Lunch at Leo's
On a recent trip to San Francisco, Tsar Nicoulai's Graphic Designer, Xenia Maximow, and I snuck away for a late lunch at Leo's Oyster Bar on Sacramento Street. We channeled the parking gods to score us a spot nearby and strolled the rest of the way. I grew up thirty minutes away and spent summers taking the train in just to aimlessly walk these streets. In the shade it was freezing, in the sun it was hot. I teased my blazer like a school girl crush, pulling it on and off, unable to decide if I really wanted it or not. That's weather in Northern California.
The tall, golden striped doors of Leo's shimmered in the sunshine. Hidden behind them waited a different world separate from the one outside. A different place. A different time. Suddenly we weren't in San Francisco, but Hawaii - or Havana, I've heard people say. In the 50s or 60s. Bearded bartenders making hip cocktails bring the past and the present trends together. Bungalow is the word that pops up for me and Xenia as we try to place the ambiance. Printed palm leaves spread across the walls and live greens hang from the ceiling, stretching themselves to welcome us in. Flutters of gold detail whisper hello.
It's the feel of the mid-century modern place that sets it apart from the rest of the seafood joints saturating San Francisco according to Chef de Cuisine Riley Harris. He sits with us around our green lacquered table surrounded by bamboo bistro chairs to chat with us for a bit about Leo's and the magic that happens here. "It's like Mad Men," he says. Perhaps the Tikki Bar episode if there was one.
Lunch has already slowed down, but you can still feel the buzz. Harris tells us it's the dinner rush that's most exciting. It sounds like the team here is close and enjoys getting lost in the hustle together. They are friends outside of work too. I'm instantly envious and want to be a part of it, holding back from asking for some kind of application or an invitation to hang out with them. Instead, we ask about Harris and his background.
Harris grew up in Virginia. He spent time in Paris and the South of France cooking in esteemed establishments like Passard's L'Arpege. He's worked with Mina Group and at Daniel Patterson's Coi to name a few. He also helped open Leo's sister restaurant, Petite Marlowe, a wine bar and oysterette. I'm not that old (I tell myself) and I must have at least 5 years on him so I find his long list of culinary accomplishments and connections impressive. His outstretched hand reveals a tattoo. I admire the fork and spoon on his forearm. It's a tribute to the first chef he ever worked with, who gifted him the silverware and recently passed away.
We're curious if Leo's chooses other sustainable seafood for their menu in addition to Tsar Nicoulai. Harris says despite not always being able to be hyper-seasonal, he makes an effort in choosing fish from the Bay Area when he can or other places not too far away. His choices that come from longer distances are usually at least upheld to sustainable practices. He also enjoys making dishes that celebrate less utilized fish. "I want to have these products in the future," he adds, which is why he supports sustainable sources.
After our chat we get to the main reason we came to Leo's. To sample some of their dishes featuring Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. To start, Harris sent out two bites. A beet blini with creme fraiche and caviar slicked with some truffle oil make a classic more modern - once again bringing the past into the present in true Leo's style. Along side the blini was smoked tuna dip playfully wrapped in a togarashi cracker, topped with roe and chive blossoms. This tiny bite has some serious flavor.
Before our salads arrived, we asked to also try the Salmon Tartare with salmon roe and capers in pastry. A hefty and fresh starter marrying delicate fish with grainy mustard and herbs that give way to a satisfying pop of roe. To finish, we enjoyed the Tea Leaf Salad with Ahi Tuna Carpaccio and the Leo's Louie topped with a combination of King Crab and Rock Shrimp. The later two dishes were fresh, light, but filling and a perfect end to a delicious lunch.
I often daydream of going back in time and here at Leo's it feels like you can. Except you get to take the current trends of fun pairings and daring chefs and bearded bartenders with you. Which is kind of the best of both worlds.
Leo's Oyster Bar
568 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94111