Skeptics may question the wisdom of building The Leopard in Aurora. The area's typical outlet mall or amusement park traffic is hardly the sort of crowd to support a jackets-required, fine-dining establishment.
|Pick up the August 2001 issue of Cleveland Magazine to read Michael von Glahn's full encounter with the Leopard.|
But on the drive out, you'll pass cleared acreage and signs for one after another high-end housing development, all due to open within a year or two. When those six- or seven-figure homes are up and occupied, it will be clear what a shrewd investment owners Bert and Iris Wolstein made when they opened the restaurant as part of their Bertram Inn and Conference Center in March 2000. So if you want to experience The Leopard, don't wait for outward migration to carry you. Go now.
From the appetizer list, we started off with seared Muscovy duck breast ($12) garnished with a charred-tomato salsa and fried plantains. (If only licking the plate weren't considered gauche.) We also tucked into buckwheat crepes stuffed with roasted smoked chicken and cilantro and served over a hoisin glaze ($8). Smoking the fowl lent the meat a nice maple undertone that blended cleverly with the hoisin.
A slightly apple-tinged Marshall Stuart Viognier ($8 by the glass) nicely complemented both our appetizers and a veal entree at dinner.
Great service, exceptional value
All entrees are served with a house salad of fresh, high-quality mixed greens, tomato, red onion and julienne cucumber in a balsamic vinaigrette. (Including this in the entree price is a great added value.) Several more elaborate salads are also offered, including a Caesar prepared tableside for two or more ($8 per person). That performance is assistant manager David Pendleton's star turn. The veteran came to The Leopard by way of the Hyde Park restaurants, Sammy's, Classics and Baricelli Inn.
Witnessing the standards Pendleton sets in the dining room, he's a great catch. Service was impeccable at dinner, displaying a level of knowledge, quiet efficiency and attention to detail that we've found in only a few of the highest-end restaurants in the area.
Such a sharp front of the house would be left juggling air without a top-flight kitchen to deliver on their promise. Under-30 executive chef Zachary Conover, graduate of the Philadelphia Restaurant School, alumnus of Philadelphia Fish & Co. and Barrington Golf Club, is the man who finishes what the wait staff starts. And he delivers.
Not a cookbook kitchen
"I have never been a cookbook chef," he explains. "I've never been a chef that looks at what the other guy's doing. Whatever's the freshest, I grab it and I play with it." His menu shows influences from classic French and Italian cuisine to contemporary Hawaiian and Japanese.
Conover explains that what he most enjoys cooking is whatever goes into his sauté pan. "Those are the things that capture the true flavors of food to me," he says, engine revving. He launches into a detailed description of preparing his top-selling porcini-crusted rack of lamb ($28), his unguarded smile growing wider. "When [an entree] comes out of that sauté pan, it has some kind of character to it."
Second only to the lamb (Conover's favorite meat for cooking), The Leopard's best-selling entree is Leopard Milanese ($28), a 14-oz. long-bone veal chop butterflied, pounded thin and breaded before cooking. The meat is top quality and the breading crisp without turning into a shell, just the right thickness. We gobbled down the entire dish, including the bed of mashed potatoes and a warm salad of tomatoes and arugula.
Entree prices range from $22 for oven-roasted free-range chicken to $38 for veal Oscar. Considering the gratis house salad and the quality of food and service, the pricing is right in line on some dishes it could even rate a bargain. The Leopard also proffers such delightful (but rare) free touches as an amusé-bouche the pre-appetizer on our visit a crab claw on a dab of wasabi-cocktail sauce and a palate-cleansing homemade sorbet between courses.
Mere sight of The Leopard's dessert cart may induce a swoon. Selections lean heavily (as will diners) toward chocolate. If you can only face something lighter, house-made sorbets and ice creams should suit. Flavors range from traditional to eye-opening one recent evening saw homemade fig ice cream among the offerings.
The star of the show is a chocolate soufflé ($10). Preparation takes 15 to 20 minutes, so we did our waiting with Godet, a white-chocolate liqueur by the folks at Godiva ($6 the glass). In no time, it seemed, our soufflé was ready, the first we've had locally since the departure of Harry Corvairs downtown. We weren't disappointed.
The Leopard is working to lure diners out to Aurora. Fridays have recently been dubbed "Sweetheart Night" with a sweetheart of a prix fixe deal. Romantically inclined pairs can dine on six courses (the amusé-bouche and sorbet each counting as a course) to the music of a live harpist for a mere $90 per couple, which is an amazing value.
So get out and enjoy The Leopard today. When upscale eastward development catches up with the restaurant and you're closed out on dinner reservations, you will remember (and sorely regret) missing the opportunity you have now.