A few months ago, what seems like ages, I went to Europe to visit my sister. Prior to meeting up with her in London, I had a day to kill and decided to take a jaunt around St. Paul’s Cathedral on my way to the Tate Modern. In the 10 years I have been going to London, there has nary been a side of St. Paul’s that was not surrounded by scaffolding and construction. “I’ll be fine,” I thought. “I know my way around by now.” Cue the uprooted directional signs, downpour and gusty winds.
Then I quickly got lost. And hungry.
The inconsistent wind and rain welcomed me back to the city I love, reminding me something good was just around the corner. And when I smelled it not 15 minutes later, the Tate didn’t seem that urgent anymore.
Wafting around the corner and down the block was the most insanely aromatic, savoury food I had within my senses nearly all of my week-long trip. As I neared the restaurant I noticed a bright red and yellow sign emblazoned with a giant LEON and the following quote from Gordon Ramsay on the window’s menu: “I love the Leon chain. It serves really fresh fast food but the kind that’s good for you. It’s [sic] meatballs are amazing…”–SOLD!
The inside had a colourful, laid back café atmosphere, with symbols and signs boasting Leon’s commitment to health and sustainability. All good omens. Since I was pressed for time, I ran in and grabbed these “amazing” meatballs in a takeaway snack size for a fair £3.40. I have to say, they were the closest to my own mother’s cooking (which is not Moroccan, but Portuguese) that I had come in a while. When my sister and I met up the next day I would not stop talking about wanting–nay, needing–to go back. So we ventured to their location in The Strand and had a share platter called The Feasting Menu, suggested by the incredibly friendly staff. Scroll down for descriptions of the best meal I have ever had from a chain restaurant. But now I can only dream of it, being an 8-hour flight away. Do they deliver?
The Feasting Menu
• Pork Jambalaya
• Moroccan Meatballs
• Hummus & Flatbread
• Chilli Chicken
• Grilled Chorizo
• Brown Rice
• Leon Mash
• Garlic & Chilli Broccoli
The above photo includes (from L-R): Moroccan meatballs, chilli chicken, Leon mash, and pork jambalaya.
The meatballs were über-savoury with a simple mix of beef, lamb and cumin. They are simmered in tomato sauce and, like many dishes at Leon, drizzled with a nice, neutralizing aioli.
The chicken I faintly remember, but it was definitely spicy. Our Leon mash, on the other hand, I can still taste. Ridiculously creamy and flavourful, the combination of sweet potatoes (not yams), carrots and a hint of horseradish was something I hadn’t thought of trying, but since having this dish it’s all I can think about mashing. When I get a masher, of course.
The jambalaya was very similar to your usual chili, but the hummus, chorizo and broccoli were something else entirely! Look, I’ve had my fair share of chorizo via a lifetime of my mother making me breakfasts. But nothing like this. It was lean, spicy and crisp. The hummus was traditional and creamy, with a spiced chickpea topping–not like the plain thick paste often found in restaurants or grocery stores, and the broccoli was crisp, spicy and perfectly garlicky.
So it’s got me thinking: why not try some of these once-daunting dishes out, now that I’ve sampled them? It might take some trial and error, but Moroccan food is one type of cuisine, along with Lebanese, that people tend to think of as difficult to conjure up or acquire ingredients for. I have no excuse, so I’m going for it. Leon even has two popular cookbooks (Leon: Ingredients and Recipes & Leon: Naturally Fast Food), of which I am contemplating sending away for. Because if I can even come close to making what I ate in London those few days, I would die happy.