Thursday, 11 February 2010

Leon, Spitalfields

Leon Restaurants and I go back a long way. Back, in fact, to the first few weeks of the first restaurant opening on Great Marlborough Street, when a group of us enjoyed one of the earliest stabs at providing a dinner service in what had until then been only a daytime destination. Unprepared for the high demand, two of Leon's three co-founders, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, found themselves press ganged into providing waiter service - which they did with great charm and charming inefficiency - while the third member of the founding triumvirate, Allegra McEvedy, took charge in the kitchen.

I loved Leon from the off; the unique food offering - healthy fast food - and the cracking quality of it; the quirkiness of the decor with its photos of the founders' families; and the feeling of being a member of a very groovy but very egalitarian club. I remember feeling then, very strongly, that Leon would be a success and would not stay a single-shop affair for long. Since then I've eaten many a time at many a Leon; when last autumn I joined Henry and friends to celebrate Leon's fifth birthday, it was at their vast Ludgate Circus flagship, one of the nine-and-counting strong chain that that single-shop affair has grown into.  

Tonight's dinner, with my long-time fellow Leon-lover Kate, was at the Spitalfields branch, a large space in the shiny new restaurant complex which replaced - controversially - a large swathe of the old market. It's a nice room, decked out in Leon's signature style of bold colours, refectory-style tables and chairs, and walls adorned with homely books, photos and travel paraphernalia. A particular quirk is the communal toilet, which divides opinion if not the sexes. 

We'd chosen this branch over our usual - the original - to check out the new menu which Leon are in the process of introducing. The 'new' menu, it transpires, is in fact the old menu served in grazing portions; the Emperor has new clothes, but in smaller sizes. There are ten dishes to choose from, all Mediterranean or north African-influenced and all about £4, a half dozen sides - though how 'grazing dishes' can have 'sides' is a mystery to me - and the same selection of full size soups, salads and wraps as is available throughout the day. There are no main courses as such, so if grazing isn't your thing, you're done for. 

Fortunately Kate and I are not averse to grazing and recognised most of our favourite dishes, albeit miniaturised, on the £25 'Feasting' menu. There's also a slightly smaller 'Classic' set menu at £23; a quick mental tot-up worked out each offers a saving of about 10%. Both are heavy on meat and there's no veggie alternative, which I thought was quite a serious omission. Most of what we ate was very good; chilli con carne was rich and punchy, the grilled chorizo was salty and gorgeously chewy, and Leon mash of sweet potatoes and carrots was unctuous and comforting. Moroccan meatballs, and hummus with Greek flatbread, both Leon staples, were excellent. Less successful was chilli chicken, the dark, cheap thigh meat used tasting almost gamey, and garlic and chilli broccoli which tasted only of broccoli. 

Unsurprisingly, we were too stuffed to contemplate puddings but I can vouch from past experience that the brownie with organic ice cream and lemon and ginger crunch are both sinfully delicious. There's a decent if unexciting wine list, all Old World and with one or two choices available by the 500ml carafe; we chose the one rosé, a L'Emage Shiraz at £15, which was fine. A range of refreshing sounding long drinks, both alcoholic and non, is on offer for non-wine drinkers.

Staff are universally polite and friendly, if engaged only to bring things to your table; along with the 'new' menu, Leon has adopted a new service model, Nando's style, of ordering at the counter with ones table number. I don't like this, but I'm sure there are reasons for it. Our set menu and wine came to under £40, which for the quantity we'd enjoyed and the quality of both the food and its presentation felt very reasonable. Note that if you want to leave a tip - for example, if the food has been brought to your table with particular efficiency - you'll need to find a way of doing it; no money changes hands at your table as bills are paid at the counter and there's no visible tip jar or similar.

I'll declare here, to avoid any accusations of shilling, that I do know Henry moderately well, but my role throughout our acquaintance has always been one of critical parent to his bouncing culinary baby. Leon's come in for a bit of flak lately from some quarters; the food has been criticised as bland - it's not, although much it does rely more on aromatics than seasoning - and the publication recently of comprehensive nutritional information caused more than a few raised eyebrows, mine included, at the calorie content of several dishes. But for all that there may have been growing pains, Leon is a fantastic endeavour, still miles ahead of any competitor for quality, consistency and innovation, and deserves to continue to grow and thrive.

Leon, 3 Crispin PlaceLondon E1 6DW Tel: 020 7247 4369

Leon on Urbanspoon

Square Meal


  1. Great post mr H. I'd love to know the rationale for switching from mains to grazing...were too many people lingering over a glass of wine and a nibble instead of stumping up for food? I'm guessing there has to be a commercial reason. I am a bit anti sharing dishes that are not naturally shareable (Maze being the biggest perpetrator of such crimes against the tapas format) BUT having said that, you don't go to Leon with a business acquaintance, you go with a friend, to relax, enjoy good food and who cares if she takes the last meatball ;-)


  2. It must be said, the dishes are all eminently shareable but I'd like to have the option of having a big plate of just one thing sometimes! Plus I can see it not being so easy for groups of for more than 2 or 3; you'd end up with millions of little dishes everywhere so they could perhaps do with Spanish style 'racion' sizes. Henry is going to enlighten us I think!

  3. My argument was (briefly) that the tasty stuff at Leon isn't healthy, and the healthy stuff is bland. But that's true of anywhere! Taste comes (largely) from fat/calories. I'm no expert, obviously, but then neither are 'nutritionists' - 'nutritionist' being, in the UK at least, an unprotected title that requires no formal qualifications. Now, you could have a low calorie meal more or less anywhere if you tried hard enough - you could order a baby gem salad at Hawksmoor or a plastic bowl of fruit at McDonalds. But there's something about the worthy listing of nutritional information and use of words like 'superfoods' (a word which means precisely nothing, by the way - that seems to suggest Leon is more beneficial healthwise than other sandwich shops, and I'm not sure that's the case. Take a look at, where their 'Smoked mackerel and beetroot superfood salad' contains nearly as many calories as a sausage sandwich!

    All that said, the staff at Leon are the most friendly and efficient bunch of people I've known in any restaurant, the buzzy, attractive rooms are a delight to eat in, and the chicken aioli wrap is a thing of wonder. I just wouldn't eat one every day. And if it turns out I'm desperately wrong on any of the points I've made above, I'll change my mind immediately. I'm funny like that.

  4. The reason for the grazing is that we wanted to have more side options in the evening than just rice and slaw. So we broke up the dishes. Portions and prices are the same, but you can have mash and chilli broccoli with your meatballs instead of rice and slaw if you fancy it. We also wanted it to be a bit more festive.

    (As to healthiness, Chris, no food scientist - qualified or otherwise - still equates calories with health. Health is about quality of food not quantity. A 600 cal mackerel salad lunch is perfect for anyone who isn't actively dieting and if you are, have it without the dressing for 300 cals. I know I won't get anywhere with you, but ho hum. X)


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