert “trio” with small bites of the cheesecake, white chocolate grenache creme brulee, and two gigantic chocolate-covered strawberries. I hand off the fruit to Juliet while I concentrate on the brulee and cheesecake. The desserts are good but nothing out of the ordinary, and somewhat anti-climactic. I immediately regret the sugar dump and wish I’d gotten an espresso instead.

Everyone leaves satisfied, overall. Leo’s is a solid destination for quality seafood and great service. It would have been nice if my salad had been a bit fresher, if the ceviche hadn’t clearly been in the cooler too long, and if the desserts had swung for the fences instead of playing it safe. Still, these are minor complaints that do not offset the high points. I will be back, if only for more of those oysters.
She Fed:

We’ve got a group of friends and family in town and since my father is partial to salmon, we decide to head to Leo’s for our last group dinner. It’s been awhile since we’ve been there, but the service and food has always been solid in the past, so it seems like a safe bet with something that will appeal to everyone.

Our group of five is seated immediately and our extremely outgoing server introduces himself, taking drink orders all around. A few moments later an attractive young woman approaches our table and starts making conversation. Turns out she’s serving as the back-up for our server and stopped by to chat for a bit. I’m all for great service, but the lack of an immediate introduction made for a bit of awkwardness at the table.

It takes me more than a few minutes to order as there are so many things on the menu that sound good. The seared tuna sounds amazing with an "everything" crust, which I’m guessing is like an everything bagel. But in the end, I opt for the house salad and the Scottish King salmon served Oscar-style. I’m a sucker for crab, asparagus, and Bearnaise.

The salad is delightful with mixed field greens, red onion slivers, candied nuts and dried cherries. The menu listed Gruyere, but I find no cheese on my salad. Not that it’s missing anything flavor-wise: the light citrus vinaigrette is sweet and tangy, as is the dried fruit; the onions add a bit of sharpness; and nuts add crunch and sweetness. It’s a delicious salad and one I’d like to replicate at home.

Our entrees arrive and my salmon is beautiful, with white chunks of crab meat and a thin Bearnaise drizzle. There’s thick, verdant asparagus spears and a healthy scoop of rice pilaf on the side. The crab is sweet and succulent. I try a few "perfect" bites of salmon, crab, and asparagus daubed with Bearnaise. The salmon is closer to well-done than the "medium" I ordered. In addition, I pull more than half a dozen large bones from my filet. I have a thing about finding unexpected textures in my food: bones in fish, cartilage in chicken, herb stems in stews, etc. As a home cook, you’d think I’d be more forgiving, but the 7th or 8th bone is just one too many for me so I concentrate on the rice and asparagus.

At some point, a glass of ice water gets spilled on the table and while we contain it quickly with our napkins, it takes several minutes for our server to bring new napkins and help clear the cubes from the table. As he’s scooping up ice cubes—admittedly no easy task—a rather large cube tumbles into my father’s glass of wine. The server visibly notices this and does nothing, which strikes me as odd for a restaurant with such a reputation for attention to detail. Don’t get me wrong...I like my white wine nice and cold, but it seems like the server should have brought out a new glass or at least apologized.

I notice the same lack of detail when he brings my second glass of wine with a fairly large and visible chunk of cork floating at the top. It takes some doing but I manage to snag it out while thinking it’s hard to believe our server didn’t spot it first. What a difference it would have made if he offered to go strain the cork chunk out.

We share a few dessert trios with white chocolate creme brulee, vanilla bean cheesecake, and chocolate covered strawberries. The trios are lovely but save for the strawberries, they’re nothing special and "almost flavorless", in the words of one at the table. I’m hoping we caught Leo’s on an off night as this is not reflective their sterling reputation.

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