So right now I am sitting up at the bar at Leaf Cafe enjoying their free wi-fi. What can I say, I just love to be mobile. The bartender was kind enough to let me set up a temporary camp with my laptop here and I have to say, this place is extremely conducive to working. It is delightfully sunny and inviting on the inside. In addition to the dining room and bar they have an absolutely gorgeous patio area. Behold!
I was greeted by the aforementioned bartender Brian who was extremely pleasant and friendly. He gave a brief run through of the menu and I was on my way to day-off lunch. Yes, I actually have the day off today. Lord have mercy.
After I ordered lunch, which we’ll get to in a minute, I was then greeted by both Tim May and Pierre Estoppey, the owners. They were extremely courteous and wanted to talk shop, which I was more than happy to do. Since their “soft opening” in April, they have been keeping their heads down and trying to make their food and service consistent instead of aiming super high and potentially missing the mark like some other restaurants that shall not be named. I have the utmost respect for a place that isn’t taking the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach with their operations. That’s my personal philosophy when it comes to my job; in that same vein, I enjoy when any business lays what they have on the table and says “this is what we’re doing, this is where we want to be, we’re open to suggestion because we want to keep you as a customer”. It’s a refreshing and humble approach in a town where there are so many celebrity chefs and so few lunch places.
In any big city, (ie New York, Chicago, San Francisco) there is an overwhelming number of restaurants open for lunch and dinner. I mean come on y’all, if Le Bernadin, Per Se, SoMa in San Fran, and Blackbird are all open for lunch then you also shouldn’t be above it. It borderline irritates me when I think about how many amazing restaurants there are in this city that will not open earlier, even mid-week. I get the whole not wanting to be open for brunch thing because, well, it pretty much caters to those of us that wake up on Sunday with a hangover. But if Eric Ripert and Thomas Keller can do it then I’ve got news for you: so can you.
That being said, I am so happy that there is another restaurant open for lunch and dinner that is located right off the beaten path, specifically right off the bustling King Street shopping district. Upon first glace of their menu, it seems that they have most of the lunch bases covered. Par exemple, their dishes vary from “frickles” with espelette aioli to asparagus with soft egg. That’s just their app section; their salads all looked equally appetizing as well. There was a gentleman sitting across the bar from me that had ordered their grilled caesar salad. I feel like the texture of warm, snappy romaine that’s just hot enough to melt the dressing a few degrees is such an appealing sensation that I almost ordered that myself for lunch. But then I turned the lunch menu over. The opposite side of the lunch menu had offerings including, but not limited to, a fried po’ boy, boccadillo, southern fried chicken, shepherd’s pie and a smoked salmon blt. I however, settled on linguine with pesto.
Here’s another pic of my dee-licious lunch.
Ok, so I don’t mean to write a love letter to them or anything but how great does that look? The pesto was so obviously home made, fresh, and had just enough of a toasted pine-nut flavor. The chicken had been seasoned with an almost sweet seasoning, possibly allspice, and it gave the dish an added complexity that I wasn’t expecting. It could so easily have fallen into that dreadful “heavy pasta with grilled chicken” category that is somewhat reminiscent of a dish you’d receive from a place like Friday’s or Applebee’s. However, this dish falls into a category that so many entrees fail to achieve: summery pasta. Another thing I appreciated was that it tasted like the flavor profile had been considered and possibly even debated. “Should we add a sweet note to the chicken? It might give the whole thing little punch.” I can absolutely picture that conversation happening over this dish. I would never expect a dish with pesto to be bland but because so many of them are, this entree is honestly a welcome surprise among so much flavorless pasta I have eaten. I can still feel the delicious garlicky flavor lingering in my mouth; guess I won’t be going out on a date any time today.
I never think it is fair to judge a restaurant until it is up and rolling and lands on its feet; it’s completely unwarranted to dine at a place within their first week and judge them harshly. Yes, I can see the other side of this debate being “if they’re open for business and I’m a paying customer, I can judge them however I want”. But coming from a hospitality and restaurant background, I can qualify the fact that the chef is still solidifying his or her recipes and the servers probably haven’t had a chance to try everything on the menu yet. Leaf has only been open for 4 months and in my opinion they have withstood any criticism admirably and seem to be really hitting their stride. Their atmosphere is easily one of the best in town and the food promises exactly what it delivers with somewhat upgraded and unexpected notes.
While I was sitting here at the bar, who happened to walk in but John Zucker of Cru Cafe, one of my favorite restaurateurs in Charleston. I asked him what he was doing here and his answer was obviously “grabbing lunch”. However, he did mention the fact that he helped out Tim and Pierre in their beginning stages of opening, to which I replied, “That must be why it’s so good.” Maybe I’m a little biased, but they just went up several points in my book. To ask someone in the industry for help is admirable in and of itself. To ask John Zucker for help and have him come back in to eat with you gives you street cred that no amount of press can buy. That being said, I will be taking a page out of John’s book: I will most definitely be back.