A Leon in summer

No matter the season, Henri enjoys a splurge at Leon Bistro

Dungeness crab cakes.

Dungeness crab cakes.

photo by melanie mactavish

Leon Bistro
817 Main St.
Open Wed.-Sat., starting at 5 p.m.

Henri’s bereted little tête spins when he reflects on the abundance of epicurean riches produced and available here in Chico and the surrounding area. From some of the best olive oil in the world to the ever-increasing variety of food trucks. From the bounty of the farmers’ markets to restaurants on par with some of the best at which he’s dined in urban centers that are decidedly more, well, sophistique than our little jambonlet: Red Tavern, Angelo’s Cucina Trinacria, Spice Creek Café, and the always impressive Leon Bistro, a world of its own tucked away behind tinted windows in an unlikely Main Street storefront alongside bicycle stores and a donut shop.

In fact, it’s one of our favorite places for a splurge, with chef Ann Leon always cooking up surprises and specials with local and seasonal ingredients, the service always perfect, the staff seemingly knowing exactly when to show up—and, just as important, when not to. Colette especially likes the dark interior and the booths, their long tables and the benches’ high wooden backs providing privacy and a sense of seclusion. “You should get a date and come here,” she always says. “It’d be perfect.” When she suggested Match.com, I bobbled my fork and dropped it on the floor, just missing my espadrille.

Chef Leon’s credentials are more than impressive and account not only for the quality of the food but also for her elaborate presentations. After graduating from the California Culinary Academy, she went to work at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, cooking alongside California-cuisine guru Alice Waters. She’s also cooked at a number of resort-hotel restaurants, as well as Spice Creek Café and the restaurant at Rolling Hills Casino, winning many prestigious awards along the way. As for the bistro itself, it was recently awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for 2013, based on customer reviews (mostly 5-star) posted to the popular online travel site.

Rack of lamb with Yukon/yam mash.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

Leon Bistro’s menu changes frequently, but usually includes eight to 10 starters, running $5 (Paleo sweet-potato chips) to $16 (crab cakes with avocado cream and mango coulis). Main courses include several fish dishes (salmon, $28; halibut, $30); steaks from Turri Family Farms grass-fed beef (rib-eye, $30; filet mignon, $35); as well penne with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and lemon fonduta sauce ($22), Parmesan chicken breast from Mary’s Free Range Chicken ($24), and Wookey Ranch rack of lamb ($42). Desserts ($8-$12) include blackberry-and-nectarine crepes with mascarpone, sorbet and gelato sampler, and chocolate torte. Wines by the glass are $8-$10.

On our most recent visit, we started with a couple of bowls of soup—white-bean and mushroom bisque—and a couple of glasses of Calling All Angels chardonnay from the Save Me, San Francisco Wine Company. Both soups were thick and creamy, and delicious. We also split an order of grilled nectarines (one of the specials that evening) and a Caesar salad with grilled chicken, Colette’s aversion to anchovies dissolving with her first bite. “This is incredible,” she said. “Not fishy at all.”

“Never is, when it’s done right,” I said. “Good with this wine, too.”

Next I ordered the Chico burger, made with Kobe wagyu beef ($18) and topped, surprisingly, with a sunny-side-up fried egg. I poked the yolk and let it ooze onto the burger. Wonderful. Colette’s bison burger (also $18) was also delicious. Just as good, though, were our veggie sides: perfectly grilled peppers, green beans, kale and caramelized onions, with a slice of polenta. A night to remember.

Other favorites from our visits over the last few years: the calamari appetizer (exquisitely light, with just little bit of cornmeal), the bison flank steak ($30), the hangar steak ($28), the seasonal veggie sampler (these days root veggies, lentils and beans, with polenta, $24), and the Parmesan chicken.

In addition, chef Leon also teaches a wide range of hands-on cooking classes, including the upcoming Enjoying the Autumn Harvest (Oct. 1) and Mexican Cuisine (Oct. 29), among others. Visit www.leonbistro.com for info on classes, special events, private parties and catering, and to see Leon Bistro’s full menu.